I’ve got a friend who tends to be very dismissive of writers who bemoan the fact that they can’t write full time. After all, he says, you can indeed be a full-time writer, you just have to be willing to give up health insurance and certain other trappings of the middle-class lifestyle, and you have to be willing to write stuff you don’t necessarily like — corporate copy, ad copy, articles for sand and gravel industry trade journals, whatever. Now, being a full-time writer who only writes what they want to write, that’s admittedly a tougher proposition.
Now, I have a day job (a pretty sweet day job) — but it involves writing. And has health insurance, so it’s win-win. Most of my real jobs have involved writing. I’ve been lucky — right out of college I stumbled into a job doing advertising copywriting. I learned a lot, made good money (great money for the area where I lived) for six months, fattened my bank account, and then fled for California, where I spent a month hanging out in coffeehouses. I worked as an office manager (and occasional technical and promotional writer) for a year there, writing on the side, then moved up to Oakland to be with my then-girlfriend now-wife. I figured on getting some crappy job I didn’t care about, while writing on the side. Instead I ended up working for A Certain Magazine (it’s the publishing trade journal for SF/fantasy, and it’s won a whole lot of Hugo Awards over the years, so I’m sure you can figure it out).
I started out there as an editorial assistant cleaning gutters and hauling boxes and driving the boss around, and eventually rose to the rarefied heights of senior editor, in which capacity I clean gutters and haul boxes and do a whole lot of writing, editing, and production work. I’ve been there for going on eight years now, and it still keeps me interested. (I especially like writing obituaries — it’s the closest thing in my life to a sacred duty, I think, giving people a final respectful send-off and honoring their contributions to the field. And writing the People & Publishing column, because, yay! book deals!)
With a day job I liked, I was able to concentrate most of my free time on fiction, my second literary love (poetry’s my first love, but there’s even less money in poetry than there is in fiction). And I didn’t have to worry too much about whether I sold the stuff I wrote; I could pay the bills, after all. Working full-time isn’t usually perceived as a path to freedom, but it did free me up to write whatever I wanted.
Now, my dream is still to write full time. By which I mean, write half a million words of fiction a year and spend the rest of the time eating mangoes and playing video games. And I no longer find freelancing daunting. I write the occasional personal essayish type thing, the occasional book review (I used to do a lot of those; not so much now), and I’ve even got some weird steady freelance gigs, notably reviewing porn movies (a job my 14-year-old-self would be very proud of me for having) and writing a weekly column about sex-related stuff on the internet. (My wife’s the buyer at a sex toy/video/etc. company, so she helped set me up with the gig.)
In truth, all my income is from writing, really, except for those portions of my day job spent assembling shelves or trimming back branches on the plum tree, which are pretty minimal. And the best thing is, these are multiple revenue streams — novels, reviews, magazine work, etc. If one dries up, I won’t be totally broke, because I’ve got other streams. I’m even trying to branch out further, writing a middle-grade novel, pondering doing some crime or romance writing.
Being a standalone literary monoculture is too dangerous, too fragile. To survive as a writer, to thrive as a writer, you need a certain level of flexibility. I don’t call myself a novelist — I call myself a writer. I write stuff. Having worked in so many various corners of writing has given me great confidence; I’m a pro. I can write whatever. And I think, as long as things need to be communicated via the written word, and there are people out there willing to pay for the service, I can keep being a writer. Sure, I’d prefer to just write novels and stories and poems, but really I’d prefer to lay on the beach and drink rum and fruit juice and read paperbacks all day, and I’ve adjusted okay to that disappointment. Scribbling for a living’s not so bad. It beats the hell out of laying insulation or working retail.