Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Staying Unemployed: It's Not as Easy as You Think

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 Childrens 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.


  1. Glad to find this blog through Mary's post. Mary captures the tension of the writing life. It is a job, although it doesn't look like, or pay like, other jobs. But it is more than a job, too. It's a way of living. Finding a way to balance writing as a job and writing as a survival skill, and not minding that others don't understand the way you've cobbled that together, is tough in the day to day.

  2. Hi Kris, glad Mary led you to the blog! Yes, balance is one of the biggest challenges.

  3. So well said, Kris. Thanks for commenting. I find gratitude is such an important component. When the going gets tough day to day and I'm tempted to wallow in self-pity, I wallow in gratitude instead, gratitude for abundance in my creative life, in my family and friends, and in the material comfort I enjoy. Truly, I could not be richer.

  4. A "real" job provides insulation from distraction that writers have to create for themselves, and that can take as much discipline as throwing out a scene that isn't working. It's tough telling people who know you're home that you are, in fact, unavailable.

  5. So true, Mari. A "real" job also provides insulation from our anxieties and insecurities. Somehow THEY always seem to know when I'm home. They come around and tell me none of my scenes are working and probably never will. Just a hazard of our "not real" jobs.

  6. Tracy this is a great blog and I enjoyed Mary's post today. It reminds me a bit of the wisdom offered in Thomas Merton's Echoing Silence.

    Write on everyone...

  7. Each of our paths, as writers, is different and the same. We all struggle with the the darkness and the light. You summed it up so beautifully, Mary! I wish you light, more and more and more. Well done, Tracy. Hope to get to Nashville again soon!

    Kelly Milner Halls

  8. Thanks Meghan! Don't know that I've ever reminded anyone of Thomas Merton before. He is surely one of the great wisdom writers of the 20th Century.

    One of my favorite Merton quotes: "We must make the choices that enable us to fulfill the deepest capacities of our real selves."

    Kelly, So happy our writing paths have intersected. Thank you for the good wishes and for your support. We survive the dark with the help of each other. XOXO

  9. Thanks for sharing your story with so much honesty and candor, Mary. I find especially at this time of the year when we're supposed to take stock and set goals for the new year, the anxieties and insecurities associated with creative doings rise to the forefront. I admire your strength in sticking to your way. Best wishes!

  10. Pam Holtz Beres tried to comment but couldn't; she asked me to say: "Great post! Sounds like my life!"

  11. Dana,
    Thank you for your comment. It has helped me so much to discover we all share these anxieties and insecurities. So much strength comes from the support of like-minded friends. Best wishes to you!
    And Pam, so good to hear this sounds familiar to you! Hope we can chat more sometime. How's that novel coming which you read pages from in the workshop this summer in LA? Keep me in the loop.

  12. Loved your post, Mary. My SS statements scare me too! But I really liked what you said about writing as a way of being in the world. Thanks!!!

  13. What a treat to read your insightful words regarding the writing life. As a poet, I struggle with the charge to be ever present, ever observant. It would be so much easier to just let life come my way. I find the process a two way situation in which I must pay attention no matter what. Keep wallowing in the gratitude, Mary. It's so much more gentle than the self pity. Been there, done that, not gonna do it again. ~Ms. Myhre

  14. Hi Mary,
    I tried to post a week ago but somehow I lost it. As a good friend, I've admired your sticktoitiveness in this whole writing adventure. You have been discouraged at times, but you persist and resist that negative inner voice.You've plugged along following your true passion. You have indeed made many material sacrifices, but you've gained so much wisdom and insight. You embody the philosophy that it's not the finish line or the book we should be striving for but enjoying the journey with eyes and ears wide open.

  15. This comment has been removed by the author.

  16. Hi Cheryl, thanks so much for stopping by. you truly know the highs and lows of this journey. I'm grateful for your kinds words. They really mean a lot to me.