My friend and SCBWI Regional Advisor Mary Cronk Farrell contributed this week's guest post.
Thanks so much, Tracy, for the opportunity to guest post. My experience is not about quitting my day job, but about withstanding the pressure to get one. It’s about going for years between book contracts, making no money and still believing in myself.
When I took leave from my job as a TV news reporter to raise my three children, I intended to go back when my baby was a year old, two, then three, then when he started kindergarten. Somewhere along the way I polished off a dream. I wanted to be a real writer. (Whispered aside so TV people won’t hear. In a weak moment I may decide I do need a real job.)
I loved being my own boss, working my own schedule, choosing my own assignments. I loved that reading books was all in a day’s work. Sad to say, my baby was nine before my first book came out. Then I published two more books in the next two years. So what if my only income was a royalty statement for thirty-dollars and twenty-nine cents? Surely, soon, my next book would be published, earn out, go into a second printing. Who needs a day job?
Then I hit a dry spell. Five years passed and I didn’t sell a book. My oldest son went to college. I visited schools, spoke at conferences, focused on improving my craft, wrote one manuscript after another. My daughter went to college.
I should mention here, I have a patron. My husband has a steady job with health benefits. At no time was I a starving artist. We downsized, moving across the state for a lower cost of living. We had the necessities, but we lived on what we called the “Farrell Austerity Measures.” We bought second-hand, learned to replace broken windows and fix appliances. One of our two cars was stolen and we didn’t replace it. I enjoy cooking, so we rarely eat out. I make our bread from scratch and grow vegetables. Family vacations are drives to visit relatives.
My husband worried about retirement and student loans. He believed I’d topped out as an author. He fretted about home maintenance. I said, “Give me a year, and if I don’t sell a book, I’ll get a job.”
I swear that was the fastest year of my life. But it was enough time to realize writing was more than a career for me. It was a way of being in the world. Whether I ever published another book, writing was how I made sense of life, how I discovered myself.
When five years turned into six and then seven, I never stopped believing in my next book. More importantly, that was no longer the point. I wanted to spend my hours being what I was—a writer. I see how the geese fly south too soon, how a budding branch can snap, a voice grow faint.
Every so often, I doubt myself. Internal whispers urge me—get a day job. I feel guilty not helping support my family. I get depressed. Other writers bid me keep on.
Mary Oliver asking, “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” and reminding, “You knew what you had to do, though the wind pried/with its stiff fingers at the very foundations.../It was already late enough....”
Vanita Hampton Wright warning, “Expect to be misunderstood. Perfectly fine people will think you’re wasting your life if you don’t get a real job that gives you a nice retirement package. Perfectly loving friends and family will keep waiting for you to grow up and get over this phase. Well-intentioned religious people will worry about your dealing with dark and uncomfortable topics.”
It's not fun having less disposable income than most of my friends, living in my 1970's kitchen and bathroom, wondering how my daughter will pay her college loans. Getting that social security statement showing I haven’t made money in twenty-years? That’s really not fun.
But for today, I find courage to spend the working moments of my life writing, following my passion, being true to my creative calling, living in joy. That’s my day job.
Mary Cronk Farrell just received a contract for her first YA nonfiction book, forthcoming from Abrams in 2013. Her novel Fire in the Hole (Clarion) is a Notable Children’s Trade Book in Social Studies, a New York Public Library Best Books for the Teen Age, a Bank Street College’s Best Children’s Book, and winner of the Western Writers of America Spur Award for best juvenile fiction. Mary blogs about history, literature, and demons and other dark holes of the writing life.