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How Long Is a Piece of String?

woman typing [1]
Photo by Ben van Meerendonk / AHF collective IISG

Later this week, I will put in my final hours at my day job. For the first time since I was eight years old, I won’t have a job, but I won’t be unemployed. Instead, I’ll be self-employed as a full-time writer. I’m not exaggerating when I say this moment has been more than twenty years in the making. When I decided not to pursue a PhD all those years ago, my reasoning was simple. I wanted to be writer. Not a writer/professor, just a writer. From where I was standing, it seemed to me that working as a secretary was more likely to provide me with the extra time and emotional energy to pursue my writing than working in academia. With that thought in mind, I got the first of several secretarial jobs, and started work on the first of many novels. I took Anthony Trollope as my patron saint. For thirty-three years he supplemented his writing with a paid position in the British Post Office.

There was no fast forwarding through the next twenty years, but for your sake, I will sum up: I worked. I wrote. Slowly, I started selling what I wrote. Some short stories, some essays, then a first novel, then a few more. This year, I reached a tipping point. My writing income exceeded my secretarial income, but more pressing, my writing time exceeded my secretarial time. I was exhausted and burned out. As scary as it was to consider being self-employed, I knew I had to choose. Of course, I chose writing.

Something interesting happened as soon as I submitted my official resignation. People starting coming around to congratulate me, but once the well wishes were offered, most people had the same question: “What are you going to do with all your time now?” I found myself explaining repeatedly that writing takes up just as much time as a regular job, and frequently a lot more. In fact, for the last five years or so, I’ve essentially worked two full-time jobs.

In a good week, I spent forty hours at my day job, and then came home to put in another forty hours on writing and writing-related tasks. Skyping with book clubs, producing newsletters, answering emails, and interacting with readers on social media can really eat up the time. Not all weeks were good, though. All of January and February this year, I worked on a major revision of my next book. My writing time was more like fifty hours a week, plus ten hours for the aforementioned writing-related stuff, all tacked onto the forty hours a week at my day job. I was officially a workaholic putting in hundred-hour weeks.

The funny thing is that every time I explain this math to people, they are shocked. They say, “You write forty hours a week?” or “How long does it take to write a novel?” (A question that has as many answers as How long is a piece of string?) Even my sister, who has witnessed me writing over holidays, beside hospital beds, on weekends, even on the rare vacations I take, was astounded that my writing was already a full-time job, because so much of the work is invisible to other people.

While the question about my time is certainly the most common response I get to my resignation, a surprising number of people say, “You’re living my dream!” The tone of the statement often makes it seem like I have won the lottery, and while success in the arts is so much about luck, you have to do the work to be ready. I started out saying, “Well, I hope your dream comes true, too!” but the treacly sweetness of my well wishes was soon undermined by my curiosity. Was it true? I wondered. Do all these people long to be writers?

Now my standard response is, “What are you doing to make your dream come true?” This has produced a variety of awkward silences and a few tears, but so far no specific answers. I suspect this is owing to two factors. Either the person has not yet thought about what might be required to translate a dream into reality, or they are not yet comfortable talking to other people about their work. I know from experience that it was incredibly hard to confess how much of myself I was putting into becoming a writer, when I knew how few writers ever get to leave their day jobs and focus entirely on writing.

Part of that difficulty is the logistics of such a thing. If you’re like me, you need a job to pay the bills while you try to become a writer, and working eighty to a hundred hours a week is brutal. Not everyone can even find those extra hours, especially if they have children or care for an elderly relative. Some people have to have the guaranteed income of a second job to live. For the first ten years of my double life, I worked twenty hours a week at the writing with absolutely no income from it. By my rough calculations, the advance on the first novel I sold worked out to less than $2 per hour in terms of the time I spent writing it. The arts are so rarely a moneymaking proposition.

When I ask people what they’re doing to achieve their dream, my intent isn’t to shame them for not doing enough, but to encourage them to think about how that question is directly linked to the question of how many hours a week I spend writing.

Too often, as writers, we are surrounded by people who don’t understand how much work writing requires. As a result, they don’t value the work or the time it takes. I have been in relationships with people who were annoyed every weekend I opted to stay home and write. I have lost friendships, because I wasn’t available for events or activities that cut into my writing time. An ex I won’t name once said, “Why are you wasting so much time on what’s basically a hobby?” (Emphasis mine.) When that’s the constant message writers receive, it’s no surprise that we come to question our commitment to a dream that may never come true, or may only partially come true.

Writing is like an unpaid apprenticeship. You work to get better at it, but no one pays you for those years of incremental improvement. For that reason alone, many of the people in your life will undervalue the work that goes into writing. If there’s no income attached, it’s easy to say that’s wasted time and effort. Faced with such doubts and dismissals, it’s up to writers to recognize and value the commitment necessary. We have to claim the time for our work and insist on respect for it. None of that is easy, but if I’m living your dream, I promise you that it’s necessary. Part of my journey to this point involved me declaring that my unpaid work had inherent value, that my writing time deserved the same respect as the forty hours a week I put into being a secretary.

If you’re working toward writing as a career, what are some of the things you do to claim your time and affirm the value of your unpaid work?


About Bryn Greenwood [2]

BRYN GREENWOOD (she/her) is a fourth-generation Kansan, one of seven sisters, and the daughter of a mostly reformed drug dealer. She is the NYT bestselling author of The Reckless Oath We Made, All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, Last Will, and Lie Lay Lain. She lives in Lawrence, Kansas.