By Jennie Jarvis
I’ve been teaching writing – either via workshops or in a professional institution like at a University – for over 10 years. While my students and the kinds of writing I teach have changed, one thing has always remained the same: I always get asked the same question.
How can I support myself as a writer?
The true answer to this question has already been stated in previous blogs this month – you need to get a day job. The problem with this answer is that it’s the last thing the aspiring writer wants to hear.
Let’s face it; one of the reasons why people dream of writing that Great American Novel (or Great American Screenplay) is because of the lotto mentality. Even though people know the chances are practically non-existent that they will win, they buy the tickets anyway. “Hey, the money has to go to someone right? Why not me???”
This lotto mentality of the writing world makes beginning writers think they could “make it” with their first manuscript, but instead of a Powerball, the thing that brings the riches is that top-notch mass market contract with a six figure advance attached.
Sadly, this kind of mentality comes from the underlying dream that runs our entire country – the American Dream. We are a country founded on the idea that, if you want something and you work hard enough, you are going to get it. This kind of optimism affects every industry in this country, including the financial system. In a recent episode of Last Week Tonight, Jon Oliver even talked about this mentality and how it affects the income gap in American. If you are interested in checking it out, watch the video below.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been teaching a workshop where I try to explain to writers how difficult it is for a screenplay or novel to sell, and someone interrupts me. In each workshop, this mystery person always speaks up and says, “I read this article about this person who sold a million copies as a self-pub author” or “I saw online that an unknown screenwriter sold their script for a million dollars.” Beginning writers LOVE these kinds of stories because they fuel the American dream mentality on which we have grown up.
So when I tell people they need to get a day job to support their writing career, they shut down. They don’t want to hear something so mundane. They want to hear how they can get a day job writing articles or just sit in a coffee shop sipping a cup of Joe while their agent mails them checks for $5 billion. I’ve even had a past student who, right after graduating from college, turned down a part-time paid writing job because it didn’t pay enough for her to live on.
As much as we all want that Dream, the stories we read about are the exceptions to the rule, and it’s much better to realize that the likelihood of our becoming one of those exceptions are about as good as winning the lottery.
I know. I’m a wet blanket. But it’s a hard truth we have to face. Regardless of what kind of writer you want to become, the journey is a long and hard one. That first idea you fall in love with rarely sells, and when you do finally make a sale, it’s usually for a lot less money than you ever dreamed. You have to write because you love to write, not because you want to live off the writing.
And here’s a little secret to help you get through that horrible thing we call reality:
The day job isn’t your career.
So often, people think accepting a day job means they failed. They want to tell people they are a writer, not a receptionist, sanitation worker or bank teller. They are terrified they will fall into their non-creative career and never get out again. For some people, that’s going to be true, but it doesn’t have to be. Not for you at least.
If you want to be a writer, be a writer, regardless of what you do to pay the bills. Writing is your career. Answering phones, bagging groceries or recruiting students for a college is just how you keep the lights on.
Many people think the day job is an obstacle they need to overcome, but changing your mentality about making money is essential if you want to survive. Your day job isn’t standing in the way of you getting to your dream; it’s a ladder you can use to take you to the next level.
“Slaving away” at a day job can give you the funds to buy a new laptop or to attend a writing conference that will help you improve your craft and to meet agents. It gives you the stability you need to know you can afford to eat and still get your writing done. Yes, it may not sound very glamorous, but I can tell you from experience that the easiest way to get writer’s block is by stressing out over money. It’s really hard to write a compelling scene when you aren’t sure where you are going to live. And beyond that, it’s really hard to communicate with agents and publishers if you can’t afford to pay for internet access.
Way back in 2001, one of the best things I ever did to “support” myself as a writer was to accept that a day job was required for my personal and professional success. I accepted a desk job at a university that gave me a steady paycheck but also granted me the time to write after 5pm each day. That job – being an Administrative Assistant for a University Admissions office – didn’t define me. Instead, it gave me the freedom – mentally and financially – to write more than I ever had before. It helped me create a career as a writer.
My career is a writer, regardless of how I pay my bills.
What’s your career… and how do you pay your bills?
#1 by Jess Carson on August 26, 2014 - 9:37 am
I love this post, Jennie! I agree wholeheartedly. I’m currently an aspiring writer for stage and screen but, from 8-5 on Mondays through Fridays, I am a Marketing Specialist for a Telecommunications company.
I found that finding a job that would help me gain crucial skills as an unrepresented writer (marketing, advertisement, public relations, social media, corporate blog management, etc.) AND gives me room to write after 5pm during the week and whenever I want to on the weekends, AND keeps my light on is less of a burden on the “aspiring artist” as people make it out to be.
Yes, it took a lot to get used to having a day job and not being able to work full-time on my writing but, with time, one comes to realize the benefits of being able to support yourself and keep the stresses of not having any money from hindering you as an artist. You’re right – it’s a truth some writers don’t want to hear…but it’s still a very important truth.
And it’s not a bad truth, either. It’s all about perspective. Great post!
#2 by wordimprovisor177 on August 26, 2014 - 11:49 am
Being the type who thinks life is a musical, I still believe in the American Dream. However, it needs to coexist with a healthy dose of reality, as you pointed out, Jennie.
I know that most will never publish that novel that assures financial security for life, and that part of the hard work that goes into achieving even the smallest success is having that daily gig. I appreciate every acceptance, no matter how small the pub, because I know they’re not given out freely.
My writing is less commercial than, say John Grisham, so my odds of hitting it big are even narrower, but I still feel I must cling to some dream, American or otherwise. And having not attempted a novel, we can shrink those odds further. Short story/flash fiction writers who haven’t also written novels, are hardly household names–unless the household is made up of other writers!
