I like to watch conversations between creative people who are not writers to see what translates across artistic mediums in terms of process and concerns. (Are all we this weird and complicated? Yes.) The other day I stumbled on this pleasant and charming discussion between Devonté Hynes and Phillip Glass. They talked about work, and all the jobs we do in order to do the jobs we really want to do: which is make our art.
Glass had day jobs when he was starting out, real manual labor type of stuff, loading trucks and moving furniture. “What I liked about it was that I was very independent,” he said. “I never took a job that I couldn’t quit really easily.” Because what he really wanted to do was make his music. Glass kept things limber and light and had his eye on the prize. There was never a moment anything other than music was going to satisfy him. Means to an end, that’s it. A job that was easy to quit.
Of course, this is Phillip Glass we’re talking about her. I’m no Phillip Glass, and probably neither are you. Still, it’s relatable. The desire for that fluid, casual, creative existence designed to be in support of making great art.
In the past I have had students ask me if I think they should quit their day jobs and focus on their writing. It almost always feels like a cart before the horse situation. The list of questions we should be asking ourselves as writers before we can get to that point is long.
I’m talking about: Should this book be in first person or third and do I need to start all over again to see which one works better? Is my language amplified enough? Am I writing with enough empathy? Does the middle of my book sag? Does the beginning of the book entice? Do I believe in love? Do I believe in ghosts? Have I blurred the line enough between the real-life person I’m fictionalizing and their corresponding character? Am I landing every sentence, idea and feeling? Am I reading enough poetry?
Shit like that. If you’ve got most of those questions answered, then maybe we can move onto the question of the day. Do I change my life forever in service of my work?
And listen if you (or your spouse or partner or parent) are independently wealthy then I think you already know the answer to this question which is you get to do whatever you want. You don’t need my permission to do anything. And please support your peers and buy their books and also maybe a nice dinner or two for them.
I feel like the trickier line is this: you’re not independently wealthy but have the capacity to squirrel away enough money to take some time off from work for a while. An extreme privilege, to be able to make this much money. Or you live somewhere cheap. Or you’re wily. Or you’re a criminal. Or you’re really good at applying for grants.
Whatever the case, you’re curious to see if you have what it takes to be a writer. You swear if you didn’t have to go to this job and could just focus for a moment on your own words, you could finish a book. A year off from work. Maybe six months. And maybe just like a little part-time gig in there, but basically not much at all except for waking up every day and sitting down at your desk every day and doing the work. All you need is enough time to get some real momentum going.
So here are my Ifs: IF you feel like you will wonder the rest of your life if you could have written a book if you just had the time, and IF you will not financially destroy your life by taking this time off, and IF you feel like you have the grit and determination and discipline to get up every day and do the work, and IF you have an actual Real Plan and by that I mean outlines and schedules and due dates and a great and compelling book idea you are absolutely dying to write and actually have already started writing it and can’t stop thinking about it, IF all these things are true, then I say do it.
I had the same attitude as Glass in the early aughts when I began to focus more on my writing. I took short-term jobs forever. No 401k, no health care, but I was free to do what I liked. And I always worked these gigs for three months or six months or sometimes just a few weeks to make a little cash to move me to the next place, to find the time and space to work full throttle on my books as opposed to just the hours before and after my day job. My approach was that if I wanted writing to be my job, I had to treat it like it was my job. I also needed to see how much I loved it and was willing to fight for it. The answer was a lot, as it turned out. (There is actually no other answer that works in this situation.)
Eventually I was able to stop doing those jobs. But I had to write four books before I could stop working my day jobs. That’s eight years! And I still have stuff I have to do all the time besides writing my books. Nearly every writer I know does. Just the fact that I write this newsletter once a week should show you something. Don’t get me wrong, I like writing this newsletter. But it felt like something I needed to take on as part of the bigger project of having a writing career.
But back to the question of the day: should you quit your day job? No, probably not. But if you must, do it only if you’re going to take it seriously, which means you have to be already taking it seriously. Look at how you’re already carving out time in your life to spend time with your words. In some ways, in terms of this discussion I am almost less interested if you are good enough, and more interested in if you’re committed enough.
There are so many possible paths, stories, nuances to this question. For example, it’s a lot easier to take a risk when you’re young and have less responsibilities, than it is if you have a partner, children, college loan debt, or maybe even a mortgage. All I definitely know is that if you love to write, you should write.
But do you need to quit your job to do it? Or do you just need to reconsider how you’re spending your time already? Are you merely in love with the idea of being a full-time writer? Maybe it’s not that you want to be a writer, but you just really hate your day job. That’s fair, too. I support everyone quitting their job if they hate it. Could you imagine spending your entire life doing a job you hated? I don’t want that for you. But being a full-time writer might not be the answer either.
It’s been a decade since I transitioned to being a full-time writer. Every day I get up and do the work and I love it but also sometimes it’s a real fucking grind. I am the only one who comes up with these ideas and forces myself to do this work and I am absolutely not complaining but would like to assure you that it is not some sort of dreamy fantasy but rather a constant hustle to be inventive, forward-thinking, studious, intentional, and extremely disciplined. Perhaps hardest of all: you have to have faith in yourself. Every single day, forever.
Should you quit your job to focus on your writing: I don’t know. Do you think you’re ready?
Have a great week.
You are reading Craft Talk, the home of #1000wordsofsummer and also a weekly newsletter about writing from Jami Attenberg. I’m also on twitter and instagram. I try to answer comments as best I can, which are open to paid subscribers. You can subscribe here or give a gift subscription here. (If you are a teacher let me know, and I will give you a free subscription.) Fifty percent of the proceeds will go to various cultural, educational, and social justice organizations in New Orleans (and sometimes elsewhere). This week’s donation went to Feed the Second Line.