[Editor's Note: Normally we tell would-be writers to stick with their day job until they have enough funds to "take the plunge" into full-time freelancing. Here's a writer with a different perspective!]
Living in a $2-per-night hotel in Thailand can be draining on your psyche, especially on the nights that you don't have even $2. Your neighbors are old hippy burnouts, who ask you questions like "What's the year, man?" Empty liquor bottles dot the stairs and mold threatens to overrun the communal shower. Every night, you can hear the neighbors' amorous encounters through the paper-thin walls, and forget about air conditioning, even though you're in tropical heat. You skip meals, never buy anything extra and don't go out at night. You rarely do laundry, and such luxuries as shaving and haircuts are put off until a paycheck comes in.
No, I'm not describing the life of a heroin addict. Instead, I am describing the life of a struggling freelance writer trying to make his way in a world that requires one to exchange money for the goods and services needed to survive.
The flip side of this depressing existence is that you get to live in Thailand, and you get to write full-time.
Every time the money runs out, or every time you walk past a restaurant when your stomach is growling, you wonder if maybe you should quit your dream and take a job. Even the most supportive family and friends eventually grow weary of helping out. The best of them will say, delicately, "It probably wouldn't hurt your writing too much if you started working. I mean, you could still write in your spare time."
When hunger gnaws at your belly, the prospect of a regular salary becomes very appealing. But then, think about everything else that goes with that salary. You'd have to get up early in the morning, put on a suit, commute and then work until evening. Afterwards you'd be exhausted and have no energy to write. And even if you did have energy, what would you write about? You'd be living the life everyone else leads. And no one wants to read that. They much prefer stories about living in a $2 hotel in Thailand.
I recently received an e-mail from Anna-Maria, a friend and aspiring writer who took a job at a publishing company. Her plan was to make contacts during the day and write at night. Fifteen years later, Anna-Maria is still working during the day, but mostly watches Seinfeld reruns at night. It's not all Anna-Maria's fault that her novel is still unfinished. She finishes work at six, gets home at seven, takes a shower and eats dinner. By then it is 9:00 p.m. and she has to be up at 5:30 a.m., which gives her maybe two hours to write. And that is only if she has no other problems or issues to distract her.
It's not just the job that you must deal with when you choose the corporate life. It is also the after-work drinks, the friend's birthday party, the weekend ski trip, the new suit that you need for work, the car, the nice apartment, and as long as you have that apartment, some furniture and appliances would be nice. Soon, you've got credit-card debt and maybe even a family. You promise yourself that you will start writing next year, or the year after.
When you re-enter the world of the normal by taking a career job, it's easy to forget to be a writer. But if you wake up with economic hardship looking you in the face every morning, you know you have two choices: quit or succeed. If you quit writing, but don't go back to work, then you are just another under-bathed derelict living in a $2 hotel in Thailand.
But if you keep writing, at least you have the dignity of being the noble, starving artist. So, you force yourself, no matter how depressed, hungry, or hung-over on shoe-polish-strained-through-bread you are, and start typing away. No matter how difficult it seems to believe, you must convince yourself that every stroke of the keys brings you that much closer to making it.
If you take a regular job, you have a third option. You can mentally quit writing, but tell yourself that you are still a writer. Eventually you will be a full-time waiter, secretary, office assistant, or temp and there will be no writing going on at all. Often, you will meet people who say, "I am a writer." Somehow it always comes as a surprise, because their name tag usually says something like "Head Fry Guy." Then you ask what they have written and the answer is "Nothing yet."
This is not an attack on people who work outside writing. What I am trying to say is that it is extremely difficult to write while gainfully employed. You have to prioritize and make decisions about what you want in life. To write, you may have to sacrifice a lot of material comforts. But the trade-offs can be worth it: You will be doing the one thing you love above all others. How many people can say that?
I was an investment banker on Wall Street before I began as a freelance writer. Yes, I made a lot of money and, yes, I think I did the right thing by changing careers. The lessons I learned on Wall Street carry over to my writing life every day.
In the first year on Wall Street we didn't get any salary at all. Instead, we earned a percentage from deals we did with our clients. Nicos, our manager, was like Jackie Gleason's Ralph Cramden, but with an MBA. When we complained about not having any money, Nicos would retort, "Well, then you'd better hurry up and succeed, hadn't you?"
Some guys wanted to take a second job to pay the bills. They always gave the same excuse. "I will only carry the second job until this job starts paying off. Then I will devote all of my time to this job." Nicos had an answer for that one, too. "If you are investing all of your time and energy into this job and aren't making it financially, how do you expect to make it by investing only part of your time and energy?"
Nicos was a tough guy, but he taught me a lot. He believed that only by being subjected to the stress and pressure of that trainee year could we ever become good at our jobs. His feeling was that if we had had a salary, even a small one, we would have felt less pressure. We would have worked less, had fewer clients, and would gain less experience in that crucial first year. He always said that experience was a teacher but only if experience was measured by cases opened. Or, for a writer, manuscripts submitted. Experience cannot be measured just by the number of years spent doing something. One writer has been writing for ten years and dutifully submits one manuscript per year. Another writer has been writing for two years, but submits 100 manuscripts a year. Which one has more experience?
By not having a steady source of income, and by not yet having large publishing contracts, I need to publish ten times per month in small magazines just to survive. That means each month my submissions run into the hundreds. I also get meaningful feedback from at least ten editors a month. At the end of two years, it is more experience than many part-time writers will get in a lifetime.
Anna-Maria recently sent me an e-mail saying that she was writing again. She took her laptop to Starbucks, wrote for an hour, and was amazed at how well she did. Afterwards, she told me. "I will try to do this several times a week."
Several hours a week! It takes hours per day, not hours per week, to make it.
And it isn't just about finding time to write. There is also the matter of finding time to submit. Researching markets and sending your work to publishers and magazines can take hours, even using e-mail. You need time to do your own revisions as well as the revisions suggested by the editors.
It isn't easy making it as a full-time freelance writer. But, in my opinion, it is even harder to make it as a part time freelancer.
To job or not to job? The real question may be, to write or not to write.
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Copyright © 2004 Antonio Graceffo
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.