Fall or Fly?

John G. Hartness
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So here’s a little hard reality about the writing life – sometimes there ain’t much money in it. On March 30, 2012, I walked away from a 17+ year career in the entertainment lighting industry to try this writing thing full-time. I cleared out my 401(k), had zero balance on any of my credit cards, and was making about $3,000 each month from Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other book sales outlets. My monthly expenses, to live the way my wife and I have grown accustomed to, totaled about $4,000 each month. I had about $15,000 in savings. That meant that if I didn’t spend anything frivolously that I could live for about a year without any change in circumstances, but I was optimistic that my book sales would increase, and that I had turned my back on the 9 to 5 for good. 

Monday I start my new day job. 

At the end of a little more than ten months of writing full time, I have zero savings, about $8,000 in credit card debt, and well more than a year’s worth of education and self-realization. There was a lot of learning going on in the past year, and not a lot of earning, and that’s one of the reasons that I’m re-entering the work force. 

But not the only reason. Not by a long shot. 

The ugly truth is that I’m not wired to work from home. If I’ve learned anything over the past year, it’s that I need some structure imposed on my life. Before quitting my job, I was a very prolific writer. When I had nothing better to do than write all day, most months I spent my time doing nothing, rather than writing all day. Don’t get me wrong, I filled the days. Just not with writing. And not with anything revenue-generating. A few months ago, I realized that I need a “day job” to keep me writing. I love to write. It’s an awesome hobby for me. And it’s a hobby that generates a pretty penny income-wise. But when I transitioned from a part-time writer to a full-time writer, I found I actually wrote less. For me, writing is best done in spurts of manic productivity, squeezed in between all the other things I have going on in my life. It’s not something that I do well in a disciplined, regimented fashion, and that’s what it takes to do this full-time. 

We won’t go into the fact that there isn’t anything that I do well in a disciplined, regimented fashion. You aren’t here to analyze my particular reckless lifestyle, after all. You’re here to read about writing, and the writing life. 

There were certainly other factors contributing to my decision. For one thing, health insurance is friggin’ expensive! That line in my actual budget cost double what I expected it to. Pro tip to the young writers out there – don’t get fat, it makes health insurance cost more. So spending nearly a grand each month on health insurance drained my surplus faster than I expected. And attending nearly a dozen cons last year put a bunch of money on credit cards that I didn’t have revenue to pay off. And then Amazon did one of their infamous algorithm changes, this time dropping a bunch of self-published titles off the “also-bought” radar, and I watched my sales get cut in half. So things got a little rough.

Now I’m not saying I couldn’t have survived this rough patch financially without taking the drastic step of getting a job. I could have. I’m working as a freelance editor now, enjoying it quite a bit and am building a decent client list. My lighting design work is picking up, and I still love making theatre happen. And I have an acting agent now, and I’m looking forward to going out on auditions for commercials and film work. 

But I need a job. I need a modicum of stability, a little bit of outside structure, and a steady paycheck. There’s enough Ward Cleaver in the way I way raised to need those things. I’m a child of the seventies, raised in a two-parent home where my dad was the sole breadwinner. For all that it seems that I’ve grown up completely differently from my family, the old Protestant work ethic is deeply rooted in me, and I need to go out and have a job. 

But this one will be a little different than the last one. I’m back in the entertainment lighting industry, but this time I’m coming into a new company as the General Manager, not a mid-level manager. I’ve cut a deal to work four days most weeks, so I can still make my convention appearances, and for the foreseeable future I won’t be burning up the roads between Charlotte and Atlanta, unless it’s for Dragon*Con. I’m excited about going back to work. I’m excited about meeting my new employees. I’m excited about getting up and putting on pants everyday!

Okay, don’t visualize. It’ll be all right. 

Do I look at this year as a failure? Not at all. It was time for me to leave my last job. I probably stayed there several years too long anyway. It was time for me to give this writing life a shot and see if it was for me. It’s not. I’m still a professional writer. I still have contracts to fulfill, fans to attempt to satisfy, and stories inside me that are dying to get out. So it’s not like I’m going to stop writing. Like I said, I’ll probably be more productive now that I’m returning to the dreaded “day job” than I was for the past year. I learned a lot this year. I learned a lot about writing, about myself, about my wife, about our interactions, about the way people view “writers,” all kinds of stuff. 

And I still live by the words tattooed on my right forearm – “Sometimes when you fall, you fly.” 

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19 comments to Fall or Fly?

