I recently spoke at BinderCon, a writing conference here in New York City (hello to those of you who were there!). I had an amazing experience leading a workshop of full-time writers on how to run a business, but when it was time to take questions, there was one that almost stumped me...
She raised her hand but seemed hesitant to speak when I called on her. She stumbled her way through an introduction; she was well spoken, but nerves were getting the better of her.
“I guess my question is... When does it get any easier? I’m working so many hours, but if I work any less, I don’t think I’ll be able to pay my bills. Is it ever possible to live a normal nine-to-five life as a writer?”
By the time she finished, she was near tears. I completely understood; I’ve been there too. You work and you work and you work, and then you do your budget and cry. There’s a reason writers drink.
One of the hardest parts of working as a creative is bridging the gap between being true to your art while also making a living. We all know that today, writers don't always make the money they used to. You’re either going to have to work longer for yourself or work a regular job and do your creative work on nights and weekends. And with either option, there are only so many hours in the day. No worries! you tell yourself. I’ll just sleep less! Caffeine me up, baby.
But give it ten years and you’ll be standing in a crowd at a writing conference, near tears, asking if you’ve put yourself through a great deal of stress and pain for a career that doesn’t love you back.
I had to pause before I answered her, because I struggled with the same problems myself. That’s the plague of running your own show; you get to do what you do best every single day, which is one of the most fulfilling things in the world, but then you have to work harder than your friends with salaried jobs who get to hang up their hats at the end of the day and get drinks with friends and work out and cook dinner and laugh at TV shows and get to bed at a decent hour. But we’re making art! we tell ourselves. And sure, there’s something to be said for that. But when it comes down to it…is it really worth it?
So I took a minute and thought. I thought about my own life—about how much time I spend worrying about my clients, worrying if I’m doing everything possible to help them bring art into this world. I thought about how I want to do my own writing, yet I haven’t had time to write anything for myself in the last few years.
Then I thought about what my life would be like if I worked a regular nine-to-five job. I’ve been there before, sitting under fluorescent lights, working for a faceless company, getting screwed over left and right, doing nothing creative or fulfilling for my soul.
And you know what? There’s no way in hell I’d do it again.
“No,” I told her. “It’s not always possible to work as a creative for yourself while keeping nine-to-five hours. But why do you want to? Isn’t the whole reason you went to work for yourself so that you could do exactly what you love to do?”
She nodded, conceding the point. But there was more to her problem, and I wasn’t done with her yet.
“You’re a writer; what percentage of the writing that you sell is stuff that you’re passionate about?”
She answered, with pride, that most of the writing she sold was work that she loved.
“Okay, that’s nice and all. But do you think that everyone is always making money from things they’re excited about? No. Not everything can be about your art; you also need a hustle. You need to treat yourself as a business.
“You need to think about how to make a steady stream of money, aka your hustle. That might mean taking a copywriting job where you write for a company once or twice a week. Sure, you’re not that excited about writing boring sales copy. But it allows you to write about the stuff you are excited about.
When I first started my business, my hustle was working with private school kids on their essays. Was it exciting? No. Did it allow me to start my own company and still afford to live in New York City? Hell yes. And to me, that’s more worth it than worrying about making rent or working for a corporation again.”
By this point, the woman was nodding vigorously.
“Diversify; that’s honestly the best thing you can do,” I told her. “Don’t put all of your eggs in one basket. Your hustle doesn’t have to do with writing if you have another lucrative skill, but whatever it is, find and build it into your business. Once you do, you’ll relieve the pressure to sell everything you’re passionate about just to make ends meet. You’ll have options, leeway, wiggle room. Stability.”
I’ll let you in on a secret: Most professional authors have day jobs. Even the well-known ones. I remember one fairly well-known author I edited while I was with one of the largest publishing houses in New York; she worked as an administrative assistant during the day. Looking back, I realize the wisdom in that decision; by not giving up her day job, she made sure that her “business” as a writer had longevity. As her book’s sales grew, she could have left her job and dedicated herself solely to her art. But by not doing so, she took the pressure off and kept her art fun.
Ultimately, you have to do what works for you, whether that’s working as a full-time writer with a side hustle or a nighttime writer with a day job. Whichever you choose, know that you can live a good life as both a writer and someone who can put food on the table. You might have to hustle a little harder, but then again, I’m guessing you didn’t decide to become a writer because it was easy.