Full Time Writer? Leaving the Day Job VS Leaving the Career

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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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21 comments to Full Time Writer? Leaving the Day Job VS Leaving the Career

  • I myself quit a day job after staying clear of or sabotaging my career for years. I became a full-time writer about a year ago, but also full-time housekeeper as well. I find myself lucky to be in a situation where I am able to write instead of wasting my days doing something I was never meant to do. It took quite a bit of work and preparation to get here. I didn’t just come home one day and say I quit, time to be a writer! There have been many changes in our household because of this decision, but I have never been happier and that makes all the difference to me and mine.

    Samuel J. E. Trawick, Author of The Frostbourne Chronicles

  • I have a career as a business analyst. As the sole supporter of myself, my yarn habit, and my reading habit, I have to earn a certain amount of money to survive. At this point it is unlikely that I will marry well or inherit any money, so I think that I have to keep this two career thing going for awhile longer. My goal as a writer is to earn enough money that I can take a job that doesn’t demand 50 to 60 hours a week. Something that I can leave at work and not have to log on to the system at 9 pm to deal with whatever production problem has occurred. That would be nice.

    I envy writers that are able write full-time.

  • I have chosen to pursue two careers, but they are related. I am an English teacher (middle school) and a writer. I’m also a theatre teacher, and this past year I taught a Creative Writing elective course for 7th graders. While I am still learning how to balance all of that (And the NaNoWriMo afterschool club I run), when I get time off, I write. I’m as yet unpublished (cross your fingers), but I am actively trying to improve my craft, build my repertoire of work, and meanwhile enjoy these stories in my head and sharing them with my lovely, and supportive, wife/editor. (The acting career will just have to wait until my first movie contract.)

    I have hopes, of course, that my writing will get published, take off, and make us fabulously rich, but I don’t expect it. I have hopes, more reasonably, that my writing will get published and supplement my teaching income, allowing us to do some things we otherwise might not be able to (like go see a movie and have dinner at McDonalds). For now, it’s a productive hobby, that beats the pants off sitting on a couch munching chips and watching so many hours of tv that the kids aren’t aware that there’s an off button! From a financial standpoint, it would be foolish to quit a job without a secure plan for supporting yourself, either a spouse, or a multi-book contract, with money in the bank.

  • Kalayna, I think the distinction between career and job is a crucial one, and very helpful in discussing these issues. I was at a point in my academic career where I would have had to devote all of my time to developing courses, getting myself published in order to get tenure, and establishing myself as a member of an academic community through committee assignments, writing reviews, etc. In other words, I had a choice between careers — writing or academia. I didn’t see a path that would allow me to balance both simultaneously. If there had been a way — if I had been offered a job that left me time to write as well (and if my wife and I hadn’t been childless and renting a home at the time) I never would have taken the leap I did. It was too uncertain. But we didn’t have kids or a mortgage, and I was choosing between two full-time careers, one of which I loved, and one which I knew was not right for me. Anyway, this is a really useful way of looking at the choices we face. Thanks.

  • I, too, envy those that can write full time – especially those happy few that can write full-time and support a family.

    I made the decision in college to pursue a major with a non-writing career in mind. I did this, even though I was single, because I knew (a) that I would someday have a family and (b) that it is the traditional role of the male in a family relationship to provide for the household. So I got a business degree, I made a few career gaffes (like staying in a small, dead-end town for a year too many, and taking a too-low position when I finally did get the flock out of dodge) and today I’m a Financial Analyst trying to work my way up to a management position. (Apparently the latter does not automatically come with the acquisition of an MBA, even if said MBA is from a highly-respected institution, and especially if you have made any of the aforementioned career gaffes.)

    Some days I wonder if I chose the right non-writing career… But I don’t question that it was right to choose a career. A part of me knows that I’ll never be able to leave the day-job behind, because it would be irresponsible to forsake the steady pay, health, and benefits for the vastly uncertain world of writing income. To top it off, by all accounts even established, mid-list writers don’t exactly make a living-wage – and I can make a lot more in annual income in my day-job career than I’ll ever make as a writer unless I find myself a steady fixture of the NYT Bestseller list. And… as awesome as that would be (and as awesome as I think my writing might be) the statistics are not in favor of that ever happening. Certainly not a gamble worth taking.

