I received an anonymous message the other day that is not all that unlike so many other messages I’ve received since I first started blogging. It reads:
”My parents always urged me not to become a writer. “Oh but, you need something that brings food on the table,” “I won’t be paying your bills,” “No one guarantees your success” stuff like that. I’m 18, about to enroll to uni for a degree I kinda sorta like and see myself liking more in the future. But I still want to write. And my parents’ patronizing always stops me, even if they aren’t there, I can’t develop a story further because I feel like I’m not good enough. I truly just want to write. Help.”
I want to help, but I think most young writers don’t fully understand the truth about writing as a career path. I know I had heard it several dozen times before I graduated. It didn’t once sink in until I realized, Oh wait, I need to make a living. I am not writing this to dash anyone’s dream, but maybe shed a little light on what it’s like to be a writer before it can become a sustainable career.
From the time I was about twelve years old, I’d been saying I want to be an author. I wanted to write great, amazing books that would become bestsellers and land me in history books. And as I got older, that dream didn’t exactly die. My expectations became a bit more realistic, but I still thought when I graduated college I could check a box somewhere, declare myself as writer and somehow live comfortably enough to write my books for the rest of my life. Really, I knew it wasn’t quite that simple, but I thought it would be easier.
It’s not easier. With writing, I learned, until your writing can support you, you’re going to need to have something else to help you get by. It was initially really hard to explain that to people, to friends, to my sibling, to my parents. You can work at it for years and never have any success. It’s a career-path that for the most part relies on you having some other way to support yourself for awhile.
When I say that, I don’t mean that you can’t make money writing. That’s simply not true. I write for my job. It is how I have an income. You can make money writing. It’s just important to note it’s not the same as becoming an author right away. Writing your novel takes time. Publishing your novel takes kind of a long time too. Those a tough years and for most people, it means finding a job that allows for you to have time to really work on your writing.
Almost every writer I’ve ever met has had to take up a day job at some point before achieving some level of acclaim and success. This should not be something to be ashamed of. Every writer I’ve ever heard of has been something else before they could write full-time. Stephen King had to teach high school. J.D. Salinger was an activities director on a cruise ship. Jack Kerouac took up so many different odd jobs, it’s hard to keep track of what he was exactly. Margaret Atwood was a barista. I heard from somewhere Nicholas Sparks used to wait tables and sell dental products over the phone. Everyone had to start somewhere.
So, again, I don’t mean to sound discouraging. Writing is a career that take a long time to work towards. It’s not easy and it takes a lot of seriousness and commitment. It may mean taking up odd-jobs to get by, but that’s not always a bad thing. Authors like Rainbow Rowell, Neil Gaiman, and Suzanne Collins were “writers” even before their bestsellers, as respectively, a columnist, a freelance writer, and a children’s TV show writer. You can become a writer no matter what you end up doing – even if you’re like me and want to do nothing else but write. I’m a writer now. I do a lot of freelance work. It might not be a the kind of writing I want to be known for, but just like any great writer, I’m working at it and maybe I’ll get there one day.
My word of advice, for everyone who has been asking, don’t think taking up a day job means ending your writing career. It’s something that almost every writer I love has had to do. One exception might be Edith Wharton – she was born an heiress, but outside of her prosperous career as a writer, she designed home interiors and gardens. I guess even she had a day job. If you want to write, don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t. You can make a commitment to writing even if it’s not the only thing you do.