Like many writers, I have a day job. I’ve been asked a few times whether I’d like to write full-time or (put it another way) why I haven’t given up the job now I’ve got a book deal. The answer varies a fair bit depending on my mood and the time of day, but the three main reasons why I don’t write full-time are:
1) I’m quite risk-averse. (I’m a lawyer by day. This is very common amongst bookish Malaysians whose parents want them to be able to cari makan.) Sadly, having one book deal is no guarantee that I would ever get another.
2) I quite like having a day job. Mine is interesting, well-paid and well-regarded, jokes about killing all the lawyers aside. I am good at it and like my colleagues.
3) I’m not sure I’d actually like writing full-time.
That last might need some explanation, given how
maniacally invested “passionate” I am about writing. (I’m not an obsessed loser! I’m a passionate millennial!)
To be happy in your career you need three things.
1) Autonomy: You have power to decide what to do, when to do it and how to achieve your goals. You’re going to have to do things that aren’t really your choice in any job, but it’s a spectrum. Pretty much nobody is going to be happy in a job where they have to ask permission to go to the loo.
2) Expertise: You’re good at what you do.
3) Meaning: There’s a point to what you’re doing.
People think writing full-time is great because there’s a ton of autonomy — you don’t need to be in the office or on the shop floor by 8 am or to still be there by 6 pm; nobody’s telling you what to write or how to write it — plus meaning, because making things is inherently meaningful. With expertise, they assume that once you’ve been published, that has been established. Taken that way, it looks a lot better than most jobs.
And don’t get me wrong, writing for money is very nice in a lot of ways. But depending on your circumstances, it can look a lot like any other job. Because if you want to keep getting work, you are going to have to submit to restrictions. So if I’m sent proofs to review on Friday evening and told they’re needed back by Sunday evening, that’s my weekend gone because I am going to get that done. That’s a willing acceptance of a curtailment of my autonomy, and nobody cares if I take an hour or two off from the task to go for a walk or have dinner, but it’s still, you know, a weekend gone. I don’t get overtime pay or days in lieu for doing a rush job — it just comes with the territory.
That’s one hit to autonomy. Other hits are: nobody is telling you what to write, but maybe you wrote a book and you love it so much and you send it around and nobody bites, so it’s back to the drawing-board and you have to try something different. Maybe you’ve planned a ten-book series that is going to be your magnum opus, but the first book flops so nobody wants to buy the other nine, and you have to move on to other ideas. Maybe you’ve been invited to write something for an anthology and it’s really not your bag, but you want to work with the editor and be published with that press, so you make it work.
So autonomy can be moderated. But actually my main problem with the idea of writing full-time — why I think it might not be great for me (of course everyone is different and so what works for them will be different) — is the issue of expertise.
I think most people like to feel that they are good at something and that they are contributing to the world. But few of us are so serenely convinced of our worth that we feel no need for external validation that we are good at the things we would like to be good at. In a (decent) regular job, you get regular reinforcement that you are good at things and useful to your fellow humans. You get a paycheck. You do stuff and there is visible evidence that it has been done and was of use to someone else, whether it is a piece of legal advice that helps someone run their business, or some calls you made and emails you sent which helped a meeting take place. You might even have performance reviews from time to time.
When you write fiction, the amount of validation you get in terms of external signifiers might have very little to do with how good the fiction is. There are a lot of bad bestsellers, and many classic works of literature whose authors were not recognised in their lifetime. So you already know there are no reliable fixed measures of worth, and frequently there is not an obvious direct relation between the rewards of a writing career and the amount of effort you put in. (Tobias Buckell wrote a really good post on this called Writers and pellets, which I remind myself of whenever something bad happens in my writing career — and something good.)
Even as a published writer the reinforcement you get that your work is wanted is relatively infrequent. You get a contract. You go away and hide in a cave and write the thing you’re contracted for. Around a year later, you emerge from the cave and show the thing you’ve written to whoever contracted you for it. Even if they like it (and they might not!), that’s a year without much certainty that what you’re working on is worth the time and effort you’re putting into it. You don’t know if it’s any good, if you’re any good, or anything.
All you can put your faith in is meaning: the work itself is meaningful. The process is worthwhile. Hard work won’t betray you.
Personally, I like being told on a fairly regular basis that I’m doing a good job, so it works for me to have a role where once in a while I am forced out of my cave to do something other than stare at a blank page until the drops of blood come. I also like getting out of the house and seeing people, which my job requires of me, so that’s a plus. In the circumstances, I think it’s better for my writing and my general well-being that I have another career.
Of course, the circumstances may change. And my choices do mean that I am pretty busy! I’ll talk about how I balance things in my next post in this series. In the meantime, here is your daily reminder of my CYBERPUNK: MALAYSIA giveaways! Enter for a chance to win a book of short cyberpunk stories set in Malaysia!
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