    If that ever does happen… it might be worth revisiting the day-job career decision. But from where I stand now, I already have a career. I hope I can stir up another as a writer, but I owe too much to the family I have now to put any extra risk in their lives.

  • Interesting distinction, Kalayna – thanks for making me think about it!

    I had a career — copyright lawyer — which I engaged in full time, while launching my writing career. After seven years, though, the challenge to balance both became too much, and I switched to another career — law librarianship — which entailed obtaining a master’s degree and working 60 hours a week as a manager of people and physical resources. I balanced my library career and writing for 10 years before I became a full-time writer.

    My law career and my library career were extremely time consuming, but they were also financially remunerative, which gave me a fiscal foundation to write full time.

    Like many on this list, though, my full-time writing career has many facets. I write (and promote, and prepare proposals for, and, and, and) novels. I also write articles about legal issues. I write articles about writing and publishing. I edit manuscripts. And I handle virtually all of my household’s management — all shopping, cooking, cleaning, etc.

    So, put me in the category of a person who balanced two careers (law/librarianship and writing) and who now balances one career (writing) and a job (household management.) It works for me 🙂

  • Yeah, I left a “job”…and a crap one at that. I haven’t been very lucky in schooling or careers in the past, so my job prospects were sort of lackluster. Never had the time or money to get the schooling for something better and my health has been an issue from the age of sixteen.

    The first time I quit for writing, I was a produce clerk at Kroger for 5 years. Unfortunately, sometimes being a Jack of all Trades, master of none is a curse. The only things I’m really good at are artistic endeavors, and writing especially. The things that bring in the big bucks (he said with sarcasm). The writing is the one thing I’ve stuck with the longest, as far as bettering a talent goes. I’ve been practicing the art for somewhere around 25 years.

    The first time I quit was to finish up the Arrgh! Thar Be Zombies! supplement for Eden Studios. The unsteady nature of the scheduling in retail was an issue and I was falling behind. Still, there was another income in the house and insurance. The second time I quit, was after another 5 years at Kroger (part time this time) in the only thing I knew enough about to be a shoe in, produce clerk. Yeah, not a career by any stretch, unless you got lucky and became a department head or somehow made manager, yeah, good luck… But this time I didn’t just quit for writing, I quit for a baby. With the tiny amount I was pulling in, we figured it would cost more to hire a sitter or have daycare than it would be to quit my job. So, now I write full time…and take care of a child full time. Still, we barely get by and some book contracts or short story sales would at least allow us breathing room, maybe even allow for a vacation or nice dinner out now and again, maybe even the ability to buy something we want rather than something we need. 😉 Maybe a second car, the beginnings of a down payment on a house (we still rent and I’m 40…ugh), perhaps pay off some bills.

    My wife’s job is okay, but not the greatest. Still, it gives us insurance and pays the bills. If she hadn’t managed to get a bonus last month, ConCarolinas would’ve been out of the question again this year. I had to think really hard as to the value of the possible connections I’d make as opposed to having the extra money to live a little less than frugally for a month.

    I’ve wanted to be a novelist from the first time my ninth grade English teacher told me I should consider a career in writing. It’s time. Can’t quit now. 😉

  • I have the same situation as Vikki, plus the fact that I don’t yet have an agent or contract. Besides that I need health insurance which is much easier to get through a company than it is as a solo buyer. I also need to get out of the house and my own head. While I was writing my dissertation I would literally go days without speaking to anyone. I’d get so stir crazy that I went on 2am grocery buying trips just for the chance to chat up the clerk. (Late night clerks are, I have found, a quirky, but compassionate bunch, if only out of boredom.) It was an ugly time and I don’t want to repeat it. Plus, I love to teach – it genuinely charges up my energy and mood levels. So if (when!) I get published, I think it will be in my best interest to keep being a professor if I can at all, though I will happily leverage my book contracts into a lighter load or more ideal teaching schedule.

  • I do daydream about writing full time. But I do acknowledge those are just daydreams.
    I’ve 25 years invested in my career, a career I do still love, but the field (computer nerd stuff)
    has changed much over the years, and in many ways, it’s changed in ways that I find
    distasteful. Ah, the good old days. And I’ve pretty much hit that glass ceiling, even if that
    ceiling is self-imposed (I’d have to move away from the nerd stuff).

