Once I was on a panel with four other writers in front of a large audience. The event moved the the Q&A segment, and, as writers do, we all held our breath. This next part could go in any direction at all.
The first question was this: Do you write full time, or do you still do other work?
It’s an uncomfortable experience to pass the mic down the line, writer to writer, and answer for your success based on the assumption that writing full time is the goal. (And, the corollary, that if you still have a day job, you are not as successful as the others at the table.)
At the time, I was doing contract work that I loved and I said so cheerfully. But I definitely felt like the lightweight in a room full of novelists with multiple book deals and LA screen agents.
These days, my day job involves helping others question and research their assumptions, so let’s take some time to look at the assumptions baked into the question, shall we?
The question again: Do you write full time, or do you still do other work?
1. Hard Work And Talent Are Not Enough
The first assumption in this question is that if you are talented enough, and work hard enough for long enough, you will reach that zenith of earning a full time income from your writing. If you haven’t reached it yet, then that means you have not worked hard enough for long enough and/or you’re not good enough.
This is simply untrue. I would say that trends, luck, timing and connections can play a larger role in your ultimate success within traditional publishing. You still need hard work and talent sure is great, but those two alone do not guarantee success.
2. Define ‘Full Time Income’
The question also overlooks other factors that can play a huge role in how much time a writer has available to work each day. For example, do they have a supportive spouse with a well-paying job? Did they buy a house before the market went nuts and so they have affordable housing? Did their parents pay for them to go to university, so they don’t have student loans? Did they retire early from a career and now live off a pension?
Writing full time and earning a living from your writing are not the same thing. It’s equally possible that one of these other factors contributes to the situation — or at least that it did when that writer was starting out. One writer’s full time income might be another writer’s golf membership fees. There is no way to define terms, at least not without asking even more personal questions, which…I mean… why are we asking this again?
3. Validation Is Not A Bad Word
Another assumption in the question is that writing full time is the desired outcome. It’s what everyone wants. It’s the goal that all writers share.
As a writer that has worked full time, part time and not at all outside of my creative work, I can tell you that in my experience, writing full time is not for me. At least, not at this stage.
We sometimes talk about creative people looking for validation through their work, and I agree that the idea can be problematic. If every rejection or critique or bad review leaves you in a puddle on the floor, that’s a problem. If you’re constantly sending out unfinished work and looking for someone to tell you it’s good, you are not homing your craft.
But we are human. We are social creatures. We like to do things and receive feedback for the things we do. We like to make a difference in the world, even in a small way. We like the dopamine hit of finishing a task well and getting outside acknowledgement for it and being rewarded for our work through money.
With a novel, you might only get those hits every year or every few years. The right kind of day job — one that pays well enough and is maybe just a little bit boring but not so much that it sucks your soul dry, can fill up those needs very nicely.
I would argue that a job like that gives more than it takes away. It fills that very human need for validation, so that, when you do have time to write, you can focus on your craft. A job like that is worth searching out and sticking with.
4. Writing is Not Enough
Don’t get me wrong. I love writing. I spend two to four hours writing every morning. But even if I had more time, I wouldn’t want to spend all day writing.
I can’t really write productively for more than four hours in a day. After four hours I’m distracted and my mood kind of spirals and I turn to social media or research rabbit holes or worry as a way to fill the time, and that’s just not productive for me. I’d much rather work on something that allows my creative mind to rest and my ideas from the morning to percolate. These days, I spend my afternoons and evenings at a job where I do some peopling and then a whole lot of data entry.
If I ever “got to write full time,” I still don’t think I’d spend the second half of the day writing. I’d probably spend it on correspondence or writing business or volunteering or really long walks or quilting or gardening, because I would still need the same things: connection, checking things off a list, creative digestion, rest.
And yes, maybe I would need to carve out some time to sign book deals and speak with my film agent and consult on the UK cover, but I’m still not sure that would fill the whole rest of every day.
It does not follow that if you love writing you need to do it all day long.
5. It Is Okay To Make Money
One of the things I need in order to continue writing is a consistent income. I need money. (OMG I said it.) Writers are the worst for talking about money. We write for the love of it. We pretend we can live on the ozone-rich air of most-anticipated lists and award nominations and the occasional five-star Amazon review.
There is also still the perception that having a book published means earning the big bucks, and while that may be true in some cases and for some authors, I for one am not banking on it. What am I banking on? My own ability to earn money today.
I don’t see earning a living as something that takes away from my creativity. I see it as something that gives me creative space. If I’m worried about money or debt or whether or not I’ll have to work until I’m eighty, I’m distracted when I write.
I would love for my creative work to earn all the money I need, but I’m not going to count on that or demand it or expect it. A day job allows me to have my perfectly valid need for income met consistently, and elsewhere.
6. It’s An Interesting World Out There
Your creativity is fed by ideas. By overhearing a snippet of conversation, or by observing a strong emotion on a stranger’s face. By understanding how something works in the world, whether that’s behind the counter at a gelato shop or inside the cliquey politics of the parent advisory committee.
I believe that, to truly experience the world, you need to be out in it. You can’t get these inputs secondhand through scrolling news outlets or Instagram at your writing table. And while I would love to spend my time travelling the world and hiking and writing, that’s not my reality.
My reality right now includes a day job where I interact with people and colleagues and where I never quite know what to expect out of each day. And that feeds my creativity too.
Never Thought I’d Say This, But…
…Maybe don’t quit your day job. At least not yet. Instead, find one that is kind of boring part of the time. One that earns you the money you need. One that keeps part of your brain free for your creative process to work in the background, but that also throws you the occasional curve ball. One that allows you to go home at the end of the day, or wake up early in the morning, and write for an hour, or maybe two.
And to those who say you’re only successful if you’re writing full time, I say, get your nose out of my business. Are you doing your own creative work right now? Or are you waiting for some kind of guarantee? If you want to write something, then set your own alarm for 5am and get to it. If you have to go to your day job afterwards, so be it, but at least you will be doing the creative work that is calling you.