Get a Real Job
It’s an interesting paradox. As a writer with four novels in print, one of the most common questions I get is “When are you going to quit your day job?” On the other hand, take a writer who has done just that and runs into financial trouble. One of the first questions they hear is “Why don’t you just get a real job?”
Writing “professionally” is a real job. It’s more work than any day job I’ve had. There’s the actual writing, the rewriting, the communication with editors, agents, and fans, the paperwork (contracts, taxes, etc.), and that’s before you decide to go to that convention or booksigning, or try to do some publicity for your work.
The real question is “Why don’t you get a safe job?” One that would provide you with stable income, health insurance, and everything else you needed to avoid this mess.
Of course, “safe” jobs aren’t all that safe, especially these days. I work for state government, one of the most stable employers around. My first unpaid layoff day is Friday. Right now, we’ve only got six of them, but next year’s budget is ugly, so we’ll see.
There’s also the assumption that anyone can find a job if they try. Having watched motivated, intelligent, educated people try for years to find full-time employment, I can’t completely agree with this one either. Moving to where the jobs are isn’t always the answer either. I watched a friend in college move 2000 miles to find the job he had been promised was now gone, leaving him stranded.
It feels like victim blaming. “It’s your own fault you’re struggling financially.” If your problems are your fault, I can feel better about my life, because I would never make the bad choices you did. Yay, I’m safe! As a bonus, I don’t have to feel guilty for snubbing you.
Some people do make mistakes and bad choices. Others make all the “right” choices, and things fall apart anyway. Much as we’d like to believe we can predict and control everything, life doesn’t work that way. It used to be that auto factory jobs were some of the best out there. Great pay, great benefits, with multiple generations working in the plants. Living in Michigan, I can tell you these safe jobs are now disappearing all over the place.
I’ve yet to meet a writer who quit their day job on a whim. I’m not talking about people who sell one story and rush off to tell their boss they quit. These are people who have spent years developing their skill and thinking things through. They ask other writers for advice, and they ask themselves questions like:
- Do I have a partner with a stable income?
- Do I have preexisting health conditions? Can I get coverage for myself if necessary?
- How stable is my writing income, and have I made a budget? (Remember that your $10,000 advance will be divided into several payments, spread out over a year or more, reduced by 15% for the agent commission, and taxed.)
- Am I disciplined enough to go full-time?
- Do I have other outlets to get me out of the house so I don’t go crazy?
- Is my writing important enough to be worth the risk?
It occurred to me that these are the same sort of questions a couple might ask when trying to decide whether one parent can stay home full-time with a new child. Another thing people tend to think of as not being a real job. (Having taken several weeks to play single Dad while my wife recovered from knee surgery, stay-at-home parent is harder and more draining than either of my jobs.)
I’m currently working both the “safe” job and the writing career. That’s the choice I make to provide for myself and my family, based on my situation (diabetic, young kids, writing income which is decent but not yet stable). It’s the choice that’s right for me. I look at my peers who have ditched the day job, and I envy them for what looks to me like a luxury, one I might never be able to afford. But does this gives me the right to look pass judgement on their choice when they have trouble?
The Internet makes us more aware of writers hitting bad spots. We hear about health bills wiping out this writer, a laid-off spouse making that writer the sole income source, and so on. But as we’re blaming these people for their ill fortune, what about those writers who made the same choice and won? I remember reading about Piers Anthony deciding to go full-time, talking over the risks and deciding to go for it. Whatever you think of the man’s work, he’s a highly successful writer. The risky choice appears to have been the right one in his case.
Maybe I’m the one who made the wrong choice. Maybe I should have moved to Canada and started the citizenship process so I could get my health benefits and write full time. Maybe had I done that, I’d have a much more prolific and satisfying writing career ahead of me. But if you come along and second-guess my choice, trying to tell me what I should have done, I’m likely to sic a goblin on you.
June 17, 2009 @ 12:39 pm
I’ve struggled with all those questions. Even after making “final decisions” I keep going back to them. In my professional career I’ve had three positions disappear from underneath me. And my reputation is what has saved me every time. Both the first and third job, my next position was won despite hiring freezes at the companies (third position was eliminated this past spring, and I’m working for the same employer after they laid off ten people, I was low man on the totem pole for seniority). The second job loss was all of a month and a half, I had three job offers at the same time and the freelance agency I had started working for was sore at losing me. While I try not to be, I am a workaholic (how else can you define two paycheck jobs, freelancing in design AND starting a career as a writer). I’m one of those people that go the extra mile. And I’ve been laid off three times. It can happen to anybody.
And it’s my answers to the first three questions that will probably keep me in a day job until retirement (whenever that may be).
Jim C. Hines
June 17, 2009 @ 2:25 pm
That’s scary. I’m not *too* worried about permanent layoffs here at the state, but I also know we’re shaky here, and the private sector tends to be even worse right now.
At this point, I suspect I’ll be doing the full-time-writer-after-retirement plan right along with you.