I’m Officially Published now, not once but twice over. I now have Professional Fiction Writing Credits. That is amazing and wonderful and I am so proud of myself. It’s also set me thinking about what role writing plays in my life, both professionally and personally.
The ubiquitous dream of aspiring writers like myself is to make enough from your writing to live off of. A measure of whether or not a writer has “made it” is if they’ve been able to quit their day job. The thought of having all day to write at a leisurely pace, of taking an hour out of your day here and there to grant a fawning interview, yes that sounds divine. I think I just assumed that’s what I wanted, too. But I don’t really think it is.
To date I have made a sweet $23.00 off my writerly pursuits—shit, you guys, that’s a whole pizza! Obviously right now I have to keep my day job. I have spent more money on contest entries than I have earned back in sales. But here’s a thought experiment: let’s say one of my books really takes off. Like, it gets Harry Potter huge. What about then? It feels nigh-heretical to me, but I…think I want to keep my day job. I think I need to keep my day job for my own sanity.
Let me lay it out for you. I am the primary breadwinner of a family of four, and one of those four people is a toddler who depends on me for literally everything. I have two partners, both of whom do part-time or piecemeal work. Of the three of us, I am best positioned to get a solidly middle-class salaried position that can keep us afloat both by virtue of social/educational capital and by way of comfort working an office job. I am cool with it, and they are cool with it, too. If I were to tell my partners “hey, y’all, I think I want to give this writing-full-time thing a go, and I’m quitting my day job to do that” I have no doubt at all that they would support me. But life would be a scramble, and it would mean forcing one or both of them into positions where I get to pursue this at the expense of their quality of life. And most of all, it would be unstable.
I grew up in a financially unstable household. I grew up with bill collectors calling and the phone lines getting cut off; the whole nine yards. It is decidedly Not Fun. In my adult life, I have never paid my rent late, not one time, not ever. I am ridiculously conscientious with my family’s finances because I quite literally cannot go back to that kind of financial instability. I would lose my mind. These days, even the thought of not being the one in charge of paying the family bills and making the family budget lands me in a cold sweat. And if I wasn’t the breadwinner, would I have to give up that level of economic control within the family? I would think so. To manage the finances so closely otherwise would feel like overstepping a boundary.
I have an anxiety disorder, and it cozies up to the occasional major depressive episode. One thing that makes my anxiety flare up is financial instability. A couple of years ago, I finished my Ph.D. and went on the non-academic job market looking for a new gig. It was a nightmare. It was hellish. I could barely see straight I was so anxious. I was in danger of bursting into tears at any given moment. I couldn’t sleep. And I had a job while I was looking, which is the best case scenario since it meant I still had an income rolling in. But all those unknowns—what if I get fired if I go to this job interview? If I get that job, where will we live? Should we renew the lease? Should I be looking for jobs in a different area of the country?—those unknowns tore my brain to pieces. In many ways, the process of looking for a new job post-grad school was a time of pure psychological violence for me. Thanks capitalism.
With writing full time, there are no guarantees. There is no salary, no steady and reliable income. There are certainly no health care benefits (and as the only salaried full-time employee in the household, guess where the health care for my spouse and child comes from). Psychologically, I don’t have what it takes to be a starving artist. I crave the routine and stability of a day job. When I was on the job market? I hardly ever wrote fiction. Like most people, I can’t write for shit when I’m too anxious to handle making a sandwich. If I were to quit my job, I would be so obsessed with all the uncertainty of living off my writing that I ironically would probably not actually be able to write. Socially, it’s not really an option either. I have dependents. Starving artists just scraping by should not be doing so with children in tow. That’s selfish. It’s bad parenting.
I also need the balance of doing something other than writing. I need the contact with the outside world going to a job every day gives me. I get all weird when left alone too long. Weird and hermit-y and all Alan Moore-ish. Which, that’s fine for Alan Moore, but I do feel like there is value in being able to competently interface with society at large. I’d like to keep those skills sharpened, and introvert that I am, I am likely to let them go dull and unused without something to prod me to leave my house on the regular.
Besides that, I work in public education, which is something I am as passionate about as I am my writing. I really do need the balance; I love writing, and I fully believe that the act of writing can be radical and transformative and revolutionary. But it’s not the only way to effect change. I like to write my radical and revolutionary fictions and I like to push the education system hard from the inside. I want to have my cake and eat it, too.
My family makes ample space for me to write. I have a working routine, and I produce a lot of content while working full time. I would love to have a bestseller! Shit, it would be pretty sweet to scoop up the Nobel Prize for Literature. Or any prize for literature. But the mercurial and unpredictable life of a full-time writer is not something for which I am cut out. Which begs the question: if success for me is not financial, then what would success look like?