The Most Practical, Painful Lesson
What I hated learning most during my journey as an independent author. And it had nothing to do with writing.
Find a day job you can tolerate. Or grow to appreciate. Possibly even love.
That’s the lesson?
That’s not what I want to hear!
At this point, many writers will click out of this post, and I understand why. But I encourage you to read on. By far, it has been the most painful yet practical lesson of my life over the last ten years. The most tragic part of all is that it has nothing to do with writing. At least, not directly.
I will be upfront with you. There will never be “the perfect day job” in the eyes of a highly creative individual. It doesn’t exist. Highly creative individuals don’t want to work in the real world because the real world is ugly and rigid, with all of its boring rules, and we don’t really care about rules. It’s just not important. The perfect day job for people like us is one in which we are well paid to pursue our ideas — and they may not even be good ideas. The real world, which we are all trapped in, does not work that way. We must work a day job we don’t particularly care for, even if it is a relatively “good” day job, in order to keep a roof over our head and food in our bellies. The denial of one or both would illicit abject misery and is forbidden to happen.
I wallowed in the role of “the starving writer” for ten years. My twenties consisted of a gross income that never exceeded $20,000 a year. I wrote Spirit of the King: Revival in a 20’x 20’ converted studio cabin (originally a shed back in the 1940’s) that was located on my landlady’s three acre property. I shopped exclusively at thrift stores. I bought my groceries at Grocery Outlet. I wore vintage clothing. No, I did not own a typewriter, but I did write on a ten-year-old laptop, which, in the digital age of 2015, was a pretty ancient piece of technology.
As a starving writer, I remember dreaming in the back of my mind, “Once I make it as a writer, I can finally escape this life of squalor and live the [quality of] life I really want.” In retrospect, I realize what a stupid, naïve notion this was. Firstly, very few fiction writers actually generate a steady, livable wage from their work. Those that do have been at it for years, if not decades, with numerous books under their belt and readily available in the marketplace. Secondly, I think the majority of successful authors who consistently publish quality work over a period of years may earn enough per year to put a healthy down payment on a house, but this stream of income is not guaranteed. Everyday bills require a reliable day job. (If not theirs, then definitely their spouse’s.)
My starving writer lifestyle was intentional. I made the deliberate sacrifice to remain in low wage jobs for the sake of writing my books. That is, my day job required little to no brain power, therefore I had the emotional and mental energy necessary to write quality prose after work and on my days off. And it worked. I wrote two full length novels.
When I turned twenty-seven, a cold hard fact stared me in the face and I couldn’t ignore it any longer. I was sick of being poor. I had made an enormous socioeconomic sacrifice, all for the sake of my writing, but there were so many other things I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to travel. I wanted to buy a house. A real house. With a foundation and everything. I wanted to live more comfortably, eat better food, afford nice clothes, and know what it felt like to not worry about having enough money for basic needs. Most importantly, I didn’t want to still be working a menial day job by the time I turned thirty. With nothing but housekeeping and retail jobs on my resume, I had backed myself into a corner. It would take an equally great sacrifice to break myself out and into a better paying career field. I would have to set my writing aside for a time, perhaps a year or more, and move to a big city to start my professional life over. (Big cities are good for this; lots of entry level positions available.)
Afraid that I was doomed to vacuum floors and clean toilets for the rest of my life, I moved to Portland, Oregon entirely on faith. I had no job, no connections, and no idea how I was going to make it work. But this was the new sacrifice, one that would not only grant me the quality of life I wanted but hopefully allow me to return to my passion.
During the first three years of my life in Portland, I wrote very little. Very little. Once every three to six months I would dig up the Spirit of the King: Revolution manuscript and tinker with it for a bit, only for the purpose of reminding myself that I was a writer and my dream hadn’t completely vanished. After six months of working a string of craigslist gigs and part-time hospitality jobs, I broke into the legal field as an entry-level legal assistant for a social security disability law firm. At the time, I thought this was as good a career field as any to pursue, so I spent two years earning a Paralegal Degree, during which time I transitioned into the specialized area of criminal law. For the first time in my life, at the age of thirty, I brought in my first $31K working as a court clerk. Two years later, I made yet another huge career leap into public service, where I now sit comfortably and plan to make a lasting career for myself… until I make it as a full-time writer, of course. Wink.
Last year, I grossed more than three times the humble $20k I used to make only five years ago. Of course, I had to set my passion on the back burner and focus my mental and emotional energy on performing well in a variety of challenging work environments in order to promote in the workforce. But in five years, I more than tripled my annual salary. I also have two retirement accounts, full medical, dental, and vision coverage. I also gained a tremendous amount of inner confidence and sense of personal achievement.
Was the sacrifice worth it? I think so. I’m living the quality of life I truly wanted back in my starving writer days, and the ladder-climbing career woman lifestyle was strategic and necessary during a particular season of my life. Both lifestyles were necessary for a time in order to support my passion.
All things considered, is my current day job a good fit for me? Yes. Does it bring me joy? No, not really. Does it allow me to live the quality of life I want to live? Yes. Does it bring a deep sense of personal fulfillment? No, but that’s what my passion is for.
Living the starving writer lifestyle in my 20’x 20’ converted shed isn’t something I look back on with fondness or even nostalgia, but it’s also something I don’t regret. I couldn’t have written the first two books in the Spirit of the King trilogy at any other time in my life. The quietness and solitude I experienced was the perfect atmosphere for penning an incredible story. Noise from a demanding career would have drowned out the quiet calling of these characters and the deep psychological journey in which they found themselves on.
With a tolerable day job career, I don’t have to wait until my books take off in order to live the life I really want. And like a royal cherry on top of it all, the generous income from my day job empowers me to independently publish, promote, and market my work, which is the greatest joy of all.
No matter what area on the creative spectrum you fall, I encourage you to take the time and effort to invest in a day job career you can tolerate, preferably one that makes you a decent amount of money.
When all is said and done, finding a day job that fulfills your needs and supports your passion is all anyone can ask for.
Amy Hay is an independent author of fantasy fiction and seeks to share unique, powerful stories with her readers. Her work has been described as moody, transformative, psychological, and genre bending.
She is the author of the Spirit of the King trilogy and is currently working on her fourth novel.