When young, beginner or inexperienced writers (or even those who’ve been at it for years) point to the successes of well-known writers, it proves that the “hanging out by the pool taking a meeting with Spielberg while polishing your next Oscar-winning screenplay” type of success can happen. And we all have egos (and vivid imaginations) enough to believe, “Hey, that will be me! Why not? I’m that good!” Whether or not we really are that good, because we all know there are some less than wonderful writers that make it big, circumstances don’t always align in our favor. It can frustrate us or it can motivate us. Many writers don’t comprehend the incredible amount of work–time, research, writing, revising, revising, revising–that goes into writing alone. They see the rewards, but not the rigorous journey.
As for those star-power writers, whose every word turns into an offshore bank account deposit, just look where some of them came from. Look at Stephen King’s life, J.K. Rowling’s situation prior to Harry Potter. Overnight sensations are hardly ever overnight.
I’m off to daydream now…or shall I call it visualization technique. 🙂 Don’t be surprised if I break out in song a la Rogers & Hammerstein! Thanks for the great post, Jennie. Good comment, Jess.
#3 by A. Wrighton (@a_wrighton) on August 26, 2014 - 7:46 pm
So true, Jennie. And I am so honored to have had you when taking my MFA. Seriously, you’re a freaking breath of fresh (reality-kicking) air. You’ve put it spot on.
Me? I work three jobs to keep the lights on and, at the end of the day, I go home exhausted. But you know what? So what? I don’t care how many times I have to explain how many jobs I have and why — because at the end of the day, I still write and get to be creative. I get to tell stories, and that’s ALL I’ve ever wanted to do.
Power to ya! And thanks for writing this!
#4 by Kristen Stieffel on August 27, 2014 - 4:56 pm
I’m guessing that because you mention novels and screenplays, you’re limiting this discussion to fiction writing. Because it is possible (not easy, but possible) to get day jobs as a writer. The catch is those jobs are usually in journalism (zz), advertising (zzzz), or technical writing (zzzzzz).
I made my living as a graphic designer for years, working at a newspaper. Then one day I realized I’m sitting in a newsroom surrounded by people making their living as writers. And I thought — journalism! Why didn’t I study journalism? (Because I thought it would be boring, and to some degree it is — we can’t all be Anderson Cooper.) Neil Gaiman was a journalist for a lot of years, too.
Now I make my primary living (if you can call it that) as a freelance editor. I also do some advertising copywriting and ghostwriting. I briefly considered studying technical writing, but the few editing jobs I’ve had in that area convinced me not to.
#5 by jarviswrites on September 2, 2014 - 3:58 pm
From what I understand, it’s getting harder and harder to get entry level jobs in journalism as well. I know that there are a lot of entry level gigs in writing content for websites, but a lot of writers either don’t think of these kinds of entry levels gigs – or they just don’t want them. You know, because….zzzzzz.
I’ve also seen a lot of unqualified entry level writers make the transition into editing when they really shouldn’t do that. It breaks my heart when I see new writers who can’t construct a sentence of their own charge money to a writer to “edit” for them. I know that isn’t the case with you, Kristen. I know you are more than qualified, but I had to vocalize that while I thought of that.
#6 by Kristen Stieffel on September 2, 2014 - 10:57 pm
It’s a fair cop.
Editing, like agenting, has the problem of no licensing standards, so anyone can hang out a shingle and call themselves one or the other with no justification. 😦
#7 by A Writer With Something To Say on September 1, 2014 - 11:56 am
I am a writer. Although, I have not written anything since I started working at Target. It’s hard working in retail because there isn’t a steady schedule. The pay sucks, but I can pay my cell phone bill every month. I’m looking for another job now. On my days off, I’m usually tired so I don’t write. But, I am going to change all of that. I love how you say,” It keeps the lights on.” That’s true.
#8 by Kristen Stieffel on September 2, 2014 - 10:54 pm
When I was in college, I worked at K-mart and would write scenes during my lunch breaks. Squeeze your writing into whatever time you can find, and don’t give up. 🙂
#9 by JoAnne Silvia on September 4, 2014 - 10:25 pm
But you HAVE written something! You have a blog, right? You just want to write more. I love how you wrote: “But I’m going to change all that.” Best wishes to you, Writer With Something to Say!
#10 by A Writer With Something To Say on September 7, 2014 - 10:40 pm
Thanks so much!
#11 by 007pandas / Nomadic Adventurer on September 7, 2014 - 11:13 pm
I am truly inspired with the knowledge this posting has provided.
I’m an aspiring writer with several creative writing classes I have taken within the past nine months. I’m looking forward to taking many more along with attending writers conferences this fall to learn and discover more about the writing industry as a whole.
In a recent class the young male teacher explained how fortunate we in the class where, since most of us were retirees. He explained how we could enjoy the time to write without the thoughts of a second job to support ourselves, as it is detailed in the posting. His spoke with such envy and glee that I felt truly appreciative of my current status as a retiree.
With the knowledge I’m gaining daily about the writing industry, I’m overwhelmingly appreciative of my fortunate status, and wake everyday knowing how blessed I am. Although, I am not seeking to write the great American novel, I am only just enjoying writing short stories, poetry, reading and blogging.
I will continue to discover and learn all that I can, and maybe one day, I will provide something for all to read and critique.
Thanks so much for the posting, it is truly inspiring.
#12 by jarviswrites on September 11, 2014 - 8:54 am
I’m glad you got something out of it! Keep writing!