Friday, October 4, 2013

If You Want to Quit Your Day Job and Be a Full-Time Writer . . . Is It Possible?

In 2004, I decided to leave my full-time editing job at a small publishing company in the Midwest, move to New England and go back to school for my MFA degree in fiction.  I'd been at my job for eighteen years, and it was a good job, with great people and tasks I enjoyed.  I'd learned so much working with the editing team, but I'd come to a place where I wanted very much to test the waters, see if I could create/write full-time, have as much space and energy as I wanted.

A collection of short stories and a couple of novels were simmering.  I also needed more advanced skills, so the MFA program felt like the next step.

Wonderful dream.  Instant upheaval.  Not only did I immediately lose benefits and salary, I had too much time on my hands.  That totally astonished me--that, left to my own devices with unlimited time, I fell into a rather uncomfortable state. 

I got sick of myself, to put it plainly.  Structure and everyday outflow provided by my salaried job was gone.  I had to organize myself.  

Setting Up a Full-Time (or Even Part-Time) Writing Routine
Books about writers' routines are fun to read.  I love Daily Rituals by Mason Currey.  Short glimpses into the daily lives of Fitzgerald, Orwell, Alice Munro, and many other writers I admire, showed me how hard it is to write, day after day, without a support team.  I didn't have a stay-at-home spouse or a full-time cook or housekeeper.  I didn't have a studio or attic where I could sequester myself.  I didn't enjoy spending the wee hours out drinking in cafes with friends and discussing my day's work (this seemed to be a regular rhythm for many writers). 

There were some who managed to write without the "team."  So I studied what I could of the early writing routines of Alice Munro (kids, writes quietly in spare moments),  J.K. Rowling (wrote in cafes), and Jane Austen (wrote underneath her needlepoint).  I got myself a private corner of the house and decided to write each morning after kid and spouse were gone, take a midday break to go outside, and write again in the afternoon.

I managed it for three weeks before I fell into a depression.  My writing was miserable, and so was I.  So I began looking for other writers and a place out of the house to write--I felt I needed that human buzz to wake me up from isolation.  I found a Starbucks and a library.  I found two writers groups.  But most important, I found another job.

It's Not Failure to Work and Write--You Might Be a Happier Writer!
In my experience, there are a few drawbacks to making writing your full-time occupation, when you haven't published (much) already.  They are:

1.  Putting too much pressure on making money with your writing before it's ready:  Don't quit your day job and expect your never-published writing to instantly make you a living.  You'll feel free for a few weeks or months, then you'll feel desperate.  The writing process will become hateful, because not selling your stories or essays or novel will begin to convince you the writing is crap.  It's not.  It's just not sellable quite yet.  Judging your writing's worth by how it produces income is a terrible burden on your creative self.

2.  Self-absorption:  Too much time with yourself can lead to several outcomes.  The one I experienced was depression, too much introversion and introspection, leading to a skewed view of myself.  The other possibility is an intense fascination in your own inner life, which can also skew your perspective.  People are healthy mirrors, if they are kind and balanced, and they help you outflow and stay healthy in the world via service to others.  This is not just altruistic; it's universal law.  Give out, and you'll get back.  Give only to yourself, and you'll shrink inside.

3.  Unbalancing the home life:  Want a good relationship with your partner and kids?  I'm no relationship expert, but I've learned the hard way that if a writer disappears into her writing for too long, spouse and children feel abandoned.  Then they begin to sabotage all creative efforts, without meaning to--they just are dying from lack of attention.  Your attention is your love, so the desperation to make writing Number One can cause a great imbalance in the home life. 

4.  Handling creative tension:  Most writers suck at handling creative tension.  Creative tension is the ability to not talk about your work, not dissipate the energy that's building as you explore an idea.  Know someone who can't kept a secret?  Many writers can't "hold" the secret of their incubating work.  They have to spill it--read the pages out loud immediately, post them to all Facebook friends.  Guess what happens?  No energy build up, no energy left for the next day's writing, and too easy to get side-swiped by a casual criticism.  Creative tension is a muscle that needs time to build. 

My current job is teaching writing and editing for publishers and individual writers as a freelancer.  It connects well with my own writing routine--they feed each other.  Some days it's exhausting to teach or edit, and I have to work hard to make time for my own writing.  I don't have unlimited hours anymore, but I have enough. 

In fact, I've gotten two books published and many articles since I quit my "real" job in 2004.  A third book is almost finished.  None of this was accomplished when I was completely free and on my own.  All happened after I went back to work.

If You're Considering Quitting the Day Job . . .
Look over the four pitfalls above.  See how they relate to you.  Don't assume you will breeze through them.  Approach your dream of full-time writing as if it were a business, as if you had to report to yourself on its success at year's end.  What do you have in place, what do you need to research more?

Some good resources (this week's exercise) to check out:

10 Questions Writers Must Ask Before Quitting Their Day Job

On Writing Full-Time

To Plunge or Not to Plunge

Is It Time to Quit Your Day Job and Become a Full-Time Writer?

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