“Ugh, I hate writing,” a friend told me a few months ago. “How does anyone love this? It is the worst.”
I nodded and changed the subject. Quickly.
I used to be this person. I used to whine about hating my work and how it was ruining my life. But a few years ago, that changed.
For Better or Worse
Here’s the thing: writing is like any job. After a while, we get stuck in the endless rhythm of our days. It’s a nonstop cycle of triumph and disaster—and everything in between. There is boredom, frustration, excitement, and tedium. In that time, some of us are capable of turning procrastination into an art form. My floors are never more dust-free than when I am avoiding work. Laundry beckons, and I answer its call every damn time.
But it’s an embarrassing admission to anyone who isn’t a creative. They certainly don’t want to hear writers moaning about their lives and their work—because while they know that the pay is terrible, the benefits are nonexistent (pray for good health and no cavities), and stability is a pipe dream, they also see the tremendous perks of our jobs. We have flexible schedules, work we adore, a high scope for creativity and imagination, and a joyous lack of coworkers and office politics. We are completely responsible for our workload, our output, and our time management. And not always in a good way.
In short, most of your nonwriting friends and family aren’t really going to be sympathetic to a bad writing day. Especially if they aren’t exactly smitten with their current jobs either.
But being a writer is like being in a long-term relationship with the perfect mate. You may love it … but you still want to stick its head down the toilet every once in a while. And then one more time for good measure.
This isn’t about burnout, that awful realization that when you are tired and exhausted, you just need a damn break. This is a case of falling out of love with your writing career. The joy is minimal, and you start daydreaming of exploring a different path. The pros of being a writer disappear, drowned beneath a tidal wave of cons. Sometimes this happens in your head over time. Years upon years of slogging through rejections and hustling for freelance work, and more often than not, many full-time writers give in to the siren call of a steady income, benefits, and a retirement plan.
Some of them keep writing. Some of them don’t.
A Harmless Little Fling ...
So how do you know if it’s time to trade in your comfy writing pants (or in my case, polar fleece long underwear) for a sensible pair of “office casual” slacks and a smart blazer? Well, like in all things, there are no concrete answers one way or the other. Everyone’s career has a different trajectory. But there is one way to find out. It’s the one thing that will either make you fall back in love with your writing or convince you to pursue a new job or even a completely different career.
A few years ago, my freelance income took a steep decline. While I practice the classic freelance adage of “never put all your writing eggs in one client’s basket,” I hit a perfect storm where, one by one, the availability of work began to shrink for reasons outside my control. Staff changes at one client (always a risk for freelancers), another client had less work available, another ceased using freelancers altogether, and my bread-and-butter client experienced massive editorial changes that restricted available work. My meager savings were quickly consumed by irritating needs such as rent, bills, and food. I was barely scraping by, and my stash of emergency wine had been depleted months ago. Horrors.
I needed another job. Fast.
I’ve done temp work before, usually at the workplaces of friends. I’ve bounced between departments, working with quality assurance, finance and accounting, marketing support, customer service, and general office admin work. I already knew that while two days of stuffing envelopes while listening to music offered a strange kind of zen peace, three days would send both me and my ADD over the edge and into the bad place.
An excellent friend of mine told me about a four-month contract with his firm’s tax department. The pay was above minimum wage, the people were friendly, and the environment was professional. After a short interview where I was warned that the work would not only be mind-numbing, it was all numbers, I was hired. I charged some sensible work attire to my credit card. For the next four months, I was a tax administrator for an investment firm.
And it turns out that I was unexpectedly good at it. My manager was pleased, I was receiving encouraging feedback, and my shaky confidence suddenly began to grow. Not only did I manage my job effectively, I also created documentation for the department for the job I was doing.
For the first time in years, my days had so much structure, and I realized how much time I had wasted during the day being distracted by nonessential things. Even better, I wasn’t constantly bombarded with phone calls and texts from friends and family who knew I was always there to chat, give advice, or look something up for them because apparently I was the only one who could use Google.
After a few weeks, I thought, “I can do this. And I could keep doing this.” My daydreams of being a moderately successful author were replaced by dreams of a steady income, benefits, and the possibility of being offered a full-time job. I would be promoted, and there might even be a pay raise. What if I had a gift for doing a completely new job that I had never considered? But it was right about that time that something shifted.
Till Death Do Us Part
The change in scenery, the positive feedback, and the sense of appreciation all acted like steroids for my undernourished confidence. Every day was a reminder that I was smart, capable, and resourceful. And the freelance work I still managed to do on the side suddenly started improving. I started protecting my writing time. My brain started coming up with book and short story ideas again. And I realized how much I missed writing. How good at it I was. I had a finely honed skill for writing book jacket copy and copywriting, and I was making as much working freelance during a slowdown as I did working roughly 35 hours a week in an office.
That’s when I realized the truth: I didn’t belong there. That wasn’t my world. And the longer I stayed, the more I realized that I was not at the right job for me. I already had the perfect job. I just needed to be more structured with my days and more merciless about my schedule.
I finished out the contract, and as I had hoped, I was offered full-time work by another department. The pay was terrible, the work steady. I was grateful—and I declined.
And I went back to writing full-time with a renewed sense of confidence.
Tips for Taking a Time-Out
1. Make sure the job is contract-only. This type of work usually has a firm end date. In a regular, permanent position, you can tell yourself that you can walk away anytime. The truth is, it’s far too easy to just stay in the job and put your writing dreams on hold. Months will turn into years. And if you’re happy, that’s great. But it’s easy to fall into that rut, and if it’s not where you want to be, you need to make sure that there are no temptations. Because let me tell you, that steady paycheck feels really, really nice … and it is very, very addictive.
2. Look for something that’s out of your current comfort zone. Try to find a completely different environment than what you currently have, and aim for a job that’s unrelated. Chances are good that what your brain really wants is an extended vacation from the demands your writing routinely requires. Finding something that involves working with your hands, with numbers, or has shifting responsibilities can be a great change.
3. Do the math. Break down your hourly wage, and compare it to your writing income. How much are you working for each dollar? This will help you redefine your relationship with your writing income and also remind you just how much better freelance writing and book sales can pay than slaving in an office eight to ten hours a day. Not only that, you’ll discover that working in an office requires money for transportation, lunches, breaks (hi, donuts), and clothes. Turns out, that hourly wage starts looking a lot less sexy.
4. Take your new habits and apply them to working from home. Now that you’ve been reprogrammed, trying using that new structure to reorganize your writing habits and how you structure your day.
Taking four months out of my life was precisely what I needed to change my routine and my expectations, and to remind me just why I love writing.
And so far, I’ve never looked back.