Last week, my SCBWI Carolinas chapter sparked an important and honest discussion of the various ways that people financially support themselves as writers. Their stories ranged from balancing full-time jobs, parenthood, and eking out early morning writing time, support from spouses, writing after retiring, and some, after many years of invested time and multiple publications, who were able to support themselves with just writing. They shared this article of a writer’s full disclosure of relying on spousal support. Among all of these stories, there was a consensus. It’s tough to pay the bills with writing alone.
It just so happened that the same week this discussion blew up, I received my first ever advance (YAY!). Don’t worry, I won’t quit my day job. By which I mean day jobs. I have five. But I thought that I would add my own story to this healthy conversation that brings clarity to writing as a career and dispels the myths that writing generally leads to typing on an antique typewriter whilst sporting silk robes in your Swiss chalet. Although maybe one of these days I’ll come back and un-bust that myth…
I wrote a story on a whim that I submitted to a couple of children’s magazines on an even bigger whim. Spider Magazine shockingly accepted it at a time when I was feeling disillusioned with trying to make “saving the world” into a viable career. I decided that the time was right to come back to my childhood dream of becoming a children’s book writer.
After the incredible luck I had with Spider, I decided to try my hand at writing for one whole year, and if it didn’t seem like it was going anywhere, I would step onto a more solid career path. With that addendum, my family was very supportive.
So I took a part-time job bussing tables, and I wrote for a year. Then I wrote for three more years. It still wasn’t going anywhere. But my part-time jobs were.
During these four years of trying to make it as a writer, I moved through part-time jobs that grew closer and closer to my heart, becoming jobs that I would hope to be involved in even if I could afford that Swiss chalet. They allowed me to pay my bills and still find time to write, but they did much more than that, too.
For one thing, they provided me with a safety net. If I threw in the towel on writing while bussing tables, I would also throw in the rag that I was wiping crumbs with and have to start fresh. But working jobs that I loved gave me something to believe in those times when I didn’t believe in my writing. It took some of the pressure off of my writing, and so I wrote more and better.
Loving my jobs also gave me confidence. It was hard spending so much time at a job that paid my bills but was unfulfilling (and yes, I know how lucky I am to be able to choose fulfilling work!). It was hard telling people that I was bussing tables and trying to make it as a writer. But telling people that I taught kids creative writing and art and Spanish and that I was a writer? That felt great. And so I told people more and more.
It was working one of those part-time jobs that I love and putting myself out there as a writer that led to the fortuitous circumstances of my picture book contract. I still haven’t “made it” as a writer. Not even close. And that chalet? Well, let’s hope I have enough saved up to pay my taxes this year. And I don’t have a family yet or a house or big medical expenses, so I know it will get harder. But just making ends meet by teaching kids creative writing and art and Spanish and writing is by far the happiest I’ve ever been in my work.
Among all those stories of the various ways writers support themselves, I said that there was a consensus, but actually, there are two. It is tough to pay the bills with writing alone, but there are ways to make it work. And if you’re not in it for the money, but for the love of writing, then being a writer really does pay.