To Quit or Not to Quit, That is the Question
January 26, 2016 § 7 Comments
A guest post from Angshuman Das
I remember a book reading several years ago by best-selling British author Jeffrey Archer at a major bookstore chain in Mumbai, India. A new book by him was being released. While speaking of writing, he answered many questions from the audience with charm, authority and wit.
At one point, in answer to a question, he pointed to journalists seated in the front. “If you want to write stories, you should quit your job.” Archer said writers can’t do their best job on producing creative literature if most of their energy has been spent on their day job.
Archer, it seemed to me, could say that with conviction because he was speaking from his position of eminence – and confidence that comes from success. But he is not the only guru who says this. Screenwriting teacher Robert McKee tells aspirants, in his famous book, Story: “You must find a way to earn your living from your writing.” He gives pretty much the same reason as Archer.
To quit one’s job or not – that is the question. Quitting one’s day job is a life-altering decision, like getting married or divorced.
The question begets a whole lot of other questions and issues. To be able to live without a job, writers need to publish their writing and earn enough money from it. But many published writers would say a writer is, well, a writer because she writes. Publishing doesn’t make you a writer, says Robin Black in a recent article in The Review Review magazine. But how does a creative fiction or nonfiction writer earn a livelihood if he is not published? Is quitting a job, then, an option? Yes, if one’s father is in business and he says, “Son, go ahead and chuck that job. You’ve got $50,000 for a couple of years from my kitty to complete that novel.”
For the rest of us, though, such generosity and luck would be a dream. And, yet, it makes sense to devote most of your best energies to your passion, not to your day job.
One the other hand, if you ask other established writers, some of them might say – and you would tend to believe them – that a day job can be an asset to an emerging author. A job teaches you many things; say, for instance, how to conduct yourself in a business or professional setting, or about certain professions and industries or human behaviour in the corporate world. Some writers, like John Grisham, have used this kind of real-world experience to weave fictional stories. Furthermore, some writing advisors say, “See your day job as funding your writing aspiration.”
What, then, is a struggling creative writer keen to pursue his passion supposed to make of this morass of conflicting advice? I have been a communications professional and a business and technology writer for years, and I have been grappling with this question for as long.
Writing itself is difficult – memorable writing, in any case – and being a full-time creative writer is more so. Getting published in even a literary journal is more challenging than getting accepted into Harvard or winning a lottery. Lit mag publishing experts, like editors, would tell you that the acceptance rate for submissions is indeed low. The Antioch Review receives about 4,000 of them a year and publishes less than 1 percent. In 2014, Colorado Review accepted less than 1 percent of a total of 4,809 submissions. For most aspirants, therefore, so much easier would be to get a job at a corporation, which, for instance, would pay $40,000 a year.
Yet, thousands of wannabes keep flooding lit mags, literary agents and book publishers with submissions. The resilience of the literary dream is remarkable.
I have thought about quitting my day job many times. Then, looking at my young daughter’s face, I have demurred. Would I have the luxury to afford mushroom and broccoli? Can I continue to send her to school?
If one has true passion, quitting one’s job is possible as a leap of faith. There have been great writers, like Margaret Atwood, who have decided that creative writing is the only vocation they can pursue. “It simply happened, suddenly, in 1956, while I was crossing the football field on the way home from school. I wrote a poem in my head and then I wrote it down, and after that writing was the only thing I wanted to do,” Atwood says in her writing memoir, Negotiating with the Dead.
Until an emerging creative writer gathers the faith and courage to chuck the security of a regular job, there may be other options. A sabbatical, perhaps? Writing fellowships or residencies? I wish there were more generous foundations and endowments in the world supporting the International Fraternity of Emerging and Prone-to-quitting-day-job Authors and Artists.
Angshuman Das is a writer and blogger based in Kolkata, India. He also works at a day job as a marketing communications professional at an IT company. He is currently a 2016 blogger for Ploughshares journal. In an earlier avatar, he worked as a journalist at newspapers in the United States and India. His writing has appeared on the Ploughshares blog, and in The Hindustan Times, InMamasKitchen.com, and other online publications, including Prairie Wolf Press.