I have been vaguely following this iteration of the argument about whether or not writers should have “day jobs” and since I am one of those who recklessly did quit her day job, here’s a portrait of my two cents, from where I’m standing in the thick of it. We’ll see how I feel in a year, but here’s what I think today.
I think most of these conversations that treating writing as some kind of alien professional endeavor miss the mark. Being a novelist is not really any different than starting a food truck. Both these things, as a rule, fail. They also require a little bit of capital upfront. They are also extremely time consuming, but often personally fulfilling projects. When they succeed marvelously, which is very rare, they often become amazing things: restaurants, novels, lifelong careers. Sometimes they just stay at a satisfying “head above water” level of success, and their continued existence in their current form really just depends on what their creators wants to do with their lives.
So, that’s why I think treating writing as a “special category” of work is a big mistake. We navigate financial waters based with a certain degree of risk no matter what we do, and writing isn’t special in that respect.
Currently, I’m on what I would call a “maybe never going back, but probably going back” break from more traditional employment. But I’m still employed in the small business that is me: I took a reasonable risk based on past earnings and guaranteed income, and my rationale was that taking off a year or so to write (given that I already have a book contract) would be good for my long term career. I know exactly what product I want to put out, my timeline, and how I plan to do it. I mean, I’m the kind of person who makes herself Gantt charts. And I realize there are additional expenses incurred by this choice.1 Well, same goes for a small business. I thought about the risks, like any small business owner. I decided they were worth taking.
Now, if the whims of publishing provide me with enough money to keep writing full time, that’s great. If not, when it becomes financially or professionally necessary, I’ll shift my professional responsibilities once again. Like anyone would. In any profession.
There’s this weird flavor to these conversations that implies that anyone who writes is by definition not a rational actor, because this career move is by its nature not a rational choice. Or maybe what’s being said is that most people don’t understand the economy of writing before taking these kinds of risks. That, I can definitely understand, and is something to seriously consider. Based solely on questions people asked me when I published my first book, people’s expectations for how much a writer makes are extremely inflated. It is not at all likely that you will be able to support yourself long term as a professional writer.
On the other hand, I kept my day job for a long time. Too long, probably, given how little it paid. And I felt an incredible amount of guilt when I quit, because I’ve been hearing “don’t quit your day job for writing” from every corner of the world since I started. For a profession that insists “pay the writer” and “writing is work,” it seems kind of hypocritical to then insistently repeat that writing is not the kind of work that makes up a job. What is it then, if not that?
Beyond my personal situation, what actually terrifies me is the number of people who are traditionally employed who have a side hustle. A frightening number of my coworkers in libraries, at least at the paraprofessional level, had to work at least a job and a half to make ends meet. Some of them were teaching, but others were waiting tables. That’s terrifying. Had my (otherwise fulfilling and enjoyable) day job paid me enough to live on, I might have been more tempted to keep it. But that is another story, and shall be told another time.
And my situation is unique to me, obviously. But so is every single network of needs and responsibilities that makes up a single person’s career. So, while in general I agree that quitting your day job to write is probably not a good idea for most people, I don’t think it’s something that should be looked at with scorn or suspicion in this way. There are lots of people between the extremes of “work yourself to death at what is functionally two jobs” and “I shall float around New York as a new bohemian.” And so that’s why I’m giving it a try.