Fumbling in the dark and finally seeing the light
After several starts and stops over the past 18 months or so, I have finally felt comfortable calling myself a professional writer. I wasn’t sure at what point I would find that threshold, or if I would ever at all. Because I am both an author and a writer, early career milestones are murky.
I kept plugging along, however, and one morning in early autumn I realized that, although small and scarcely profitable, I had found myself following the path of professional writing. That moment dawned on me when I scoured Craigslist for opportunities. I kept shifting back toward the “gigs” section instead of looking in the “jobs” classifieds. Every time I encountered a job opportunity, something didn’t add up for my circumstances, and usually, it didn’t pass muster because it would cut too deeply into my writing work, nevermind interfere with my current part-time day job. In short, I realized I already had a job, and that I took my writing seriously enough not to sacrifice anything more.
Lo and behold, any time I have considered giving in to capitalism and either look for a full-time position and let go of my current part-time one which would indefinitely put my writing on the back burner, an opportunity would arise: increased readership and royalty income, a handsome offer to publish an article, a book review.
I have noticed, though, that I approach my writing career differently than most around me. This is simply what has worked for me.
When to take it easy, and when to put in overtime
Hourly pay is both a curse and a blessing. It grants me permission to always “leave work at work” and it also permits me to draw a line at “this is above my pay grade.” But of course, if I fall ill, or decided to take a quick getaway vacation, the hours I’m not in the office are reflected on my paycheck and it’s often nothing I can afford to lose. Alternately, when the typical workload fluctuates either to a surplus or deficit during a pay period — both out of my control — that means I suffer the consequences of my employer not steadying the workflow.
Writing isn’t hourly. It’s also not salary, but I’ve learned to treat it that way. The benefit is that I can take my time and go with the flow of creativity and inspiration, or work to keep an even output. In the past few months, I’ve been half-consciously experimenting with workflows that, well, work for me to stay productive as a writer and achieve growth: statistics, income, my audience — but not lose sight of my vision or goals. I loosely set a measurable goal: “Earn so many dollars in a month,” or “increase my traffic by 30%.”
So far, efforts have worked. I don’t think there’s any singular plan or method, and it all depends on each person’s concept and style. But for me, learning to let go of the hourly-pay mindset and allow myself the flexibility of workload when appropriate allows me to keep my overall output even has been the biggest improvement I’ve made.
When the creativity strikes and I’m itching to get all of the words out right this very minute, I hunker down, brew some coffee, and get to work. If I’m lucky, I can get a little bit ahead, or tweak my calendar (which I treat as a guideline rather than hard-and-fast rule). But if something is weighing me down or I just don’t have the juice to write, I don’t beat myself up over it. One way or another, I trust myself to get it done… and then I do.
Both the hare and the tortoise eventually finish — it doesn’t matter which one you are
I’m not saying that the hustling and networking approach doesn’t work. It does… but not for everyone. For me, slow and steady wins the race, and I’m starting to see fruits of my labor. More frequent sales; steadier traffic; more lucrative offers. Somehow or other, I’m finding my niche and I don’t particularly think it’s wise to assume you know your audience from the outset; at least, if you’re not willing to consider you may be wrong (and I was, too, in the beginning).
Someone with much more capital up-front can dump more into advertising and promotion, maybe even hire social media managers, or upgrade their websites. I’m struggling just to pay rent right now but I’m thankful and happy that some of my bills are paid by the job I want — and do — have.
But because I want to keep this job, and I am figuratively my own boss in most circumstances, I also grant myself the grace that I wish previous employers would have: to believe in myself and trust that I will get the work done one way or another, because it’s still in my own best interest to keep working towards the next goal and to create more of them to aspire to. That means I have days off, I give myself weekends and time to recharge, but I’m responsible and face the music when it’s time to dig in my heels and get shit done. I’ve never been salaried but with my writing, I behave as though I am.
If you feel yourself slipping into that impostor syndrome nonsense, remind yourself that writing is lonely and invisible work. Hundreds of guides and how-tos exist about how to be the most successful out of the gate, but the idea is that success is always subjective and nobody really knows all the answers.
The only thing I believe that all writers should do every day is to be satisfied with what they’ve done and the choices they’ve made. If that means you have to take pennies-per-word content mill gigs just to get that writers’ paycheck, do it. If that means you have to manually hawk your work online because you can’t afford expensive ad campaigns, do it. If you need to sleep in and skip your morning revisions because you’re so drained by the last piece you finished, that’s fine.
When I say that writing is my job or at least one of my jobs, I don’t mean that I spend 18 hours a day sweating over a too-bright laptop monitor in the dark, forgoing my social life and responsibilities and engaging in things that keep my creativity flowing unless I absolutely have to. What I mean is that I remember that I am a human being with needs, and while some of those needs are to create art, some of them are also about my mental health, practical needs, and desire for closeness with others that aren’t my keyboard and numerous drafts. What I do is value myself the way I believe an employer should, believe in the work I do, and trust myself that if I wasn’t good enough, I wouldn’t be doing it.