ask polly

‘Should I Quit My Day Job to Write a Book?’

Photo: Troy Harrison/Getty Images

Dear Polly,

Recently, after years of being afraid to confront this reality, I accepted that I want to be a writer. Specifically, a YA novelist. I work full-time as a designer, but I’ve been diligently working on my manuscript every night for at least three months now, and am about 25 to 30 percent done.

I’m happy to keep working in this way while maintaining a full-time job. The problem is, I hate my full-time job. It is very stable and pays the bills and, weirdly, has growth opportunities. But it bores me, and I feel intellectually and emotionally isolated from my co-workers, even though they are genuinely nice people. Basically, it’s a really bad fit for me, but it’s not toxic enough to make leaving a no-brainer, which is why I’ve been there for almost four years.

So why not just find a new full-time job? Unless I want a job doing the exact kind of design I do now (which, again, bores and demoralizes me), I’ll need to put work into updating my portfolio. Even if I do want to get a similar job, just at a different company, the process of networking, applying, and interviewing is also time-consuming. And since I do work full-time, I have a limited amount of free time in my off hours, and that’s time I’d really rather spend writing.

And yet … the chance of becoming a published writer (especially one whose books actually sell) is so low. Plus, the gestation period for a manuscript is so long. You have to put in a lot of time and effort before you can find out whether you’ll fail or not. It almost feels like the ROI on the time spent trying to get another design job might be higher than trying to get a novel published. And yes, that’s despite the fact that design is already a creative/competitive field.

And yet … the thought of staying at this job for five, six, or more years while I finish my manuscript (or start and finish a second one if this first one is awful) is horrifying to me. I’m terrified of becoming one of those people who never succeed with their art, so all they’re left with is the day job they hate. But I’m afraid to just quit and focus on writing, because I’m also terrified of being one of those people who are too stressed about their finances to make good art.

On top of that, I’ve cycled through a lot of “dreams” by this point. Becoming a designer was already technically a career change for me (I was an English major in college), and I’ve since had phases when I became really excited about (and actually worked pretty hard in my off-hours toward) becoming a greeting-card-business owner, illustrator, or surface designer.

The reason I think writing might be the “real” dream is that I’ve wanted to be a writer since long before I even thought I could be a designer or any of those variations of the job. I also realized that even if I became, say, a super-successful surface designer, there would always be a part of me that would still want to write a novel. That’s what made me think, Well, why don’t I just do it now?

But I don’t know. Am I just kidding myself? Is there a smart way to proceed that I just can’t see?

How Should I Spend My Time?

Dear HSISMT?,

Believing that publishing a book will fix your life is a little bit like believing that success or love or a trip around the world will save you. It’s the kind of escape fantasy that’s entirely intellectual and theoretical, so it’s difficult to test. Just as you won’t know if you like skydiving until someone pushes you out of an airplane, you won’t find out if publishing a book will bring you satisfaction until you’re standing in front of your mom and two of her friends at a bookstore, reading your own words in a wavering voice. (Then crying, if you’re me. I don’t need to tell you this is not the most effective means of moving product.)

When people say, “Oh my god, a book, you must feel great!” most writers get a little half-smile that tells you books are hard to hug close. My third book comes out in October (it’s called What If This Were Enough?, and you should order it right now AND HUG IT CLOSE), and this is the first time I haven’t felt tortured and anxious about the whole process. Writing a first book tends to be a letdown for most people: It’s just very hard to feel it, particularly if you’re a little panicked or too much is riding on it or you hate your day job or you haven’t learned to connect with the work while you’re writing it. With a first book, you also tend to care too much about reviews (if you get reviewed at all) or about how many people show up for events. You might think having a book in the world will finally make you feel LIKE AN AUTHOR, but eventually you discover that feeling like an author amounts to making bad small talk at cramped bookstores filled with indifferent strangers, all the while wishing you were drunk and stoned and young and gorgeous and a ballerina who lives on Mars instead.

So my best advice about writing a book is this: Learn to savor the work itself. Authors talk about what torture it is to write, to finish a book, to get revisions. And it can be torture! But it’s a luxury to write, a luxury you have to train yourself to savor. There’s no fucking reason to do it if you can’t savor it. And not only is it harder to finish creative work when you view it as a means to an end — a path to a shinier, more important life — but looking at it that way keeps you in the mind-set of a loser with a big question mark painted on her forehead. Once you’re published, you think the question mark will be removed. But, SURPRISE! It’s still there. It’s there when you compare yourself to other writers or count the number of people at your reading or grind your teeth over a bad review. So resolve not to do that shit right now. Forcibly remove the question mark. Are you writing almost every day? Well then, congratulations. You’re a writer. You’ve arrived.

Instead of investing in the non-glory of a future publication date, I want to strongly recommend that you learn to create a giddy bubble, a Bizarro world, in which you are a fucking creative genius whether or not you have an impressive body of work to your credit. Each day, celebrate your most minor word-crafting victories; cheer on your most constipated, tedious paragraphs; and use the writing process to enjoy your freaky gray matter until every single writing session emulates the feeling of being a drunk, stoned, young, gorgeous ballerina living on Mars. That is the point, the purpose, the peak: to enjoy the world you inhabit when you write. You take foolish leaps, you meander, you invite edits, you revisit your own words lovingly but patiently. You’re smug and grandiose and insufferable? Of course! That’s the goal, dummies! If you’re living right, you find yourself chuckling amiably at your own beauty, your grace, your effortless pirouettes of boozy wordsmithery. “Life as a ballerina on motherfucking Mars is good,” you tell yourself. And in that moment, it is. That’s what matters.

