When You’re Told to Quit Your Day Job

Like most people who aspire to write or edit for a living, I have to contend with my regular job taking up most of my time and resources, and fitting writing in, around the edges of my day. Monday through Friday, I get up and drive an hour to my job in an office. There, I sit behind a desk and type stuff, talk to people, go to meetings and do other job-related things, and at 5pm, or sometimes 5:30pm, I get back in my car and drive home.

Somewhere on this desk, there's a book I'm writing.
Somewhere on this desk, there’s a book I’m writing.

But the most common piece of bad advice consistently given to new writers and freelancers with other jobs (myself included) is some variation of this:

“If you want to be a real writer, a really good writer, you should quit your day job. You can’t be a real writer until writing is the only thing you do.”

I don’t know about you, but I have a mortgage, car payment, student loans and a husband who depends on my steady income, just as I depend on his, to keep this whole business afloat. Unless life intervenes and I lose my job, I’m not going to quit, and if you don’t want to, or can’t swing it, you shouldn’t either. But that’s not really my point.

The perception that there’s a chasm of talent between writers who write full-time, and writers with non-literary occupations (parenthood, government work, an office job), has done more to dissuade talented people from following what feeds than than any real impediment or commitment ever has.

Which is too bad, because it isn’t true. The Huffington Post has a fantastic slideshow on the unlikely day jobs of some of our greatest literary minds, like Douglas Adams, who devised The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy while working as a security guard, or T.S. Eliot, who worked behind a desk in corporate finance. In case you need more proof, head over to the Publisher’s Weekly blog, where you can learn about William Carlos Williams, who never quit his job as a doctor even as he wrote some of the 20th century’s most winsome poetry, or Herman Melville, who held nearly every conceivable laboring job available in 19th century America.

No, you tell Herman Melville he's not a real writer. I'll wait. Back here.
No, you tell Herman Melville he’s not a real writer. I’ll wait. Back here.

The next time you hear of the inferiority of writers who can’t live on the commune, or take a year off to backpack through the Chilean Andes, remember that by those standards, Kurt Vonnegut, who opened and ran the first Saab dealership in Cape Cod, MA, wouldn’t have measured up.