Should I Quit My Day Job?

I was recently asked for advice by someone for someone who wanted to leave an unfulfilling but highly lucrative career and become the writer they always wanted to be. This was my reply:

First of all, you’re already a writer. Call yourself one and feel good about it. Anyone who writes is a writer. Anyone who finishes what they write deserves praise for not giving up, or, more often than not, giving in to a dream and trusting it enough to follow where it leads.

Avoid telling friends, colleagues and peers that you’re a writer because they’ll ask what you’ve published. The process of publication does not make writers, but it can certainly break them. Your friends may want to read what you’ve written. This can be very frustrating, because the best that they’ll do when you show them is tell you that it is “good.” This isn’t what you need. What you need is for someone to say that your work was worth doing, reading it is worthwhile and that you are the writer you want to be.

Only you can tell yourself that, and once you do, you find out it doesn’t make much difference in the “real world” where most people have no idea what writers go through in order to produce that great poem, short story, novel, newspaper story, magazine article, non-fiction book, speech, prayer, song lyric, screenplay, limerick or one-liner joke.

And these people wouldn’t believe you if you told them.

If possible, find a hospitable, welcoming writers group near you. I assure you, this is not easy. I founded one because others were either too far away, or ruled by dictatorial Svengalis who were more concerned with reinforcing their opinions about writing than nurturing the work of others. I am no longer a member of that group, but, last I heard, it still meets.

A good writers group should feel like putting on old, comfortable clothes that you love too much to get rid of. After a few minutes, you stop thinking of what you’re wearing and you feel good enough to do just about anything and not worry about how you may appear. At best, you become playful. You wander back to those times in your childhood when you cloaked your toys in stories. or gazed at clouds and had a very good idea of what it would be like to live up there.

Nurturing that sense of play is the primary task of a writers group because the world around us is far too serious and overrun by those who would tell you that you are paid to do THIS and mistakes are FATAL. Yes, there are niceties of grammar, punctuation and spelling (that sink in after a while); one must honor the customs of genres, and our mass-market driven culture comes with rapidly changing definitions about what is and isn’t art. But you should feel safe enough in a writers group to share work that is unformed, possibly derivative, unusual, surprising, not-your-best and otherwise new, without anyone (including your own inner critical voice) saying “YOU CAN’T DO THAT!!!” or, worse, “you’re wasting your time.”

No one in a writers group should have to tell you that you CAN do this and your time is well spent. Instead, they should tell you what in your offering works for them, what might need refinement. You should not feel obligated to follow anyone’s suggestions. But you should not become defensive if you thought you were being funny and some didn’t laugh. The work you bring to a writers group is new, and new things always come with surprises.

You should leave each session with the certainty that you are part of a peer group that merely wants its members to succeed and not go too crazy over the momentary joys, sudden frustrations and daunting set-backs that are part of any creative effort.

Also, consider what you’re reading right now for pleasure. This is tough for those whose job it is to read business, legal, or academic prose that can be so numbingly dull that you wish the alphabet had never been invented.

What you enjoy reading restores your soul, reminds you that writing is worth doing and remains your best teacher, especially when you have those moments when you don’t know if what you’ve done is any good, or you’re reached a point in composition where the words stop and you don’t know what to do next. From your reading, you know that if __________, did it, you can do it, too.

Or do something even better.

Finally, consider if any of your work would “fit” into publications, either on-line or in print, that you like to read, look for that publication’s submission guidelines and send it out. Of course you’ll get more rejections than acceptances, but that one acceptance just might feel good, and build a relationship with an editor of that publication. All writers benefit from good editors. May you meet several along the way

When I began to write books, my editor said, “Don’t quit your day job.” I found that insulting. Writing was my day job! My journalism was appearing in many publications. My wife was working. We had a child.

Second, I knew that the publishing industry pays like any business in the arts. Those who are starting out, but are earnest enough to work hard and meet the needs of publications, are paid very little, or nothing. Those whose work regularly rides the best seller lists, wins awards, inspires pithy grunts from critics, is made into movies or over-long streaming series, are paid more than any human being has ever earned.

This is rarely the fault of those who write, even if they strut and fret and tell eager interviewers how much they’ve suffered. In truth, the marketplace creates inequalities. I’m almost never paid what my work is worth. Sometimes it’s too much for what was an easy, blissful, effortless tip of the hat. Other times, it’s too little for a chore in which every line was rewritten five times.