    But there’s another part of me. The storyteller part. And it’s been fighting to be let out
    of the cage for a long time. I think I’ve reached that point where perhaps it is time for
    a change. Taking an income hit doesn’t scare me too much, as long as I make enough
    for shelter, food, and a bit of savings.

    I’m not thinking of dropping my career, but perhaps scaling it back a bit might be realistic.
    Less involved jobs. Jobs where I can take extended periods of time off during the year (contracting).
    Basically a slow transition from one life to another, seeing how far I can go.
    Perhaps I can have my cake and eat it too.

  • This could not have come at a better time, Kalayna. Lately I’ve been thinking quite a bit about how to classify my current paid employment. While it’s fun to dream about wanting writing to be my career, I also have to be realistic.

    My field *is* specialized. For the most part, I enjoy what I do, especially the feeling that comes with empowering students. The job has fantastic benefits, health insurance, paid vacation time and sick days (like today. Ugh, what is it with me and post-con colds?) And when all of that is factored in, I make more than my husband does.

    Which means that this post is a wake-up call, because I’ve just realized that what I currently do for a living *is* a career, and I need to treat it as a career and not just a day job. So count me in the “two career” group. And thank you for triggering that attitude adjustment!

  • Right now I am the sole bread winner in the family and so taking the plunge into full-time writing is not an option (especially since I hav enot published my first novel). So I write as a parttime job. Hoepfully, it will pan out better in the future.

  • Julia

    Great post, Kalayna!

    I actually went the other direction… For a few years, I made my living as a full-time writer. I actually found that I had less time for my fiction writing, because I had to keep the lights on and the rent paid. I took a lot of freelance jobs and I spent a lot of time pursuing the gritty business side of writing. I learned invaluable lessons and I honed some writing skills, but I didn’t love it.

    As a professor, I have a career I love — and a good deal of freedom to pursue creative projects. Sure, I wish for more time. (Who doesn’t?) Of course, there are aspects of my work I would gladly excise from my life. (Grading or committee work, anyone?) But for the most part, I find that my work actually feeds my writing.

    By the way, I do think that my stint as a freelance writer was directly connected to my finishing the dissertation and producing scholarly articles in good time. Don’t write, don’t eat was my reality as a freelancer, and I see no reason to change that philosophy now. 🙂

  • I most certainly have had jobs but my career has been writing — though not a very lucrative one. It is a very serious consideration to have because, as we said at that panel, you’ll get to a point where it’s too late to have a career in something else, you’re too old to be hired, too much of a financial/insurance risk. So, think long and hard before dropping the day job. Then go think so more.

  • A agree with David that the distinction between leaving a job and leaving a career is an important one. I’ll also mention (as the brilliant moderator of the panel Kalayna is talking about ;-)) another point from the panel that I think is vitally important to add to this conversation: the two panelists there that day who had made the most money from a single book (one at about $300,000 and one at slightly less than that) were the two voices that were the most emphatic in saying “Don’t quit your day job!” They knew from hard-won experience just how fleeting and fickle this business can be, and even substantial success with a single book does not automatically translate into lasting success book after book. That’s just the nature of this business. DO NOT FAIL TO LEARN FROM THEIR EXPERIENCE.

  • Razziecat

    I would love to be able to write full-time, but at this point in my life that’s very unlikely. I’ve had the same job for 30+ years, but I don’t consider it a career; it’s just something that came along when I needed it, that provides decent benefits (up to this point anyway) and enough income that I was able to buy a house. My pension is vested and I have health insurance. I don’t know what the next couple of years will bring because the industry I work in is in crisis (newspapers), so I’ll have to keep at it as long as I can. Knowing this, I don’t expect to get rich writing; while extra money would be welcome, it’s not my chief motivation for writing. I’ve never loved my job the way I love writing. I just want the stories in my head to become published works; any money I get for it would be icing on the cake.

  • I, too, was on the Quit or Stay panel. I was one of the voices of caution. Don’t quit, I said.

