Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Permission To Keep Your Day Job

The other day, I was listening to a popular psychologist's radio show. I often agree with her, but that day, she gave a female caller what I thought was bad advice.

The caller was a single woman who was between jobs and living off savings. She was about to look for another job in sales, which she hates but it pays well. She felt stuck. She'd always done the safe thing career-wise and had never pursued her true passions: writing and photography. She was afraid of failure but more importantly, she was afraid of running out of money.

The radio host pronounced, "You're an artist. You will never be happy unless you fulfill your destiny." She advised the caller to immediately start writing and taking pictures and sending them around. "Sell your house, get a small apartment, and eventually you'll earn enough money to live." The shrink poo-pooed the caller's concerns about running out of money again imploring, "You're an artist."

I agree that the caller should follow her muse, but worrying about keeping a roof over my head never did much for my creativity. Earning a wage and pursuing your creative aspirations are not mutually exclusive.

The lifestyle of a full-time writer is very appealing. It was many years after I published my first book before I was able to make that transition. True, there are writers who rolled the dice and quit their day jobs when that first book was just a crazy glimmer in their eyes, but the vast majority started by balancing working for a living and building a writing career, book by book, reader by reader.

Some of the “roll the dice” tales have back stories. Some writers have gainfully employed spouses, or maybe cashed out of highly successful other careers, or perhaps don’t mind living like the Unabomber.

It takes months and even years to knock out that book that finally gets published.  If you earn a six figure advance for it, my hat's off.  The advance will probably be much less, tough to live on, and who knows if this new career's going to stick?

In the early years of my writing career, I was single without a spouse to fall back on. My modest investment portfolio would have been blown through in a few years if I had to live on it. When I was younger, I spent many years scraping by. I didn't like it then. I sure as hell wouldn't like it now.

Here's the great thing about writing. You can write books even if you can set aside just an hour a day as long as you write consistently.

Which is what I did. I rose at 4:30 a.m. and wrote before I went to work. At night, I took creative writing classes. I wrote on weekends. I was inspired by the book: Do What You Love, the Money Will Follow, by Marsha Sinetar.

I wrote and published three novels while working full-time. I was able to pare my job back to part-time and then published another four novels. It took me fifteen years to finally let go of the last of my day job.

Here’s a secret: I often found that day job to be a comfort when the writing wasn’t going well. Facing long stretches of time with just you and that blank page can be daunting. There’s a lot of pressure in trying to make a decent living as a writer.

So, my advice to the female caller who pines to be a writer/photographer is to find another job and carve out consistent time to follow your muse. Being able to work in your pajamas is fun, but no wine before its time. Until then, paychecks are good and compatible with creativity.


  1. As a an almost full-time writer with a full-time day job, I think this is excellent advice, Dianne. And I like your comment about the day job being a comfort. I find my day job keeps me much more disciplined in my writing, and is more often than not, a good and productive break from the writing.

  2. Absolutely, Sue Ann. Knowing I had to go to work made me really focus during my writing times. If you have an entire day stretching out in front of you, it's easy to pitter it away. Even though my paychecks were tiny at the end because I'd whittled my day job hours to the nubs, it was nice having money show up in my bank account every two weeks.

  3. As a full time writer looking for a day job, I completely understand. Oh benefits, oh health insurance, oh 401K...how your beauty glistens in the sun...

  4. Employee benefits, yes indeed, Ashley. The advice to throw caution to the wind could be perfect for some people, but doesn't work with my level of risk tolerance.

  5. Dianne, I think your advice is right on. The psychologist said "you're an artist," but it sounds like she made the assumption that just because you want to be an artist you are an artist. I disagree. It takes work, training and practice to be an artist. The writer, photographer, painter, etc. who sells early work for lots of money is extremely rare. It takes time to become an artist and I'll bet the caller was not an artist but an aspiring artist.

    I always used to use my lunch hours to write. :)

  6. For some people, they may need the shock treatment of going for it all - "death be dammed". Otherwise they will die at least a slow death anyway.

  7. That's the cruel truth, Petrea. Cafe Pasadena, I agree, there are those whose M.O. is "all or nothing." It can work for them. Me, not so much.