How authors support their writing dreams

A few aspiring authors get to stay home and write all day. Think of them as the 1%.

The rest need to worry about putting food on the table before they can focus on their literary dreams.

Even the most successful writers I’ve edited, past and present, took whatever work they could find along the way.

Claude Brown was a mailman in 1964 when I discovered his monumental manuscript for Manchild in the Promised Land overflowing a sagging cardboard box under my desk at Macmillan where I had just landed a job as a junior editor.

Claude introduced me to his friend Toni Morrison, a young textbook editor who took her two adorable toddler sons around to commercial modeling gigs for the extra income she needed as a single mom. Not long after I signed up her first book The Bluest Eye, she was able to give up the day jobs and went on in her career to write Sula, Song of Solomon, Beloved , and win the Nobel Prize for literature.

Joyce Maynard told me recently that she started writing for money when she was just a teenager. “I wrote copy for a mail order catalogue that sold nude women golf tees and toilet paper with a joke on every square.” Joyce later wrote To Die For, which was made into a film starring Nicole Kidman, the controversial memoir At Home in the World, and the recent bestselling novel Labor Day, which was also filmed, starring Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin.

Making choices

These now-famous authors had to figure out how to survive financially before they earned enough from their writing alone. These days I continue to work with new writers who are facing the same problems. They’re each finding a way to do it, based on their specific stage of life, domestic and professional situation, or support system. Here are some inspiring examples and some of the choices they’ve made.

Wait until it’s safe or take the plunge?

Neville Frankel, author of the historical novel Bloodlines advises young writers to take the plunge. “It’s important that every young person who dreams of being a writer take a leap of faith and go for it. Real writers write because they can’t not write, because they have a story to tell. Live in the attic or the basement; do whatever jobs you need to make ends meet. If you’re fortunate enough to have a partner or spouse with a job, make a deal to support each other financially.”

Kira Holt, whose action adventure novel Rapid Descent – Nightmare in the Grand Canyon just came out, said she started writing when she was 10 years old, typing on her mother’s old Underwood. “But I stopped writing at 12 because of critical comments that undermined my self-confidence. Turning 40 and realizing half my life could be over, lying awake at night while thinking about writing, and feeling victim to a demanding professional career, I decided I had to finally do what I wanted, what I needed…to dive in whole-heartedly. Now I’m 53, have completed three books, and writing the fourth.

“My advice for new writers,” she adds, “is to find your confidence and your voice will find you. Find supportive people and continue learning. Be kind to everyone, even kindly say ‘no’ when they ask for your time. Writing isn’t magic. It can be passion, but it requires work and dedication.”

Working as a commercial writer

Dinty W. Moore is author of The Mindful Writer: Noble Truths of the Writing Life, and a professor of nonfiction writing at Ohio University. In a recent interview in the online magazine Scratch, he said “We do a lousy job across the board of helping our students realize that every large hospital in every major city needs people who can write. Every corporation needs people who can write. Every nonprofit of any size needs people who can write. Being able to write clearly is a wonderful tool to find employment. Other than being a waiter and a barista, there are a lot of things writers can do post-undergrad while they’re still working on their first viable book.

Amy Tan is a great example. When I met her back in the early 1970s, she was making a very good living working crazy hours as a tech writer for early start-ups in Silicon Valley and the San Francisco Bay Area. That kind of discipline and focus surely helped later when she began writing (and reportedly rewriting up to 20 times) the short stories that evolved into her first novel, the bestselling The Joy Luck Club, first published in 1989, and later blockbuster books, including The Kitchen God’s Wife and The Bonesetter’s Daughter.

Balancing writing with family responsibilities

Jillian Thomadsen, author of the financial thriller Infiltrate, worked for ten years on Wall Street, while also raising a family. “Being a Mom has made for an extremely difficult balancing act.  This advice has been given so many times before, but it bears repeating.  Do as much as possible – write as much as you can, climb as high as you can go, career-wise – before you have kids.  You are infinitely more productive and focused than you will be after having kids. I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I had become a waitress or bartender back in 1999 and given myself the time to write.  Where would I be now? However, being a Mom has also made me more perceptive, more experienced, and more compassionate.  And while that may have hindered me as an employee, it has definitely helped me become a better writer.”

Novelist and short story writer David Tomlinson and his wife Lisa got married a year out of college and quickly had two children. While working as a door-to-door political fundraiser, Starbucks barista, and Kenpo karate instructor, David dreamed of writing a novel some day but had no time, especially when Lisa went to Medical School and he found himself taking on more and more parenting tasks. Now, eighteen years later, David and Lisa have achieved a balance of responsibility, and his debut literary thriller American Prayer was just taken on by a major NYC literary agent.

“I dove headfirst into the writing thing and am just starting up my second novel. The truth is, though, that without the emotional and financial support of my family, I wouldn’t be inspired to write word one.”

Time out for a MFA?

“It used to be that people went to Paris, or to New York. Now they go to MFA programs,” says Cathy Day in Scratch. Cathy is the author of two books: Comeback Season and The Circus in Winter and teaches creative writing at Ball State University.

But she also acknowledges how hard it is to stay in that artistic bubble: “Our students live in this world, and they have debt, so many of them do not want to live outside the economy. The economy is pressing down on them, and we MFA teachers have to recognize that. One of the things I want to start doing is encouraging them to take minors in things like telecommunications, digital publishing, and entrepreneurship.”

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What about you?

Does your day job leave time for writing? How do you make it all work? We’d love to hear about your own literary dream. We welcome your comments, stories and advice.

