The Writing Life: full-time or part-time?

beersSo, a some weeks ago I sat in the audience at a writing salon (i.e. a few writers who’d already been to the pub beforehand then staggered to a bookstore and talked about writing) and listened to a discussion of how people work.

More specifically, how writers divide their time between the writing life and the rest of life: family, friends, the day job that pays the bills and buys the food that we, regrettably, cannot do without. I was fascinated to hear that each of these folk felt that being part-time writers was the best option: apart from earning dinner, beer, and electricity money, it made them appreciate their writing time a hell of a lot more than if they were free to be full-time.

It was an interesting thought but it brought home to me, yet again, that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to being a writer.

I’ve tried the part-time writing life ? that’s how I started out ? and while I did produce a  archerfair whack of work, I never felt satisfied with the time I was able to put to my craft. Whenever I had to go off to the day job (and I held several while I was in the early stages of my career) I resented it bitterly, felt torn away from doing something I loved; something that made me feel, for want of a better word, alive. It took me away from my stories, from a place I wanted to inhabit ? and every time I had to return, to worm my way back into that world I’d left, I found it unforgiving. It took so long to reacquaint myself with the other place that I felt I lost precious minutes in remembering what that fictional landscape looked like. The fact of the matter is that if I’m in the zone of the story, I am revolting to be around: I don’t want to pay attention to anyone or anything. I am inside a bubble, I am aimed at a goal, and woe betide anyone who stands in the way.

Fortunately for the world and all those in it, I’m in my third year as a full-time writer now (a position I can hold only through the patience, generosity, and extreme tolerance of my beloved Significant Other), and my productivity is considerably improved, as is my temper. I’ve got a routine and habits that enable me to pick up where I left off with minimal decompression required. That may simply be a side-effect of treating this as a professional space for so long. I would not be the writer I am if I was still holding down a day job.

My point?

Every writer is different. What works for one person may not work for another. Try new habits and processes by all means, experiment to find what is best for you, but don’t ever think that just because another writer swears by one technique that it is the thing you must do.

Are there things you do need to do? Things that are simply not negotiable? Yes:






onesie_cow_frontAnd learn. Learn constantly no matter who you are or how long you’ve been writing, no matter the degree of success you attain. It doesn’t need to be formal classroom learning; it might be as simple as a weekly write club or coffee and cake with fellow scribblers to discuss writing craft and any problems you’re encountering, or techniques you’ve discovered and declared to be awesome. It may be going along to masterclasses the local writers centre or festival holds from time to time (case in point: I’m attending Karen Joy Fowler’s Brisbane Writers Festival masterclass, as are a LOT of already published writers with growing reputations). Even if it just reminds you of the things you’ve forgotten you know, it serves a valuable function in keeping your mind ticking over, hopefully helping you write new stuff that isn’t just a rehash of the old stuff (“Oh, look, another book where a loser-boy finds a magical realm where he can escape all his self-created problems” *raspbery noises*).

What works for one person may not work for another. It doesn’t make you somehow less of a writer. Writing techniques and habits are not cow-print onesies that fit everyone; they are bespoke outfits discovered through the process of trying them on and discarding the ones that are too tight or too loose or too beige or plaid.

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6 Responses to The Writing Life: full-time or part-time?

  1. Kathleen says:

    People keep asking me when I will go full-time. I quite like the idea! But apart from the obvious money question, I know I would like to have some external, objective activity in place to keep me from climbing the walls.

    I suppose its the other side of having to find your way back into the story – getting sucked into a vortex of doubt and self-loathing: About two days into an art-sprint, I start gnawing the furniture, three days in I lie on the floor and stare at the ceiling, four days in I despair of ever having either talent or ability, and my shoulders give out. Day five I’m back in the office so I don’t know what happens next. I’m curious to try a longer stint as it’s entirely possible there’s a mental wall I would push through and find equilibrium.

    (Oddly, given its so much easier to objectively assess an illustration, I don’t have the same problem with writing).

    But part of the charm of not being full-time in the current day job, is that I would have the opportunity to try other work or activities part-time (for charity, research, curiousity).

    And as you said, there are things you need to *do*, and other than that, I agree the correct answer to the full-time/part-time question (in that context) is: whatever, as long as it doesn’t stop you *doing*.

  2. Jeremy Szal says:

    Fantastic. Will definitely keep this in mind.
    I also liked what you said about making sure you’re _always_ doing something to improve. I sometimes fool myself into thinking that now that I’ve sold short fiction, I don’t have to pay attention to my creative writing classes. Most of the time I’m wrong (except when they talk about the artistic values of 2nd person PoV *shivers*)

    Either way, thanks a lot! 🙂

  3. I know very few authors who write part-time out of choice. The vast majority would embrace a full-time writing life with joy. But circumstances don’t allow for it: anyone who has a significant other willing to support the full-time writing employment choice is in a lucky, privileged position, as for most artists in general, the decision to work full time on their art is the decision to flirt (and in many cases, embrace) poverty. In the vast majority of cases we work at a day job because we have to, not because we choose to.

  4. Great post! Everyday I feel like I’m realizing how true the cow-print onsie (lol) analogy is. For me, I think I’m more of a part-timer. I had the opportunity to be full-time this past year while pregnant, and determined that 2 hours at a time is really my max for concentrated focus. I’m just too distractable beyond that. I envy those who can write for 6-8 hours in a day, but boy, that’s not me. I think I was most productive when I wrote primarily during my lunch hour at an old job. The short time-frame keeps me from stalling.

    Now the challenge is to figure out how to write with the little guy around all the time! 🙂 He’s lucky he’s so darn cute… ^_^

  5. Angela says:

    I probably should have said that my days are divided into creative and business components. Writing in chunks of two hours, with chunks of answering emails, interviews, writing articles, contacting editors, etc then takes up the rest of the day. But being a writer full-time works for me and I’m very fortunate I can do it.