    I provide the benefits to my hubby and me at a job that many call a career. I’m a supervisor (on paper) and I have seniority in my entire department. To quit and then return after a hiatus, would mean I’d never reach my current level of responsibility or pay grade again, not without taking on a LOT more hours a week and a lot more stress than I have now.

    Yet, when I’m offered my next higher figure book deal (7-figures? A girl can dream…) I’m quitting. I had not made that decision until that panel. But yeah — sometime in the next few years, I’m making the leap into fulltime writing. “Lord willin’ and de creek she don rise,” as they say in bayou country.

  • I’ve been the sole earner (single mom) in my household since 1996 and I have – as I’ve mentioned before – a disabled adult son living with me. Quitting the “real world career” has never been an option I could realistically consider. If not for the top of the line insurance my job allows me to have, my son would either be dead or I’d be over $2M (yes, that’s two million dollars!) in debt.
    Would I like to be able to quit the day job and write full time? Sure. Would I be willing to risk my son’s life for it? No way.

  • I have a feeling that even if my writing got noticed and was consumed at a Rowling rate I’d probably still keep my career. I love writing, but I also love computers and solving problems with technology. Efficiency as an enabler of human creativity is what I’m all about.

    Funds is part of it, but if I didn’t love my career and I wanted to spend all my time writing, I’d just quit anyway. I’m resourceful and willing to live without money (heck, I do now). Medical care and money would be supplied by the government so no worries there. But I think that sort of dedication to writing requires a different sort of person than what I am. So I keep my love affair with computers and writing on the train to and from work 🙂

  • My day job for the past decade has been at the Public Library of Cincinnati. It has been a great place to work while I polish my skills. I get an hour long lunch and that is when I do a chunk of my writing. I also write on my morning & afternoon breaks. I’m also continually fed here as a writer. And I don’t just mean by my paycheck. My brain is fed with lots of non-fiction for concepts and premises to throw into my stories, and with lots of diverse fiction (mucho SF&F of course) to learn from previous practitioners.

    And all the time I’ve spent in the library has given me enough material to pitch and get a gig as a speaker. I’ll be giving a talk on “The Library Angel and It’s Oracle” at the Esoteric Book Conference in Seattle this September. (www.esotericbookconference.com)

    Mind you, this is a job, because I’m a shelver, putting the books away, and not a librarian. This has many of it’s own advantages, as my brain doesn’t get drained by the customer service side of things, and in moments of down time I can work on my writings.

    I’ve also been able to get my name out there writing music and book reviews for Brainwashed.com and I love doing this, but it is tricky when I already have a limited amount of time to devote to my writing. My wife works at a Montessori school, so once again this coming fall, I want to try and get in the habit of waking early to write for another hour before I go to work. I’ve also adjusted my schedule so I can work occasional evenings. On those days when I go in at 1PM I have until noon to write.

  • My husband didn’t have to decide “when to quit his job” as he pretty much (except for a short stint when we ran our own advertising company) never has had one. We wanted one of us to raise our children and as I made more money it made sense for him to be the one to stay home (at a time when it was VERY unpopular for a man to do so).

    It’s a sorry state of affairs that writers have to struggle so much in order to make a living. The good news is I see data that this is changing. In the “old days” there were only so many books that could be put out by the big-six in a single year. The limited number of titles wasn’t so much a matter of “gate keeping” as it was bandwidth. Also in the past, most self-published authors and those published through small presses didn’t make any substantial money (with a few exceptions of course). The ebook revolution has made it so there are now more “available slots” (through self-published and small presses). A few years back I knew of no authors who were self-supporting. Now I personally know 30+. What’s even more telling is something that I never thought would happen when Michael started writing which is in April I was able to quit my six-figure day job and now we both live off of writing and publishing. These are good times we live in if you want to write for a living.

    Robin Sullivan | Write2Publish | Ridan Publishing

  • At this point in my life, I’d settle for being able to bring in a lot more extra money to the household with my writing rather than leaving the day job for full-time writing. Game writing, my writing gig, is not lucrative. It’s fun as hell, but not lucrative. I’m getting published regularly, though, which I can’t say is true of my fiction writing (only a few wins on the fiction side). I just need it all to come together better right now.