Write for a living?
Stop. Wait. You can’t just up and quit.
Okay, you could, but that might land you in the poor-house or homeless.
Let me tell share with you my story about how I’ve managed to stay out of a job since July 2014 and write. Oh, and travelled. I’ve been to Mexico, Costa Rica, Las Vegas; and I also spent three months in Seattle.
First, let me be honest. I didn’t quit my job. There was no decision involved. Not on my part anyway.I was fired.
I saw it coming. I don’t want to give the details. Let’s just say I was working on a difficult project. When I talked with my brother-in-law about the project, he said:
That company has the worse IT record in the industry. You’re being set up as the fall guy for that project.
Call it premonition, or my brother-in-law’s astute insight gained from 30 years experience in IT. He was right.
So when I received an email message from the team leader as I sat in a café on Rue de Fayette in Paris, I knew it was the end of the road.
I know, right. I was in Paris. Not a bad place to be when you lose your job.
I’d been teleworking from Paris for two weeks, rising every morning, getting my café au lait, shopping at the local market in the 9th arrondissement, and then hustling back to the flat by 1:00 p.m. to start my work day just as my colleagues on the East Coast in the U.S. rolled into their offices. Or for those colleagues who teleworked like I did, signed into their laptops between 8:00 a.m. and 9:00 a.m. eastern time.
So the first advice that I can share with you about how to write for a living is BE IN PARIS when it all goes down.
Oh, and sipping a café and chomping down on a buttery croissant helps to cushion the blow to your ego if you get fired!
Being in Paris gives you a sense of place and direction.
After all, having the ghosts of Simone de Beauvoir, Jean Paul Sartre, Victor Hugo, Richard Wright, Collette, and countless other writers, artists, and intellectuals hovering in every nook and cranny makes you believe that you can be a writer, too.
After received the unpleasant news that I would be ‘released’ from my contract, I travelled to the 5th arrondissement to Chez Mococha where my partner, chef Michael Poole of Hot Chocolat, gave a demonstration on how to make cayenne caramel.
The loss of the job faded amidst the smell of chocolate and caramel. Not bad for my first 24 hours of unemployment.
So if you get fired or quit your job to write while in Paris, or some other romantic place, at least you will have a story to share with your friends and something that you can write about.
And, frankly, there are some of us who are waiting to be fired. We need the push to force us to be free to write full-time.
Yes, it’s demoralizing.
For me though, planning an exit strategy and taking action to actually stop working and to write full-time scared me.
Like many of us, I have bills.
I live in an expensive metropolitan area.
I have a son. Although he works full-time and lives on his own, I still feel the need to maintain a rainy day account for him. Just in case of an emergency.
And yet, not surprisingly, my son hasn’t needed my assistance once since I lost my job.
I realize now, in hindsight, that I could have walked away from paid work to write full-time many years ago because I had been preparing for this life. I was just scared to make the move.
I held onto the job out of fear of the unknown despite everything I had in place. I’d been thinking, and planning, for that exit for many years.
Quite frankly, working a job made it impossible to write. I had the income, but I didn’t have the time. And I definitely knew that a writer’s productivity can be equally dampened by money worries. So what’s the balance?
For me, I’ve made a full-time commitment to write for a living. And I haven’t once thought about taking a consulting job for seven months now — and counting.
People ask me:
How do you manage not to work and write?
My answer — to them and to you — is that I took some very specific actions. I didn’t have to take other paid work because I was writing for a living now. And writing for me. Yes I was in a dream location, but I was taking very practical actions.
1. Save while you earn
I was a consultant before I became a full-time writer. And, all the time I was earning a living, I saved my money. Yes, I’d treat myself to a Broadway play each year, but I saved a lot. I nixed eating out and prepared my meals at home. I enjoyed life, but I was careful.
2. Live below your means
I lived far below my means. My father had taught me this valuable lesson: have cash in the bank and don’t be house or rent poor. You don’t know when you might need it. And for me that day came in Paris.
3. Take the highest paying job you can
Before I became a consultant, I was an academic. I taught at two universities, and I had a decent enough living. But, after three years of working at two universities, I decided enough was enough. I went back to graduate school and earned a certificate in instructional systems design. Then I started a consulting practice. This enabled me to bill out at $95-$100 per hour. I live in metro DC where the rate for instructional systems design is high. It was all part of the plan (even if I didn’t quite know what the plan was).