Back when I was making a reputation as a lively, competent, trustworthy journalist, I was in an atmospheric Atlantic City tavern with a much older newspaperman who had had a book on the bestseller list gazed up at me over a glass of beer and warned me not to give up my day job.

I fumed: this WAS my day job!

He said, “then you should find something that brings the money in regularly. Because you can make a fortune writing, but you can’t make a living.”

I disagreed then, and disagree now. A day job can rob you of the energy and desire, to do anything but flop on a couch, sip bad wine and watch stupid TV.

You can make a living as a writer, though you can never be certain of how much, or when the checks will arrive. The pressures of meeting financial obligations are sufficiently extreme to interfere with, or subvert, whatever feelings of pleasure or profundity you get from writing. 

I have a karate black belt and used to teach martial arts. One thing teaching teaches teachers is beginners won’t understand some things and may even refused to believe what you’ve learned is true. Students of any endeavor, art or industry must put in time before what they heard from their kindly old teacher makes any sense.

When I taught writing, I gave this bit of what I called “black belt wisdom”:

You don’t write despite your life. You write BECAUSE of it. 

I’ll translate: I’m sure you have many moments when you find your current job frustrating or unfulfilling and you see yourself doing something more worthwhile with a pen, paper or word processor. We all have moments when writing feels like the most important thing, even if no one reads what we’ve done (although it’s very nice when they do and say good things about it!). 

You may even imagine yourself in a nice house, beach bungalow or mountain chateau, with a glass of splendid wine at your side, in a comfy, Architectural Digest profiled chair, facing a view of nature at her most magnificent, with an idea that is blossoming into a trilogy destined to change the course of literature.  Let’s sweeten the fantasy a bit: you’re a well-published author, with prize winning, best-selling work to your credit, and the latest Broadway genius wants to make your book of poems into their next musical!

You just may achieve all of that one day BUT, right now, what you feel is a powerful urge to BE a writer.

Okay. You ARE a writer. Let what you’re experiencing right here, right now, motivate you. Write about what your day job is like. Tell the truth about how it feels to have a career laid out before you like hopscotch squares, and to find it all wanting.

Or write about something totally different. Either way, the words come through you BECAUSE of who you are, right here, right how. If duty calls and you’ve only put so many words down, stop, save what you’ve done and come back to it later. If not….

Let it all begin, now!

Every profession has given us great writers, educators, philosophers, poets. William Faulkner said that “good art can come out of thieves, bootleggers or horse swipes.” As another writer told me, “Whatever happens to you is all grist for the mill.”

Therefore, as Henry James advised, “Try to be one of those on whom nothing is lost.”

My father was a lawyer who was lucky if he read one book a year because he worked so hard practicing law. He wanted me to join his firm and write on the side. I went so far as to take the Law School Admission Test. I tend to get low scores on standardized tests (like most imaginative people, I overthink choices). The LSAT at that time delivered a score called Writing Ability. When my test results indicated my talent ranked somewhere at the bottom, I told myself that any institution that uses such a test to deny access to education, was not for me.

This was not empty bravado: When I took that test I was writing regularly, and publishing often, in newspapers and magazines. I was also working in a supermarket deli, a restaurant and a lamp store to support myself.

Later, when I taught novel-writing at the University of Pennsylvania and other impressive colleges, I’d always get at least one lawyer in the class who wanted to be the next John Grisham or Lisa Scottoline.

When I was a teenager, I wanted to be a science fiction writer. I sought out other writers to see how they lived. I met one who was living in a one-room saltbox-style house. I met another who drove a Cadillac, lived on key-hole shaped peninsula jutting into a Florida lake, in a sprawling house he designed himself with sweeping views of the water. 

I wanted to be that guy with the fancy house! I thought, if he can do it, so can I!

In nearly 45 years of writing professionally, I have yet to publish any science fiction. But I have lived in places with nice views. From my current window, I see trees and the houses of neighbors.

Dreams matter can be like seeds. Not every seed finds soil. Not every seed gets adequate sunlight and water. Not all of them grow or make more seeds.

But, somehow, enough of them do.

You’re a writer now.