“Don’t quit your day job.” If you’re a writer, you’ve probably heard that before. And there’s some truth to it. According to a survey by the Authors Guild, the median annual income for writers in 2017 was $20,300. On the other hand, I know several writers who will make six figures this year. It’s even within the realm of possibility that I might, too, which makes me very skeptical of that data.
It’s true that writers don’t get paid enough, but for a lot of us, it isn’t as hard out here as it seems. Perhaps part of it is a squeaky-wheel fallacy: we hear the voices shouting about not making enough to get by because they’re the loudest. But the people who don’t have anything to complain about keep their finances to themselves.
Knowing what I do now, I wish I hadn’t listened to all of those voices telling me that writing was a vow of poverty. From what I’ve seen, if you really do it right, that isn’t true. Unfortunately, it took me a long time to think for myself.
Why did I want to quit my day job?
Many writers dream of the day when they can quit their day jobs. For years, I was one of them.
After college, I was the sole caregiver for my father as he was dying of cancer. That was my full-time job, one I don’t regret at all. But by the end of his life, we were totally out of money. I essentially entered adulthood with a beat-up car, a few thousand dollars, my dog, and nowhere to live.
Eventually, I moved into a roach-infested apartment in the worst part of Daytona Beach, Florida. I was working as a certified nurse’s assistant, because even though I had a college degree, I couldn’t find another job. Working as a CNA entails dealing with literal human excrement in addition to abusive clients who yelled at me about not getting what they paid for even though I was only getting $10 an hour. When I took shifts at the nursing home, I would spend my breaks hiding in the home’s kitchen. The cooks would always make me a hot plate of french fries and let me sit in the back and cry if I needed it.
“They don’t deserve you,” one of them said to me in Spanish after a month of that.
Another said, “You don’t belong here.” At first, I was offended, but then I realized he was right. The guys in the kitchen cared about me. That isn’t what he was saying. He meant that the verbal abuse, the crying in the kitchen, the long hours for little pay, they were as temporary for me as they were for them. That kitchen was a waystation, a kind of purgatory for all of us. Those guys had big dreams of being somewhere else, and whenever someone would leave, they’d celebrate. When I quit a few months later, it was bittersweet because of them, but they were happy to see me go.
My next stop was substitute teaching, which turned into a full-time gig when I was 25. I taught high school English to low-scoring juniors and seniors, the kind of kids who were distracted, whose traumas often prevented them from focusing entirely on the task of school. I can honestly say that I loved them. Were some of them exhausting? Yes. But I felt like I was doing something important. I was making a difference even though I’d put all of my dreams on hold.
I taught for three years until I got a job at a business magazine in South Florida. I thought it was going to be my dream job. Me, a staff writer! I uprooted my life and moved down, but I quickly discovered things weren’t as they appeared.
My closest coworker bullied and lied to me. She tried to sabotage my work, and to this day, I’m not sure why. Was it because I was lonely and I needed a friend? Was she the kind of person who reveled in hurting people when they needed her? I’m not sure. But because of her, I was isolated and alone in that job. I only had one friend who lived close by, and it was too far away for most of my friends from home to visit.
Oh, but it gets worse. My boss, a raging misogynist who repeatedly used the word cunt in front of me to describe other women, decided I wasn’t qualified for the job I applied for, and he stuck me in a lower position before I’d even showed up for work. My pay was less than what I was making as a teacher, and the benefits were so paltry that I couldn't afford to go to the doctor. I was miserable, lonely, and sick.
The last summer I worked for them, I was away from work at my last graduate school residency. While I was talking to my friends about whether I should quit the job that was making me so miserable, I got an email from my boss welcoming someone new to our team—to fill the position I’d originally been hired for. The writer had a bachelor’s degree and no bylines. By then, I had already written for New York Magazine, VICE, and The Washington Post. There was no comparison between our resumes. That’s when I knew what I was going to do.
I quit my job…
When I returned to work, I handed in my computer and my key. My boss was furious that I didn’t give notice. According to my contract, they could fire me at any time for any reason—or no reason at all—a fact they’d lorded over me. One that was now to my advantage. The same clause said I could walk out with no repercussions. I didn’t have to give notice. They didn’t deserve that courtesy.
I had gotten to the point where it was better to be unemployed than to continue in that misery any longer.
So I took a leap. I had two choices: fail spectacularly or land on my feet.
The alternative to success was losing my car, my apartment, everything. I had to make it work. I had no choice.
So I started pitching articles, journalism, personal essays, and other nonfiction stories. At my peak, I was sending out ten pitches a day. More than 80 percent of them were rejected. Probably 10–15 percent didn’t get a response at all. But that last five percent—that’s where I started to make a living.
One of the first stories I landed was for The Atlantic’s CityLab. My former boss was obsessed with The Atlantic and he had said he hoped I could write like that someday, so that story was a real vindication.
My first year as a full-time writer
This summer was the first anniversary of when I quit my day job. Now, I can safely say it was the best decision I have ever made. I only wish I’d taken the leap sooner.
Not everyone feels the same way about their day job. Some people love working and would never dream of quitting to write. If this is you, you’re lucky. I have a hard time concentrating on writing when I have to work.
I have also discovered that I hate being cooped up all day. One of the things I love most about being a writer is getting to go out and talk to people. It’s even better when I’m writing about the environment, because I’ll “have to” go into the woods or to the beach for a story. Poor me, right? I have to go play outside. I travel more now, too, because I can work from anywhere. I’m writing this from Lisbon, Portugal if you need proof.
Wait, you might be thinking, how are you making it as a writer?
Well, there’s a reason I told you that long story before. All of the jobs that led up to this taught me how to work hard, solve problems, and make a way even when everything seems impossible.
When I made my leap into writing full-time, I told myself: If you put as much energy into writing as you did into teaching, you’ll make it. And I was right.
I get up every day with a plan. I work my ass off, and I only goof off if I’ve earned it.
What’s the secret?
The thing is most writers, even the ones that are making a fraction of what I do, probably work just as hard as me. So what am I doing that they’re not?
Honestly, I’m always thinking about that. I think there may be a certain X-factor that I’ll never be able to figure out. I do know what didn’t help me.
I didn’t have:
- a mentor,
- rich relatives or a huge nest egg of cash,
- friends in high places.
I do have:
- skills at convincing people of things,
- bravery that helps me ask for more money or walk away,
- similarly, bravery to say no to jobs that don’t pay enough,
- confidence and a willingness to learn (a powerful combination!),
- so much damn gratitude.
Of course, there are days that are really hard. But whenever I hit a snag, I look back at how I was working my ass off at full-time jobs, working myself to death, really, but I was still poor. When I work that hard now, I feel like, for once, I’m making what I’m worth. It helps that I love what I’m doing. I’m living the dream.
I’m still working hard. I have big plans. It can only go up from here.