Friday, February 10, 2012

Work? Nah, I'm Just a Writer.

by Kristina Wright

I have not had a full-time job in over 20 years. I have, however, had a series of part-time jobs, some of which were in the 30+ range, some of which were concurrent with other jobs. I have also been a part-time student and a full-time student pursuing both Bachelor and Master's degrees. Over the past two years, I've been become a mother twice over. In the midst of all the jobs and education and babies, I've been a writer since forever and an anthology editor since 2009.

The lack of a full-time job makes me seem like a slacker to many, including myself. I take my writing seriously, but those who don't write have no concept of how I spend my time. Or that it truly is work. This might explain my driving need to say yes to every project, every contract, every opportunity. The truth is, I'm extremely lucky and very grateful that I don't have a full-time job. I am able to write, to edit, to spend time with my babies. My schedule is flexible and fluid-- and that often translates into me working at 1 AM, as I have more than one night this week, because I have a part-time babysitter and full-time writing and editing commitments.

Just because writing is my calling, something I would do even if I won the lottery (which, to be honest, I feel as if I've won by being able to write), it is still work. It is hard, laborious, exhausting, disappointing, frustrating work. I could walk out of the coffee shop right now and find a job where I would work less and make more. Hell, I don't even have to leave the coffee shop. I could work behind the counter and make more. That's the truth. But we're not talking about our writing work this week, we're talking about the work that pays the bills. And I'm afraid I don't have much to say on the topic. I'm also afraid the people I respect the most-- the authors on this blog, my writing friends who work just as hard at I do and also have "real" jobs-- won't respect me.

Here's the truth that both motivates me and embarrasses me: I don't have to work. I don't have to earn a penny this year or next. Maybe sometime in the future I will need to put all of this education and knowledge to real use at a real full-time job with real work hours, but it will be after my husband retires from the military. It hasn't always been this way, but his 25 year career provides a comfortable life for us, even with babies. I am lucky we don't require a second income. Certainly, we could spend the money if I made it, if writing and editing were more lucrative than they really are or if I suddenly lost my mind and decided to be an accountant or a nurse or a retail manager-- anything that pays better than writing fiction, which is pretty much everything. But our bills are paid, there's money in savings and college funds and we are reasonably happy with the stuff that we have. In fact, we probably have too much stuff by some standards. We don't currently need the money of a second full-time career and I don't want to be away from my babies 40+ hours a week or forced to sacrifice my precious writing hours in order to buy more stuff.

So. That's my secret, which isn't so secret because most people know where I am on most weekdays--and it's not in an office. My work ethic is such that I would never be comfortable not working, but how I define work is not dictated by a paycheck. Don't get me wrong, I'm not the type to do without everything in order to pursue my writing. But I am lucky enough to be able to choose the things I enjoy over the things that pay the most. It is something I am grateful for on a daily basis. Saying I don't have to work is not the same as saying I don't do anything, though there are those who may look at my life and think I've got the cushiest deal around.

My lack of a full-time job is a conscious decision. I choose (we choose) a lifestyle that is conducive to a single income. Sure, I make money writing and editing-- sometimes I'm pleasantly surprised by a royalty check-- but anyone who has ever done this writing gig knows you can't count on it. Contracts dry up, markets turn fickle, editors have babies and retire... there are no guarantees. Our lifestyle is not extravagant, nor is it impoverished. I am not a starving writer, not matter how much street cred that title would give me. (If any.) We are solidly middle class. I drive a 20 year old car I love, but a new one would be nice, too. But not having a car payment is nicer. And not having to work at a job I only tolerate is nicest of all. We bought our house over a decade ago, before the housing market boomed. Our mortgage is reasonable-- and less than friends who've bought smaller homes in recent years. We considered moving before we had children, to a bigger/older house in a funkier, more urban neighborhood. I balked at the inflated prices and the knowledge that a substantially higher mortgage would provide us with what we already had, just more of it. So my income is discretionary, a nice cushion for those months we come up short (like December) or to cover unexpected expenses. A royalty check from my first book served as a down payment on our current house, a writing check paid for my oldest's second birthday party. And so it goes.

I willingly make choices in order to be able to avoid "real" full-time work. My luxuries are iced mochas and the occasional lunch or movie with a friend, not designer clothes and sparkly baubles. Does it sound like I'm trying to justify my slacker existence as a writer/editor/mom? Perhaps I am, though I try not to. I know it's about luck as much as it is about choices and priorities. I was raised to believe I should always be able to take care of myself-- that I shouldn't rely on a husband or anyone else to support me. And yet, here I am. I married a sailor who made less than I did and stayed married to him as his career progressed. A career that is somewhat economy-proof, I might add. His income provides for a lot of things, but most of all it provides me with the choice to not work. That is priceless.

