You’re Not an Imposter if You Have a Dayjob and Write

Over the years I’ve seen some writers who took the full time plunge express strong imposter syndrome and a sense of shame when going back to a day job. Sometimes it kills their desire to write because they feel like a failure.

I don’t think biographies of writers emphasize how many famous writers had day jobs.

TS Eliot worked in a bank his whole life, even turning down an offer to be given a fund to write full time. William Carlos Williams was a doctor until a stroke stopped him in his old age. Many writers transition into professors thanks to their body of work. Kafka was an insurance exec. 

When I grew up, I knew people who wanted to sail the Caribbean and live a different life. They would work until they had enough money, then head off to sail.

Creatives are similar. I know writers who write fiction full time. I know writers who freelance and write fiction. Teach and write fiction. Have a spouse with a generous income and write. I know writers who work hard at a job for a part of the year, but have chosen a profession where they can take time off. Some arrange for a month of furious creativity, some can stretch it to six. Some work a random set of weeks, then unknown weeks off, depending on career. Some work a job and save furiously for two or three years, then quit and see how long the ride can last.

Some writers had a day job while working on their break out, and then life after became different. Yes. And yes, full time writing is a great dream.

But not at the expense of your health, or family’s health.

There are three levers to pull. Make more money, get more flex time, reduce expenses.

It’s hard to make more money at your art, you can’t wave a wand. But a day job is usually more money than writing, so that’s a lever. One can put the extra money aside and build toward a defined amount of time off. Like mini retirements. Google ‘mini retirements.’

Flex time can be hunted for, by looking for a job that has flex time. They’re harder to find, but there are seasonal jobs, there are jobs with flex time. One can sit and think hard about exactly what is the perfect job for the creative you want to be. One can look for jobs that have downtime built right into them.

Everyone suggests reduce expenses, and I know we all have if we’re creatives, but there are options if you don’t have a family to move to other parts of the world where the exchange rate goes further. It was a world I grew up in and a valid way to make being a writer more feasible. 

The reason so many American writers went to Europe after WW2 was because the economies were devastated and rent was cheap. And even then, Hemingway had to plan where to walk lest he pass by bakeries and be tortured by the smell of food. I live in a small, affordable town in rural America, which is how I use geographic income arbitrage to my favor.

The achievable goal is to build a sustainable creative practice with the tools you have on hand and go after it with everything you can. But not to feel shame about what happens next. Even the writers we were taught to adore struggled to get by. The idea that a full time career is THE win scenario is not helpful because it’s an externally applied judgement. 

Look, one of my favorite all time writers is Ted Chiang. I’m not the only one who thinks that. Every time he writes a story, and he writes one or two a year, they win all the awards. Right here in this Boing Boing interview Ted, in 2010, mentions that he’s a freelance technical writer who works for part of the year, then takes another part off (yes, after a movie has been made of his work that is likely not true, but, that’s what he did for decades).

I humbly submit that if one’s definition of creative success doesn’t have a bracket for Ted Chiang, it might need reconsideration.

There are many ways to do this, and those ways will shift and change throughout a career.