On having a day job

When I was at Clarion—21 years ago—my primary life ambition was to be a full-time freelance writer, a big name before whom every fan would genuflect the minute it fell from some critic’s lip.  If you’re reading this, you already know that plan didn’t work out so well.


Instead I wound up working a full-time day job—one I love very much.  I became a college English professor, a job which has obvious perks for a writer:  a flexible schedule and three months a year off (without pay, alas).  Yet I’ve come to see that those aren’t the biggest perks.  The biggest perk is one that just about any full-time job shares:  the virtue of a regular wage, compounded by the safety net of good health insurance (the litany of fine sf writers who have found themselves seriously ill without insurance is legendary).


Yet there are subsidiary perks as well.  Perhaps the most important is freedom, of your time and of your art.  The pressure of productivity among freelance writers is difficult to underestimate.  Many of them will talk about minimum word counts a day, about the importance of working on short fiction and novels simultaneously (perhaps switching over at lunch), about the necessity of taking on freelance work as journalists or technical writers.


Because I don’t have to write, I’m not beholden to such productivity thresholds. More important—and a direct consequence of the freedom of time—is a freedom of art.  Because I don’t have to make a living, I can limit myself to writing the fiction that really moves me, without consideration for market taste or deadlines (after two experiences writing novels to deadline, I can say with some confidence that I’m unlikely ever to do so again).


I can write as I want to write when I want to write, and worry about marketing my work later, because whether or not the fiction finds a home, I’ll still be able to put food on the table.  In other words, I can write first to please myself—and for me the primary value of the work is in its doing—and worry about what readers might think later.  And—who knows?—my work might yet hit the cultural sweet spot where the zeitgeist lives, paying me enough to write full-time anyway.  (I probably still wouldn’t do it, though.) The possibilities are endless.


None of this is meant as an attack upon conventional career ambitions.  It is merely a reminder that other career paths are available—and can, on their own terms, be as rewarding.


[This post, with modifications, originally appeared on the Clarion Blog, shortly after I taught there in the summer of 2010.  In retrospect, I wonder if it’s not a rationalization for never making it as a full-time freelancer, but mostly I think it’s not.  For what it’s worth, I’m writing this morning, and watching the Final Four this evening.]

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