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Quit Your Day Job

image by Kate Haskell [1]
image by Kate Haskell

I have long been an advocate for not writing full-time.

Spoiler alert: I still am.

There’s a great deal of pressure in both directions. We all get romanced by the notion of the full-time writer’s life: wake up in the morning with nothing to do but write? Sounds amazing. But, modern society working as it still does on capitalist principles, we need money coming in, which is hard to come by early on in a writer’s career.

So, quit the day job to force yourself to produce? Or keep the day job, and risk neglecting your creative self, to the point where you might stop producing altogether?

As I started by saying, I’m an advocate for the day job. A month after completing my MFA, I started working full-time as a marketing proposal writer, and I’ve been working full-time all [mumblety-mumble] years since. Would I produce more fiction if I didn’t have so many hours of my life dedicated to writing the corporate stuff? You bet. Would I also be a huge drain on our household finances, resulting in pretty lousy trade-offs not just for me, but also my husband and two kids? Yeah. That’s the thing.

So why didn’t I call this post “Don’t Quit Your Day Job?” Because you aren’t me. It makes complete sense for me to keep working full-time, since it provides financial stability for my family, my boss is understanding if I need time off for retreats or book tours, my publisher’s timeline for new books doesn’t stretch me to the breaking point, and yes, I also really enjoy the work I do.

Your situation may be completely different. But you should still look at it logically and not emotionally. It’s a business decision, after all, and not just a creative one.

If all of the conditions below are present, quitting your day job to write full-time may in fact be the right option for you.

You don’t need the money. I hate keep harping on money, but life without it isn’t much fun. “Do what you love and the money will follow” is a delightful fallacy. If you have a spouse whose income can support both of you, or you live alone very frugally, and can take the money out of the equation, that is super-awesome. If not, don’t abandon work altogether. Consider part-time work or freelancing, maybe, but don’t put your life on credit cards. It’ll haunt you.

You’re already making a solid living from your writing. This doesn’t mean that you’ve sold a novel. It probably doesn’t even mean that you’ve sold two novels. Three might be the sweet spot, if your advances are large enough and sales are strong enough that you have reason to believe you can sell and write a book a year for the next, say, 10 years. Similarly, if you’re self-publishing, make sure you’re at a sustainable level – were there any conditions that helped you sell a lot initially that might change? Can you switch it up and start writing something different if the current type of writing you’re doing stops selling so well? It’s not just an issue of what’s in your bank account now, but whether you can keep it going for five, 10, 15 years, or more.

Another job at the same level would be easy to get. If you live in a big city and you’re thinking about quitting your job at Starbucks, it seems likely you’d be able to get another barista job a few years down the road if you change your mind about the full-time writing thing. If you’re a cardiothoracic surgeon at the only hospital for miles? That’s different. Writing careers are like restaurants: you never want to think yours will fail, but unfortunately, most do. Be as clear-eyed as you can about your chances to re-enter the workforce if you need to.

If you can afford it, your career is underway, and you can replace the job a few years down the line if needed, then yes. Leave that job behind, and make yourself a full-time writer. If not? Console yourself with the good company we’re in [2]: William Faulkner, T.S. Eliot and Toni Morrison.

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About Jael McHenry [3]

Jael McHenry is the debut author of The Kitchen Daughter [4] (Simon & Schuster/Gallery Books, April 12, 2011). Her work has appeared in publications such as the North American Review, Indiana Review, and the Graduate Review at American University, where she earned her MFA in Creative Writing. You can read more about Jael and her book at jaelmchenry.com [5] or follow her on Twitter at @jaelmchenry.