Don’t Quit Your Day Job (But Not Why You Think)

Many writers dream about being able to write full-time, to commit themselves entirely to their art, cast off the shackles of the 9-to-5, leave their office cubicles behind for a cozy corner table at the coffee shop. But we’ve also heard the advice: Don’t quit your day job.

This advice also serves as a punchline: Someone sings off-key, asks for an opinion, and someone cracks the joke, “Don’t quit your day job.” The implication is you aren’t as good as you think you are, and it would be foolish to give up your steady paycheck and health insurance to follow your passions. But what about when you are good enough? Say you’ve sold a novel, maybe even three, and people are paying you for your writing. Well, the advice probably still holds. Everyone has to do that math for themselves, but in general, money from publishing is unpredictable, so unless you have a second source of income, or your deal was really that good, or at least in the short-term it makes better financial (and personal sense–see JJ’s excellent post last week), better hold onto that day job.

I have quit my day job before and done the freelancing thing while working on a book under contract, but that’s not what this post is about. It’s about the value of a day job aside from the considerations of a stable income. It’s about valuing yourself.

People often define themselves by what they do. When you meet someone, they want to know how you make your living. As a writer, for a long time, that meant I told them whatever my current job was (not writing) with the addendum, “But in my free time, I write fiction.” At some point, after selling some books, the narrative switched. “I’m a writer, but for my day job…” It just so happens that for the last six years, my day job has also been writing and editing, so that generally works out well.

I just started a new day job this month, and I’ve been amazed at how much I love it already. It turns out that despite the challenges, I do like working in a fast-paced environment with daily fires to put out and big responsibilities for a mission I believe in, and high stakes that can also have a large payoff. Sometimes I feel like I’m Sam Seaborn on The West Wing. I work with a terrific team of people who are all interesting and fun and smart, and essentially, this job is giving me something that the solitary writing life, the business of publishing, and parenting doesn’t. And it turns out I’d missed it.

A job can get in the way of writing, just as writing can get in the way of a job; consider all those missed opportunities to have lunch with coworkers because I was hunched over a laptop in the cafe or holed up in my office. But lately I’ve been giving this some thought, and publishing is a tough business, no matter where you fit into it: new author, midlist author, seasoned veteran. It can be extremely fulfilling, but it can be frustrating and downright harmful if you let it. The bar for success keeps moving higher, and it may be difficult to be satisfied in the face of others’ success or your own setbacks. (Speaking purely hypothetically here, asking for a friend, of course.)

So what happens when you are writing full-time, but maybe things aren’t going so well? Your last book’s sales aren’t hot, you haven’t sold a new manuscript, you haven’t written anything in weeks, months, years… Who are you? When someone asks, “What do you do?” do you feel like a writer? Do you feel like a failure?

So much of our identity is caught up in what we do, how we want to define ourselves, and how others try to define us. Unless you’re one of those lucky people who loves your day job, so much so you might even do it for free, I think we all need another outlet–something we do for ourselves, perhaps that part of us that we don’t want anyone else to know about, or reflects who we really are or want to be. But if you’re making your living at that creative pursuit, I think you need something else too: a hobby, volunteer work, a part-time job, or hey, why not a day job?

Keeping your day job “on the side” (hopefully one you like or enjoy), means you aren’t solely defined by a writing career with all its ups and downs. It keeps you busier, no doubt, but it also gives you something else to care about other than your word counts, those Goodreads reviews, award nominations, or your Amazon rank. Your boss and coworkers and clients don’t care about that stuff, and you don’t have the luxury to think about them either for at least eight hours a day. No matter how that new manuscript is going (or isn’t), or how much money your writing is bringing in, you have other pursuits, another role, and other aspects of your personality and identity. You are a whole person, not a career. You can be a writer, a parent, and whatever it is you do from 9ish to 5ish.

And if that isn’t enough, getting a paycheck every couple of weeks does feel pretty good. Despite another piece of old, good advice, you actually can buy some happiness…


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