  • John, I’ve spent the last 2 – 3 years coming to the same realizations you have, in a much faster time. You are smarter than I, my friend. For all the reasons you have listed, I still have my day job. And I’ll keep it for another 9 years.

    ObamaCare — which sounded so lovely on the surface — was meant for young healthy people, not older ones, regardless of weight. When I looked at the price of health insurance (several times over the last 2 years as ObamaCare was revised), it was through the roof. Quitting my day job meant losing not only the stability of a pay check, it mean adding to the monthly expenses waaaaay more than I wanted to. So I binge write, and work in a lab — for the benefits. But like you I was raised when people were expected to work or starve. There were few social programs. No govt. security net.

    I am Type-A personality anyway. So, like you, I am accepting it and moving on — with writing. And a lesson learned.

  • I speak as a 15-year-old, but I already know that I’d never in a thousand years be able to write full-time. I drive myself mad if I try to force words onto the page every day. I know, I know. BIC and all that. But when I write every day, I write filler. I don’t seem to have the guts to plunge into stories properly.
    I’ll always want to have a job, probably as a horse trainer. Nothing like climbing onto half a ton of flesh and fire that has never had a human on its back before to give your creative cells an adrenalin shock and make them work. :)

  • John, this is a terrific, courageous post. Thank you for your candor. I admire your talent, but I also admire your heart and your attitude. You rock, my friend.

  • sagablessed

    First let me say I appreciate the honesty and forthrightness you have shown. It sets the foundations of reality. I think many of us dream of being the next King or Dan Brown. I won’t lie….yup, I had such foolish dreams. Not gonna happen, but I used to have them anyways.
    Moving onward -

    I speak as a man living on partial dis-ability (incurable but treatable cancer and another LTI -Long Term Illness) and working the max the law will allow. (Yes Faith and David, I look healthier than I actually am.) But if I had $3,000 a month I would be in hog-heaven. Not saying this for pity, but to show that it could ALWAYS be worse.
    We won’t talk about costs of health-insurance for me. You’d pass out to see the numbers. I did, lol.

    Young writers -eat as healthy as possible, don’t smoke, yadda yadda, yaddda. There’s my PSA for the day.

    The fact you John, and Faith and David and all the others here still write is an inspiration.
    While I do hope to make a pitience from writing, I write mainly because I have to. Even if I never get published, I have stories to tell. If I don’t write, my head would explode. And roomie would be pissed about the mess all over the carpet.

  • sagablessed

    I’ll let Faith explain “cancer in homeostasis” if she wants.

  • Megan B.

    Thank you for this post. It’s eye-opening to see that sometimes quitting one’s day job to write full-time isn’t a permanent change. And that’s okay!

    /soapbox
    Now if we had universal, gov’t sponsored health care like the rest of the western world….
    /soapbox

  • John, I hate that things didn’t work out the way you hoped. I can empathize with how you’re feeling right now. Some years back, when I’d made the decision that I was going to be a published writer, my husband was making a good living, enough to support us if we were frugal. So I quit my job, and stayed home to write. About a year later, before I could become rich and famous (or even published!) he lost that good job. Now he has another very good job, with awesome benefits, but I’m not giving up my little paycheck at the library. I’d rather not give fate a chance to twist me up again. *hugs*

    And hey, Megan, move over a little on the soapbox – I want to climb up with you. :D

  • John> I just quit one of my editing jobs because it was taking up too much time. :) And I wanted to be able to edit under my real name and start working for that. But you laid out something I’ve long suspected was true of myself. I don’t think I could write without a day job. When I don’t have structure I stare at the tv. I wander around my house. I don’t know what I do, but I don’t do work because nothing gets done! I don’t know that I’d ever want to give up the teaching gig. (I just want the one AJ has). I’m irritated ’cause I haven’t written any more on my current big project, and it is because, partly, work has been busy, but also because, honestly, I’ve been doing other stuff (see above re: watching tv). It has to stop. I’ve got to get back to writing. But thanks for the candor here–your story is really important for a lot of us to read!

  • Cancer in homeostasis is the way that several of my friends live now. I have one friend in her 80s who has lived with and fought breast cancer for 40 years. It is a cancer that doesn’t grow (much) but doesn’t go away either. It needs periodic treatments of various kinds to keep it settled down, while the patient waits for modern medicine to discover something more permanent.

