Thursday, June 19, 2014

Where the grass is greener: Writing full time versus squeezing it in with a day job

Hello again, Igniteers. It's Stephanie, and today I am going to talk about writing full-time versus juggling writing with another job (or two).

Everyone has heard the expression "the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence." And everyone knows that this isn't necessarily true - the people on the other side of the fence envy your grass, too. Nonetheless, it's hard, sometimes, not to look across that fence with longing. Cliches become cliches sometimes because they bear a kernel of truth.

And this particular cliche may have unique meaning for writers. Those of us who work full time at other demanding jobs imagine it must be quite the life to be able to devote oneself to writing all the time (at least all the time that we're not chasing kids or running errands or working on promoting/selling books). I know that most of the time when I get the rare half hour to sit down to my work-not-much-in-progress, I have to remind myself what the hell it was I was writing weeks or sometimes a month ago. I know I should write something everyday but that's just not always possible.  So after an unintended break,  going back to writing can be  kind of like going to a family reunion when you have amnesia. I look at the pages I've written and ask myself about the characters Who are these people? What am I supposed to be doing with them? When I am knee deep in my "day job", I'll write down plot points and ideas on scraps of paper, but often when I go back to the notes they might as well be written in Sanskrit for all the sense they make to me. Sometimes, I confess, I get so frustrated, so defeated, I just give up trying to write  and read a book. And then the book makes me wish I were writing.  

This summer, for the first time in years, I have a month off before I have to get back to teaching again and before my kids get out of school, and to a very large extent, I have dwelt in the writers's paradise I imagined full-time writing would be. I get up, check my email, take the kids to school, work on the blog or more email, then go for a four-mile walk during which I come up with tons of ideas. And then I write until I have to stop. Now that my brain is free to focus on one "job", writing,  I have even come up with ideas for all of the other stuck plots from old works in progress that I let die on the vine because I didn't have time to focus on them.

I won't lie. It feels really good.

But I'm not sure it would feel so good if writing really were the only job I had to focus on. I know that it would at least feel different.

There are some advantages to being a "part-time" or squeeze-it-in writer, not the least of which is that if I am feeling really exhausted or overwhelmed, I can take a day off and watch bad movies on TV. I try not to do it, but unless I have a deadline with my publisher, the only one who suffers from my retreat form work is me. And I don't have to worry a lot of about profit from the books, and if my family were relying on my writing income to pay the mortgage and eat more than a can of beans at mealtimes, we'd all be in need of some charity.  The checks that come with the sales, admittedly, have only bought me some copies of my books to give away in contests and a couple of shirts from this amazing consignment shop in East Windsor, Connecticut. I can't quit my day job. But I can write more or less what I want and that is a blessing. I cringe every time a full-time writer tweets their word count for the day, but I don't have to worry as much about establishing and maintaining a brand or writing what people expect me to write. Sometimes lower (or no) expectations are a good thing.

Among the Indie Ignites ladies, ST Bende and Adrianne James are "squeezers" like me - we squeeze in writing at night and on weekends. As Adrianne puts it, "I had planned on being a full time writer, but life happens, ya know? I wish I had more writing time, but I just don't. Bills are important and if the books aren't making enough to cover them something has to." Our full- timers include JC Emery and Nazarea Andrews and I asked then: Is the grass any greener on their side?

Nazarea says that she's always wanted to be a writer but now that she is, she doesn't always want to get to work any more than anyone else does with any other job. She "schedules" laziness, you guys. 
More importantly, she feels the pressure to write for her audience. She says, "I don't always write what I WANT to write but I do write what I think will sell because this is my profession and I need to make money, so what sells matters more than I want [it to]. I'm happy that sometimes the two line up. But it isn't all coffee shops and lazy glasses of wine waiting for inspiration. If I did that, I would never publish."I empathize with the first concern - much as I would like to have a market or a readership to claim as my own, without one I can write what I want (as long as someone is willing to represent or publish it). And that second concern - it's not all wine and inspiration - is the reality for any writer. Sometimes you have to write even if you don't feel like it, and for the squeezer, sometimes that feels like "Okay, this is my forty minutes to write for the week so make it count. Go!!!"
JC admits that the pressure of being a full-time writer can take the "passion" out of writing. She says the "biggest difference" between writing full time and "squirreling away" the hours to write between work and life is the "change in mentality." "Now it's a job," she says. "Now it comes down to . . .[the fact that] financially this has to be a profitable business. It almost takes the fun out of it." She's quick to add that it is "wonderful to be a full-time writer" but writing used to be something she did for "fun", "specifically for" her. When she told me that she misses the fact that she "got to take [her] time with it" before writing was her day job, that really resonated for me. Sometimes I look at output like JC's and other full-timers I know and feel like the biggest sloth in the world. It takes me literally years to write a book, in part because I'm not writing everyday but also because I think that that is how my brain works, like one of those old-fashioned coffee percolators. the pressure they're under to get that manuscript pub-ready yesterday.
When I'm finally writing it seems sometimes like the ideas just pop up unbidden but they don't, really; the ideas  have been percolating for years sometimes and rise to the surface when ready. Full-timers don't have that luxury. I have the advantage of percolation time. For example, last month I contacted my editor and asked for another month to keep working on a book the publisher had already accepted. If I had a stricter publishing schedule, I wouldn't have been able to do that - and I would have given them a book I didn't feel was ready. I'm not saying that any of my full-time writers friends would ever do that, but I can appreciate the pressure they're under to get writing done quickly.

So, if you are in the position to have your choice of the writing life, full-timer or squeezer, which would you choose? What would be your dream scenario of the writing life? Let us know in a comment below.

Happy reading and writing!


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