You’ve written 30 percent of your book already, in three months. AMAZING. Why do you think it’s going to take you five to six years to publish it? At this rate, you’ll be done writing by the end of the year, and you can start your next book while the first one is making the rounds with agents and maybe even publishers. Rip that question mark off your forehead. You’re a writer. Start drinking the Kool-Aid, for fuck’s sake. Savor the Kool-Aid, because that’s all you get. But it’s the best part.

Now let’s talk about day jobs. I’ve always been a big believer in maintaining a day job while doing what you love on the side. Dropping everything to write a book can sometimes lead to a worst-case scenario in which not only do you sink into debt, but your financial worries eventually incite writer’s block. That said, when people have day jobs they dislike, it affects everything in their lives negatively. They constantly call their day jobs “just a day job,” downplaying the built-in frustrations of their work life by reminding themselves not to take their careers seriously. But there’s a kind of inherent ennui that comes with not taking your career seriously. You show up to work and you hate everyone you see. You don’t take your coworkers seriously. You don’t take yourself seriously. Every day is a supremely irritating farce. And that’s not to mention how extensively people with “just a day job” tend to talk about how much they loathe their day jobs. It’s like being married and wearing a T-shirt that reads, “I DID IT FOR A GREEN CARD,” everywhere you go. The one thing other people know about you is that you spend 40 hours a week hating what you do, hating yourself, and hating the whole world along with it.

The other problem with the day job is that people tend to pick one that pays reasonably well immediately — it’s just a day job, after all — but has no growth potential. You say this isn’t true for you, but it sounds like you hate that job enough that it might feel tragic to get promoted. Never take a job for the pay alone if you know you’ll hate yourself for having that job (or some version of it) a decade from now. I very briefly wanted to be a graphic designer when I was young, because I wanted to make a high hourly rate. I had to support myself, and I was already living in a tiny room in the Mission in San Francisco, which was gang territory back then, not the gentrified whitey paradise you know today. But I didn’t love graphic design. I didn’t give a fuck. I was just trying to support my secret ambition to become a singer/songwriter/rock star by spending six hours a day writing maudlin lyrics about depressed bed-headed guys who didn’t love me enough.

What I needed was a day job I could believe in, one I was good at. So writing and editing became my day job, first as an intern at a magazine I didn’t like, and then as a copy editor at an online magazine I loved, where I was soon creating cartoons and letting my freak flag fly. And even though I hated my co-workers (I really did), I handled that by writing a cartoon about what tools they were, and I drank my triple latte every morning and chuckled at my own mean-spirited jokes in true ballerina-from-Mars fashion.

Now, I recognize that the world has changed since then. But we all thought we were fucked in 1992 (a recession) and again in 2001 (when the dot-com bubble burst) and again in 2008 (a bigger recession). I know that robots are taking over, and the gig economy is a mindfuck, and everything sucks beyond belief right now. I just drove across the country, and property EVERYWHERE is overpriced, and the jobs are stupid and bad and boring, and no one can make a living wage. Even so, my best advice is to never, ever listen to your co-workers’ panicked talk about how we’re all fucked forever and ever. Plug your ears and remind yourself that you are a motherfucking ballerina from Mars, so the rules don’t apply to you. Then go out and a get a job that doesn’t make you want to hide in the supply closet, scrawling HELP ME in highlighter on a million and one Post-it notes.

You say you could find a job you like more than your current job, but that would take a ton of time. You say you’ve wanted to be a greeting-card-business owner, illustrator, or surface designer at various times. You imply that you might like these things much better, but they require a lot of time to get off the ground. Listen to me: Do it. You have the time. You can write and also pursue a version of your career that feels less like a day job. Stop telling tales of fear and failure and how little time you have. People who walk around talking about running out of time like the walls are closing in on them waste a massive amount of their time and brain power and energy on their own pointless horror stories. In fact, all of that noise is yet another side effect of the “This is just my day job” mentality. A tortured soul re-creates torture everywhere, in everything. Believe me, I know this from years of experience living that way.

It’s time to cultivate your faith in your vision—calmly, quietly, and with intention. This is your life. It’s long. You’re not racing to some finish line. Your first job is to ENJOY YOUR DAY. Enjoying your day means feeling good about how you spend your time. It means you’re pointed in some direction that makes sense. It means you wake up and say, “I will enjoy my work.” That’s a COMMITMENT. It means you say, “I will squeeze in a little exercise and work on my portfolio this morning, then after work, I’ll write a page of my novel.” And somehow, you end up doing it all. It works. You have the energy AND the time.

Pat yourself on the back when it works. Say to yourself, “I am doing this, motherfucker! I am a goddamn Martian ballerina on fire!” But forgive yourself when it doesn’t work. No big deal. Resolve to enjoy your day, first and foremost, tomorrow.

So that’s your to-do list: Upgrade the day job and upgrade the dream and speed up the publication schedule. Do all of the things. Don’t just write a book right now. DO ALL OF THE THINGS RIGHT NOW. Enjoy them and celebrate them. Today is all you have. You don’t need a future. You don’t need a finish line. When you realize that, time slows down. You just need this day.

Believe in this day. Celebrate your funky, fucked-up brain and your off-kilter, uncertain life today, and you’re a success, period. Do a pirouette and drink the Kool-Aid. That’s all there is. It is enough.

Polly

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