    As to soapboxes — what they said. The idiots who think a trip to an ER is a cure-all, and think that because people don’t have to pay for it up front, are idiots. Total idiots. If our elected officials had to live like 50% of Americans, they’d scream bloody murder and change things FAST. But this issue is not why we are here. So I’ll shut my mouth and try to remember that my mama raised me to be a lady and not cuss in public.

  • Ken

    John, thanks for sharing your experience. It’s a harsh truth that all of us, at one point or another, need to hear. I also confess to fantasizing that, when I finish my book, it’ll be BIG and I’ll be rich and able to leave the day job and run around all day with Stana Katic just like Rick Castle–well maybe not so much with the whole dead bodies thing–but that’s all that really is, a fantasy made all the more enticing because lightning CAN, indeed, strike. It’s posts like this and all of you generously sharing your real-life experience that remind me that making it “BIG” is more of a destination (an an unrealistic one at that) and, as Shepherd Book points out, it’s the journey that’s the worthier part.

    Plan for the worst…hope for the best…Keep Writing.

  • It needs periodic treatments of various kinds to keep it settled down, while the patient waits for modern medicine to discover something more permanent.

    Sound familiar… RE: Crohn’s.

  • Great post, John! One of the key things about it was the numbers that you shared — there are lots of people who might say, “I already live on less than that”. But the fact is you know how *you* want to live, and you’re taking steps to do that.

    (I wasn’t willing to take those steps when I was unmarried — it was too scary to step out of the framework of traditional job with traditional benefits, especially because I grew up in a time when job-hopping was considered resume death. It took a *lot* of thought and emotion-inquiry to allow myself to write full time once I was married. I still deal regularly with the emotional fallout of being a literal “dependent” on his health care benefits…)

    Thanks for sharing — and best of luck with finding your new balance with the day job and writing!

  • Thanks for being so honest and open, John. It’s nice to hear a balanced, realistic view on the full-time writing life. I also enjoyed hearing that you write best in spurts, since that’s what I’ve also learned about myself in the last year and I’m glad to know I’m not alone in that!

  • John, I’m sorry it didn’t work out the way you hoped because disappointment is always hard. But I very much admire your attitude. And I’m shamefully relieved to know that I’m not the only one on here who would rapidly descend into pajamas and tv town without an outside job. My natural bio rhythm is to wake up at noon and stay awake until 4am. If I get more than two weeks in a row to live like this I end up being completely nocturnal and semi-inert, lying on the couch watching flabblaster infomercials. And then the depression gets me.

    When my writing time is scarce and precious I’m much more productive. I guard it like a dog with a bone. I write against the deadline of my next commitment. Speaking of which, I have to go write something.

  • Ah, but you gave it a shot John and that counts. It turns out I love my day job so much I think I’d do it even if I won the lottery. I’d probably reduce the number of days / year I worked but I’d still be doing it even without pay.
    (computer programming / design work BTW)
    I work from home a couple of days a week and find I often end up doing more work and longer hours. The joke is I go in to the office for a break.
    And I know this has been covered before but OMG $1,000 / month for health insurance? I got upset when I entered the bracket where I started to pay $1,000 / year to medicare but then realised that without paying my share of medicare several of my close friends would probably be dead and I would be in debt to my eyeballs due to appendicitis. So it is interesting hearing how other countries get along (I’m in Australia).

  • I don’t know how I’d fare staying home writing full time even if I didn’t have other reasons to keep working. I’m the single mom of a disabled son who needs my insurance to offset what medicare doesn’t cover. And before he qualified for medicare, it was my insurance that covered more than a million in medical care. Kidney transplants aren’t cheap.
    Plus, given time off from work, I tend to go vampire-hermit, and without reasons to get out and interact with the daytime world, I’d probably be stuck with the past-midnight K-Mart crowd, and that’s just too scary to consider.

  • Thank you for sharing this, John. My hubby and I have this pipe dream about not having to work if we ever won the lottery, but I worry about my productivity when I have too much free time, too. And I love my benefits. I appreciate your perspective on this.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Congratulations on a new job you’re excited about! I just started mine two weeks ago! (after more than a year of looking) My mom keeps saying “well, at least you got to put some time in on your writing.” but no, not so much. Part of it was that full-time job-searching is *time-consuming* (because I still love science more than writing), and, like you, the other part was that being at home all day with no structure but what I could provide myself, I didn’t get nearly as much done as the time available warranted. For me, at least, productivity and creativity seem to be linked (and yay, we get dental now!). So, lots of luck with your moving forward, and thank you for sharing.

  • [...] Fall or Fly? — On writing and day jobs. (Via Marta Murvosh.) [...]