To Quit or Not to Quit, That is the Question
January 26, 2016 § 8 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.
Excellent article! Thank you!
Even more to consider is the danger to one’s health that can occur when remaining in a job that is deeply unsatisfying, causing a chronic trapped, panic feeling and leading to depression. A creative writer’s life can be destroyed by accepting only the option of staying in that day job because of the pay and benefits. Sometimes we feel we have no choice, and perhaps sometimes we really do not. But one should weight all options very carefully.
I’m totally with you! Before I had a child, I was mostly a contractor and walked away from jobs for the slightest reason. I’ve left various times to pursue a singing career, travel, or basically just because I was bored and didn’t know WHAT I wanted to do. Now that I know I want to write, it’s basically too late to take this risk. My husband and I both earn very average incomes in our day jobs, and pretty much live week to week at the moment, and my salary pays the mortgage. I have too many responsibilities to just walk away anymore – but as a result, i can only write at night, when my son is asleep and I’m tired. It’s definitely a struggle!
I like to remind myself that Toni Morrison wrote The Bluest Eye as a full-time editor at a publishing house and a single parent of two boys. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was written at the kitchen table while her husband had a quiet study shut away from his large family. Woolf was wrong about what mothers can do without money and a room of our own. But no one would say it is easy. I am not even sure “easy” is a good thing.
It’s a trade-off, that’s for sure. To make a living as a writer means selling at least enough to cover your expenses. For you to sell your work, someone must be willing to buy it. Are you willing and able to write what enough people want to buy? Can you keep producing salable work year after year after year? If you write for a living, writing becomes your job. You might not be able to “write what you want to write,” which seems to be the dream of many writers who want to write for a living. Plenty of writers make a good chunk of their income from writing-related activities such as teaching, leading workshops, and public speaking. Many full-time writers have partners with steady incomes, or family money. If you’re single and self-supporting, watch it.
I’m single and (barely) self-supporting as a freelance editor. Writing is my avocation. I’ve known pretty much all along what it was important to write what I needed to write, not what would sell, because I’m not willing to write for “the market.” Keep this in mind too: your day job, whatever it is, is keeping you grounded in the real world. It’s keeping you involved with real people. It’s giving you things to write about that may not occur to the writers who write for a living. Quit your day job if you must, but don’t feel you have to in order to be a “real” writer.
Sent from my HTC
Thanks to all those who have posted reactions. BTW, after the publication of my blog post, I read a tangentially related article in Dissent magazine: “Who Pays Writers,” at https://www.dissentmagazine.org/article/who-pays-writers-welfare-state-literaturet. Interesting!
Correct URL: https://www.dissentmagazine.org/article/who-pays-writers-welfare-state-literature. Sorry for the typo.
[…] few years ago, I faced an existential dilemma: whether to accept a new job I wasn’t keen on or to liberate myself from the world of jobs and be a full-time writer. I had been agonizing over this question for days. I became conflicted […]