10 Responses to How authors support their writing dreams

  1. Carmen Anthony Fiore

    I’m retired now from the workaday world–thank God!–which means I write and edit full time. But back in the day when I was working for the State of NJ, in order to support myself as well as a wife and two children, I had to write whenever I could. In other words, I had to make the time to write, not wait until I felt like it or had a day off from work, etc. I had a job where I left the office to meet with property owners that were involved with our myriad highway construction jobs. That meant I ate my lunch out in the “field” where I could munch on a sandwich in my car and while I wrote, using a clipboard for support, like forget waiting for the muse for inspiration. I managed to get quite a lot of work done on my novels and short stories that way besides writing nights at home and on weekends. Don’t let the opportunities find you to write. If you really want to be a writer, then it’s up to you to find/make the time to write. The next step is to get constructive criticism from other writers and editors in writers groups, wherever. Feedback is important. It may help you see the “light” when you write yourself into a corner and can’t figure out a creative escape. Also, let your subconscious mind help, too. The old adage, sleep on it, has merit in helping writers create their way through a novel, a nonfiction book, or a short story, even an essay or an article, whatever. Just keep writing and revising while always seeking the perfection you crave.

  2. Barbara Rogenmoser

    I started several years ago writing a blog so I could make a habit of writing daily, or at least on a regular basis. In turn, I self-published a children’s book but have not had much luck with promoting it and am currently looking for another more traditional publisher. I love writing and am not intending on giving up on it. Oh yea…I’m 52!

  3. Nicole Evelina

    I have a full-time job that is 90% writing, but I still manage to write or research at night. The biggest thing is choosing to turn off the TV to write. I also use my PTO days to write and have given up most of my social life. I use my lunch hour, too. If you’re passionate enough about it, you’ll find time. Here’s a blog post I recently wrote on things that have worked for me: http://spellboundscribes.wordpress.com/2014/06/05/seven-tips-for-finding-more-time-to-do-what-you-love/

  4. Jennifer Mattern

    My day job is writing, and I’m thankful for that. I’m a professional blogger and freelance business writer. And I’ve incorporated books into my overall business. So it all comes out of the same work schedule and all contributes to a nice income. I’ve been very fortunate in that I’ve been able to tailor my career around doing what I love, and my background in marketing and PR makes it much easier for me to promote that work and make it a viable career. I’m honestly not sure that I’d be publishing nonfiction e-books or working on fiction at all if I still worked a traditional day job with my old nightmare of a commute. While yes, we sometimes have to do whatever we have to do, it’s equally important to remember that there are plenty of options open to us these days. We don’t have to settle for anything we aren’t happy with just to support ourselves while we write. We can create whatever kind of career and writing environment we want.

  5. Ahmad

    I have written two books while I have been teaching at a high school. I have time only in summer. One book is in English and the other one is in Urdu-a language used in Pakistan and India. I have family responsibilities and worst yet, I lack discipline. This summer I am planning to edit the first draft of my English book and submit it to a real developmental editor. The book does not fit the genre of a novel, short story or a text book etc.
    It’s thesis is quite unique at least in my opinion.

    Alan, I just started reading your blogs. They have been most useful. I don’t know if you have time or inclination to work with me or if I can afford your services but I will contact you anyhow.

    Thank you so much for advising new writers.

  6. Irina Slav

    Funnily enough, becoming a mother was for me the experience that emboldened me to start writing more seriously than ever before. It also improved my productivity and focus unbelievably and, no, I didn’t have any help, on the contrary. Yet, I’m a freelance writer and that’s helped immensely, too. I think the combination of parenthood and freelancing (I also have a problem with discipline like Ahmad) did what was necessary for me to get down to it and just write every spare minute. As they say – writers can’t not write.

  7. Alan Rinzler

    Irina,

    Glad to hear that being a mother helped you become a writer. In the post above, Jillian Thomadsen worried about the time lost, but ultimately also felt that being a mother made her more perceptive, experienced and compassionate.

    And as you say, writers are compelled to write. Nothing can stop them – not even the demands of parenting.

  8. Can You Give Up Your Day Job For A Writing Life ..? | Mandy Eve Barnett's Official Blog
  9. Cynthia Vespia

    I have a day job that is seriously in the way! Much like Kira Holt I started writing when I was a young kid on an old typewriter, hunting and pecking the keys with my index fingers. I’ve never stopped chasing that dream of being a full time novelist, but even with 8 novels under my belt I still need to find work elsewhere to pay the bills.
    My other passion in life is fitness, I’m a certified trainer and former fitness competitor, so my day job is working in a fitness center at a major hotel in Las Vegas. Sounds glamorous but it essentially means I babysit the gym all day. And it leaves me little time to get my writing done. I try to do during slower times but inevitably get interrupted by guests or co-workers. Then when I get home I’m pretty drained and more often than not I don’t get to the page. So it leaves my days off for writing time which is not much.
    To be honest I’m sick of it. I’m trying to figure a different source of income so I can concentrate on my real dream of writing.

  10. AR

    I always thought that I would get money for my work AFTER publishing it, but I find myself going the crowdfunding route now. My first publishable book is nearly finished, and I am trying to get back to my home state for a family funeral, so I find myself promising people an advance copy of the book as a reward for contributing any amount to my travel fund.

    I have been writing compulsively since early childhood. It’s like eating and drinking, although sometimes I’m not hungry or thirsty. Hah! I wish I had had more of a rigorous schedule, but really, it’s been haphazard. I don’t work a day job, but I do homeschool my two children and try to keep my family to a whole-food diet, which requires creativity. My most fruitful productivity practice has been the good ol’ Starbucks fallback. When I am sitting there at Starbucks with my Earl Gray and my macbook pro opened in front of me and I don’t have to be home for two or three hours – there’s simply nothing else to do but write!

    Then I fly.

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