As AJ mentioned in the Author Chat video I posted last week, one of the panels at ConCarolinas was titled “Should I Quit my Day Job?” and the resounding answer was “No.” That being said, most of the writers on the panel actually had quit their day jobs, which created a rather unrealistic statistic in the room. I’m not sure what the actual breakdown amongst published writers is of otherwise-employed vs full time writer, but it appears to be less than a quarter of writers who can afford to write full time. (And I’d love to see the actual statistics. Anyone know of a survey done in recent years?) Of those full time writers present at the panel at ConCarolinas, several commonalities emerged:**
-Most had other (stabler) sources of household income, such as a working spouse or inheritance.
- Most were not relying on writing to make them the breadwinner in the household. (this ties into the above)
-Most had access to insurance through a spouse.
-Most had a contract for several books before deciding to write full time.
-And (most interesting to me) most left jobs, not careers.
Many of those points have been covered on this blog before, so it is that final one I want to focus on because it really stood out to me at the Con. Only two writers on the panel still worked full time, and those were the two who had non-writing vocations in which they had made a name for themselves and which they wouldn’t be able to re-enter their field in the same position they left if they were to quit to write full time and then find they needed to return to work. The other three writers on the panel wrote full time. One had gone straight from grad school to writing, one had worked jobs outside the home as needed, and one had a 9-5 she’d never intended to make a career out of. While I can’t confirm this without asking each of the panelists (which I neglected to do), but it sounds like the full time writers on the panel pursued writing careers to the exclusion of careers outside of writing, while those writers on the panel who maintain outside jobs pursued two careers.
I wasn’t actually part of the panel, and while I have tremendous respect for those writers currently working full time in two careers, I fall into the category of a writer who quit her day job. Before becoming a full time writer, I paid the bills by being the graduate coordinator in the math department of a local university. While the director and the chair of my department probably would have liked me to look at my position as a long term career, I saw it as a job I was typically able to leave at the office. Not that I didn’t work hard and give my boss and the grad students I worked with my all, but I always knew it was a job. It wasn’t part of my identity the way being a writer (even an unpublished one at that point) was. It was how I paid the bills while I learned about the business and polished my craft. When the time came that I was able to leave, it was hard to give up the stability of a regular paycheck (and sad to say goodbye to friends) but I had no qualms about walking away from the job.
But having a day job and not a career was a choice I made. A conscious choice. I can even point out the time in which that decision was made. It was when I was trying to decide if I should continue on in school and get my PHD (and a real career) or get a day job and focus on my writing. I almost continued in school. In fact, before I signed my third book contract and finally left my day job, I’d say there wasn’t a month that passed that I didn’t consider going back to school (and sometimes I still do now). At the time I made the decision to pursue writing as a career and take a job to support myself, I determined I’d be putting all my eggs in my backup plan if I invested all that time and energy into a career that I wanted as a fall back for if it turned out I sucked as a writer.
Was that the correct decision?
Hard to say. I still have a lot of life ahead of me and the publishing world is an uncertain place. (Of course, in this economy, what job isn’t?)
Would I be published now if I’d made a different decision?
No. Not yet, at least. I know myself, and I’d be at least a few years behind where I am now If I’d made a different decision. Only time will tell if I was a fool or not, but I made the decision to pursue a writing career in exclusion of any other career.
After the panel a couple weeks ago, I find myself wondering how many other writers do the same. From the very limited sample of that panel, it appears that I’m not alone. At the same time, many authors do juggle two careers simultaneously. They may have other reasons beyond the fact they have an established career that influences the fact they work the way they do. Perhaps they have no other source of insurance or they are the major breadwinner and it would be not only irresponsible to gamble on writing full time, but would mean kids and pets would starve some months. The ability to choose to take a job over a career is probably a luxury (though it might be a “luxury” that entitles you to spend a couple years living in the scary part of town with no internet/cable, no central heating or air, no car, counting every penny, and eating mostly ramen noodles). And just because the job is just a job, it doesn’t mean the writer is able to walk away from that job once the first, second, or even tenth publishing contract comes along. Life just doesn’t always work out that way.
They say in LA every waitress and bartender is waiting for their big break as a movie star. How many unpublished (and published mid-list) writers are earning paychecks in day jobs while they wait to be noticed by the reading world? How many juggle writing with another career? How about you? Where to do you fall?
(Sorry for the late post guys. I forgot I’m supposed to be here on Tuesdays instead of Wednesdays this month.)
**There are exceptions to every rule. I recently had dinner with a fabulous writer who did leave a career and who is the major breadwinner in her household. This writer also hit the NYT list with her first book (and each subsequent book in the series) and maintains an extremely rigorous publishing schedule. As you might guess, this isn’t the common pattern, but the exception. That said, such things do happen.
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