4. Work for yourself
Working as a consultant or independent contractor means that I have more control over my time because I decide when, where, and how the work is done. For US citizens, check the IRS website for the definition of an independent contractor. You will have to pay your self-employment taxes, so remember to consult a tax accountant and put aside monies to pay your quarterly taxes.
[Editor’s note: tax rules vary, so please check what applies where you live.]
5. Work while you’re on vacation
Working while on vacation may seem counter intuitive, but it works. As a writer, regardless of the genre in which you write, you should always be looking for new ideas. This means that you need to be observant. Sometimes you can heighten your observation skills simply by removing yourself from your day-to-day environment and traveling someplace else.
So remember to take notes while you’re on vacation — and always have a means of capturing them; a simple notebook will do. Some of my best ideas have come to me while I’ve been relaxing on vacation.
Since I lost my job, I have travelled to Oaxaca, Mexico and Mexico City to attend and assist my partner with a cooking class. I also visited Diego Rivera and Freda Kahlo’s homes. This past January, I travelled to Costa Rica to attend an eight-day writers’ retreat. I had been accepted to the Tengo Sed writers’ retreat and workshop before I lost my job and, since I’d already budgeted for the trip before being fired, I didn’t change my plans.
While this doesn’t exactly count as a vacation, I did travel away from home and became immersed in a new environment. This trip helped me to focus on natural beauty and to challenge me to get my work done. I spent eight days copy editing my novel-in-progress At Home in the Night, which is about the 1967 Detroit rebellion told from the point of view of an 11-year old boy.
6. Keep the revenue flowing
This is critical of course if you’re going to write for a living. According to Brooklyn-based, YA writer Zetta Elliott, you should: “keep multiple income streams.” However, she warns that this “can be tough because multi-tasking doesn’t leave you the long stretches of time you need to dream and write.”
Having multiple income streams, particularly passive income, can eventually provide you with those long stretches of time to dream and write, without having to do paid work. And, if you don’t know what passive income is, check out Lifehack on how to generate passive income.
7. Ask your partner to support you
Throughout history, spouses and partners have financially supported their writer-partner. Think of Ernest Hemingway, Anaïs Nin, and Collette. If you are in a relationship, perhaps you can ask your significant other to support you financially for a designated period? My partner provided me with the opportunity to travel to Mexico with him. I helped him out with his cooking class, but in exchange I got some great photos, generated some excellent ideas for writing, and toured Diego Rivera and Freda Kahlo’s homes.
8. Don’t say “No”
Early in my academic career, my mentor, Dr. James A. Miller, told me:
Never say no to anything.
I found this strange because my colleagues insisted that I protect my time and get my work done. What my mentor meant was I should accept all invitations to speak and submit articles. He said that even if I over-commit, this was a good position to be in because “you and your work are gaining exposure, and exposure is half the battle.”
If you are able to say “yes,” then don’t say “no” to any writing assignments or speaking engagements, particularly work that pays. Just remember to meet your deadlines.
9. Get a grant or fellowship
Grants or fellowships are one way to finance your writing. They can be highly competitive. And grants like the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) have stringent guidelines and publication requirements. So before you quit that job, research the grants and fellowships that interest you. Check out the local ones, too. Most cities and counties have artists and writers grants that you can apply for. Make sure you meet the minimum requirements before applying.
Generally, we writers are introverts. We spend more time in our heads than we do interacting with others. Yet you can increase your chances of being successful by networking with writers and editors.
Face to face networking is optimal. You can learn about freelance opportunities and other paid writing assignments by networking. Also, join or start a Facebook or Meetup group for writers. My favorite Facebook group is The Watering Hole, unashamedly poetry-focused. From this group I have found out about online workshops, publications seeking submissions, and writers’ retreats. I got an assignment from an editor, and published my published first article in a major publication, via a Facebook group.
[Editor’s note: and Michele is published here because she networked. She reached out and asked. It works — but only if you do it!]
11. Don’t give up
It took the push of being fired to push me into my dream to write for a living. You could say I fell into it. I lost my job. But I could have taken a different route and gone right back into employment. You have to make it work.
And, yes, of course, you can transition from working full-time to writing full-time without losing your job. You can take control of the situation. You can plan your exit from working the conventional job if you want to take time away from work to write.
While you may not be able to exit work this year, if you set your goal to take off time from work to write, you can accomplish this goal. You don’t have to wait to get fired like I did to start to write full-time.
Just plan and keep your eyes on the prize, and your dream will come true.
This post was written by Michele Simms-Burton. Michele is an ambitious, former university professor who has spent a lifetime justifying working rather than writing. She now writes full-time.