SF & F Troubleshooting: On Having a Day Job
This month’s guest author is Dale Bailey, a novelist, Clarion instructor, and English professor. He is the author of House of Bones and The Fallen and innumerable short stories, and today he has a few words about why “quitting your day job” need not always be a professional writer’s goal.
When I was at Clarion–lo! these many years ago (18! where does the time go?)—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. Well, 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. Yet I’ve come to see that those aren’t the biggest perks. The biggest perk is one that virtually any full-time job shares: that is the virtue of a regular living 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 emphasis on 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 any such productivity thresholds. I don’t have to do work-for-hire—media tie-ins such as novelizations or game novels, where you surrender your rights for a flat fee. I don’t have to write short stories for anthologies about topics I’m not interested in. (Not that these aren’t honorable choices for other writers; they’re just not the choices I want to make.) If I want to take the day off and go to the movies, I can (and will) do so. If I want to watch football on Sunday afternoon, that freedom is available to me—and I don’t have to do it with a laptop propped against my knees.
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 fails to find a home, I’ll still be able to put food on the table. In other words, I can write first to please myself—and I firmly believe that the primary value of the work is in its doing, and in doing it as well as you can—and worry about what readers might think later. And—who knows?—your work might yet hit the cultural sweet spot where the zeitgeist lives, paying you enough to write full-time anyway. The possibilities are endless.
None of this is meant as an attack upon the conventional career ambitions. It is merely a reminder that other career paths are available—and can, on their own terms, be as rewarding.