But it's that ominous lecture from my my mother that all men leave, that life is hard, that I will have to take care of myself, that nags at me. I have degrees I don't really need, in case I someday do. (Plus, I really like school.) Right now, I am a writer, editor and mother. There is no time for anything else unless I want to put my children in daycare full-time. (In truth, I would pay less for full-time daycare than I do for a part-time babysitter in my home. This is also my choice and the reason for the 1 AM nights.) I have worked in a library and taught college, both of which I would consider doing again if I needed to make more money or if my boys were school age. I miss teaching and I miss the library, but neither job is my calling. I spend my time-- babysitting hours, after babies' bedtime hours, weekend hours, late night hours--doing the only thing I have ever wanted to do. Writing. Editing is a subheading of the publishing category and it also fulfills a need in me-- and it's covers the babysitter. Barely.

I have often contemplated what I would do if I were single and had to rely on my own income. You know, just in case it ever happened. There are no guarantees, right? I would likely be teaching or working in a library or pursuing more lucrative writing and editing (nonfiction, technical). I would work just as many hours as I do now (actually, probably less) making a lot more money doing something I don't love-- at least not the way I love writing fiction. But that's just so much daydreaming about a life I don't have-- until I read things like this that make me feel like I need to run out and apply for a full-time gig doing anything but writing just to justify my existence to people who would judge me:

"You tell most people what you do and you get this look — it’s a look that perfectly contains a tempest of information, a tangle of thoughts (and none of them good). You get a mixture of, Oh, he’s one of those, or, Look, another hipster-slacker-socialist-asshole stealing all our precious unemployment, or, He doesn’t look like he’s starving so he must have a trust fund keeping him alive, or, Ugh, that’s not a real job. Swamp logger, that’s a real job. Writer’s just something you say when you like to smoke drugs all day. It’s really quite disheartening. You get those looks often enough it starts to crack your egg a little bit, dontcha know?" ~ Chuck Wendig

But then that moment of insanity passes and I am grateful I have a choice to work full-time at the only job I've ever wanted to do. Despite the skeptical looks. Despite the snide comments. Despite the nagging urge to justify my existence to people who hate their jobs. Despite my own insane work ethic that has me sleeping less than 6 hours in order to meet deadlines... But whatever the future brings in terms of contracts (or lack thereof) or the need for a second household income, I am grateful that today I am a writer and an editor.

(Do read the rest of Chuck's hilarious 25 Reasons That Writers Are Bug-Fuck Nuts. You will laugh. You will cry. You will nod in agreement.)


  1. Kristina - you don't have to convince ME that you work! Sometimes it's easier to have 9-5 job. You don't spend so much of your precious time trying to stay organized and make decisions about priorities.

    I also resonate with your comments about choosing between the type of work life you want and material stuff. We deliberately elected to work for what would be poverty wages in the U.S., and adjusted what we have and buy accordingly. And I'm not the least bit sorry!

  2. I'm going to tell everyone I'm a swamp logger from now on. That's a conversation stopper.

    And I wonder why it is that anyone has to justify their existence to anyone else. It's no one's business but your own how you choose to live and spend your time.

  3. Lisabet, I think it's awesome that you made nontraditional choices to live the life you have. It's inspiring.

    Kathleen, swamp logger is just fun to say, isn't it? ;-) I don't think anyone has to justify their existence or choices to anyone else, but people do judge because it makes them uncomfortable when you haven't chosen what they have chosen. Or at least that's been my experience. I'm of the live and let live mentality. I just get tired of the, "I wish I could do what you do!" My answer always is, "You can. You just have to choose to." It doesn't go over well. :-)

  4. It sounds like you;re living a excellent life. You;ve got it. Just take care of your health and make it last.


  5. I stayed home with my 4 kids also, but always had to have a coupla p/t jobs to help with the bills. Unfortunately, in the eyes of employers, I'm now relegated to the "bottom-feeder" type of jobs. I've been subbing for 8 years, and despite being a certified teacher, having raised 4 honor-students, and having almost 400 students from 8 different high schools join a facebook fan club for me as their favorite sub, I can't get hired. One female principal close to my age told others, "She can't handle it." Whatever...
    So I continue to sub and work retail at night.
    I never thought I'd be this old and having to work this hard for barely over minimum wage. Staying home with my kids was the right decision, but they got all of the benefits.
    And I have yet to be "pleasantly surprised" by a royalties check. I may need to add a third job...but one will graduate college this year, and then I'll only have 2 in college. sigh.


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