Quitting Your Day Job

I’ve always loved to write. In fifth grade, my teacher told me I would someday make a great freelance writer (I had no idea at the time what that meant, but it stuck with me). When I was in high school, my friends dubbed me the poet laureate of our class. And so I dreamed of someday being a writer.

Then I got to college. I had one professor who wrote on a paper that I would never make it as a writer, “because I had never read the classics.” I began to believe him and others like him, and bounced between  potential majors, sticking with an “undecided” major until the beginning of my junior year. Then my roommate told me, “You’ve always wanted to write. So write. They say you won’t go anywhere with your writing. I say, @#$% them.”

And so I got a degree in communication. I was in love with writing. I was also in love with a young woman that I eventually made my wife. I warned her when I proposed that “we will probably be poor as church mice.” She ignored my warning and married me anyway.

But getting married and soon having a family raised a quandary in my mind. How do I follow a passion in writing with its accompanying vow of poverty, and still take care of your family’s needs? I began looking for jobs that would allow me to hone my writing skills, and, if possible, allow me time to work on my own writing projects. I was a newspaper editor, worked in hospital public relations, was a book and magazine editor, and am now a university professor. On campus I am known for who I am in the classroom, or as editor of the alumni magazine, or my duties as the school’s webmaster. But in my own mind, all of those are just jobs to pay the bills. My muse–and my self-identity–lies in my own writing, mostly on novels.

I’ve had a couple of opportunities over the years to work on my writing full time. And when I don’t have the opportunity, I dream about it. But for the most part, that’s all it is; a dream. The reality is, only about 100 people write full time successfully in the United States. And here’s the rub: in order to make a living at writing, you have to write what the editor wants, not what you are inspired to write. And that’s when a passion becomes just another job.

The other thing I notice when I write full time is that I long for a job with social interaction. Writing is a very lonely profession. We’re talking hundreds of hours all alone, just to come up with the rough draft of a novel. And then there’s all that rewriting time that’s required. When I’ve been unemployed, or been writing seriously during the summer months, I’ve often longed for time in the classroom. (Yeah, I know; hard to believe, isn’t it.) That’s part of my gregarious nature, which can be difficult for someone who’s serious about writing. I’ve invested the thousands of hours in front of the typewriter or the computer keyboard. But I also find I need that time in the classroom to keep me from reenacting Tom Hanks on the desert island talking to a volleyball.

Turning my back on full-time writing also means I have another source of income, which also means I can write what I please, regardless of whether it gets published, or even whether anyone ever reads it. When you are spending your free time writing, with no guarantee of it getting published, you may as well enjoy what you’re doing.

So where does that take me? Well, a few years ago, I thought I had the perfect job. I could teach for eight months out of the year, and get my socializing done. During that time I would dream of spending my summer writing. In the summer months, I would let my creative juices flow into the pages of my latest novel, but eventually get to the point where I longed for the classroom again. Ironic, isn’t it? But it was a dynamic that worked for me.

Lately though, my responsibilities at the school have blossomed in other areas, and I find myself, a week after graduation, still trying to let my day job go. Sunday marks the beginning of our first 2011 Summer Challenge, and I am thinking that I will probably commit to writing in the morning and doing other stuff in the afternoon. The trouble with that scenario is just letting go of the “other stuff” so that I can concentrate on writing.

If anything were to get me to take the leap and quit my day job, that will probably be it. My mind isn’t as ambidextrous as it used to be, and so I find it difficult to switch gears and think about complex storylines and characters when my cell phone is calling me. Writing is a complicated business, and much of it is mind games.

Don’t worry if you’re a student of mine. I won’t be leaving the classroom anytime soon. But if Doubleday calls me one of these days, asking that I accept their $250,000 advance for my work in progress, it just might be a temptation.

5 thoughts on “Quitting Your Day Job

  1. for me, the best decision i ever made was to work part time to pay the bills and write the rest of the time. granted, i was living single and cheap… now, i’m married and staying home with my son, which is a perfect excuse to write full time. if i didn’t have my husband bringing in a regular income, though, i don’t know how i’d do it! it certainly is a vow of poverty, but there is absolutely nothing else i like enough to tolerate doing full time.

  2. I can totally relate. Teaching is a passion, but then so is writing. The two usually mesh pretty well – I’m home early enough in the day to write in the evenings and I have summers free. Don’t tell anyone, but I’ve actually found myself writing while my students are working because an idea wouldn’t let me be. I love my day job and I love writing – I don’t know if I could make the choice between them. So, for now each get a piece of me. 🙂

  3. Believe it or not, this blog post made my eyes water. I’ve noticed the loneliness and sacrifice needed when writing. Writing really is complex and takes up hours of your time. It is harder than many people think, who often say, “Oh, they’re just writing,” as if it were no biggie.

    As much as it pains me to hear that a professor told you you’d never become a writer, I’m glad that you shared that story because I’ve always been scared one day that will happen to me. I mean, compared to all the other English major my writing is folly. They can write at the snap of fingers, when it’ll take me weeks to get as good a grade as them.

    But I am learning, and I want to learn, so that’s really what matters — though I can’t help but compare myself. I’m afraid that one day I’ll crash and feel like I can’t do it anymore — then all my dreams of becoming a successful writer one day will all go away. But this fear, of course, is lead on a lack of faith — like that article I sent you a few days ago.

    If you ever do get offered another job that pays exceptionally well, and if you do take it, then good for you. No doubt you deserve it. But I know you will be greatly missed at SWAU, by colleagues, students, and even the ever-progressing students of Rough Writers.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  4. Wow, only 100 people write full time in the US? O.o I’ll admit, I thought it was a higher stat than that, even if not by a huge amount.

    1. I think the actual number is between 100 and 200, and that statistic is a few years old. But with the recession and what’s going on with book publishing, I can’t believe it would be any higher than that. Sad.

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