Writing Around Work: How I Manage my (Unpaid) Writing Practice

Unsolicited Opinions / Thursday, May 10th, 2018

I’ve recently lapsed slightly in my general pessimism, and it’s scaring me (optimists are inscrutable, and I’m not sure I can handle being one). Lately, I’ve been thinking about what it would be like to write for a living (be still my heart), to carve a freelance path for myself in the world of content marketing that I’ve heard exists out there.

But it’s hard to take the plunge because writing has never been work. I’ve always, always, always just written around work.

In fact, the title of this blog should offer the discerning reader a clue about my financial success regarding my chosen craft. I’ve never made a penny from a word. And my landlord doesn’t accept short stories as a monthly tithe for my one-bedroom apartment.

So I’ve always had to work. My first job was at McDonald’s. Was I fifteen? Sixteen? I know I was in my mid teens because I had to get my “working papers,” those pesky documents that ascertain nobody is exploiting child labor, no sir.

Since then, I’ve worked as a Stewart’s Shop attendant, a babysitter, a Subway Sandwich Artist, a bookseller at a small shop, a direct support professional for adults with disabilities, a two-week teller at a credit union, a massage therapist, a one-time casino dealer at a resort, a researcher and data specialist, an online closed captioner and transcriptionist, a two-day waitress, a mail sorter and production assistant at a teeny little locally owned mail room, and a secretary at a university (currently).

Interviewers raise their eyebrows at sight of my resume. I don’t blame them.

Sometimes when I look over the list of jobs I’ve had from the ages of 16 to 27, I worry that my work record is spotty and and sporadic enough to suggest a sociopath, one who conquers a field only to feel bored and vacant and drift onto the next… leaving a trail of blindsided, brokenhearted supervisors in my wake.

I guess the thing that keeps me from being a driftless sociopath, aside from the fact that I’m not one, is that writing has been a near-constant in my life since early childhood. If I had the nerve, I’d slap that on a resume just to see how very high Ms. Marshall-the-human-resources-assistant’s eyebrows can go.

Just, “Writing.” Resume. Boom.

Sometimes this writing took the form of journaling, an important stage in my development as a writer and a learned skill I’m employing as I write for this site (which you ought to know is a thinly veiled dear diary masquerading as a writer’s blog). At times, I’ve written nothing but mediocre poetry. Times when I started and stopped a series of short stories. Times when all my writing was academic in nature with brief interludes of fancy.

But always, always, always.

There have been times I’ve tapped out my 800 words on my smartphone letter after letter sitting in my car between clients at the spa, times I’ve had my first free moments to write in the evenings when I’m falling asleep and I’m so tired that I have to close my eyes and let my fingers do all the work as I lean my head back. I’ve written in the car as my boyfriend drove and in tents in the middle of vast expanses of National Park land, my clickety-clickety-clack waking up my sister and friends.

I’ve written in libraries and bookstores, cafes and the parking lot outside supermarkets, airplanes and buses to NYC, while walking, while sitting, while standing.

At the advanced, unpublished age of 27 I’ve come to some settling conclusions about writing. I may never make any money doing it. (Of course, I dream of making a living freelance writing – don’t we all?) But I’ve accepted that it might not work out. I may have to work work, always and forever. It can seem exhausting, sometimes, when I picture all the long years I have of writing in spaces before, during, and after all the other responsibilities characteristic of an adult life.

But it’s also vaguely exciting. A prospect and a challenge. I might never win, and until (unless) I’m published, I might not be able to make writing the front-and-center priority that I want it to be, but I do garner a certain amount of pride from wedging the practice in between the disconnected bricks of life. It rounds out the edges, fills in the meaning, makes every moment an opportunity to build something from nothing.

I’m still mostly pessimistic about the idea of making money from writing. It seems too good to be true. But when it comes to writing itself, I’m an eternal through-and-through optimist.

How do you write? Where do you write? How do you fit your practice in with the expectations of your boss, spouse, kids, friends, old college buddies who inexplicably still go to bars until 2am? 

11 Replies to “Writing Around Work: How I Manage my (Unpaid) Writing Practice”

  1. Until recently I’d always believe that I’d never make any money from writing. I’m even older than you, so most of my opportunities in life are gone. However, I also realized that part of the problem was that I’d never tried to make any money from writing. It’s hard to succeed at any endeavor when you never attempt it.

    Still, I doubt I’ll ever be able to fully support myself through writing – nor is that truly my goal. I’d just like to make enough from writing so that I only have to work part-time on the side, and hence have more time for writing. Or, if that’s too high an aim, I’d like to at least offset my blog-related expenses. That means I have to make a whopping some of $100 a year from writing. That seems like a doable goal to me, although I have no idea how one actually gets paid for writing.

    As for how I fit my practice in around everyone else’s expectations? First of all, I make writing a higher priority than most things. I’ve made a point of staying single, which has been a huge boon (it also means I haven’t gotten all my possessions stolen from me in court). I also don’t go to bars until 2 am, and am the world’s worst friend. I do, however, fit my writing around my work schedule. I’m a much better employee than I am a friend.

    1. I do the same thing with prioritizing my writing. I’ve had to turn down so many social things to make sure I reached my writing goals for the day. It can feel really lonely, especially when there’s no external proof (i.e. money) that I’m doing something that’s important. And you’re right – the only way to make a living writing is through actually trying! I’m going to be spending more time on that in the upcoming months (we’ll see!!) Good luck with your writing – I think it’s definitely feasible to support your blog, at the very least.

      1. Perhaps we should give people some sort of waiver that they have to sign if they want to be friends with us? At the very least, they should have to consent not to say nasty things about us on social media when we suddenly turn down social engagements to work on writing.

        I do hope it’s feasible to support my blog through writing. Maybe even finance the purchase of a DSLR camera? That one’s a bit more tenuous though.

          1. I’ll be sure to keep you up-to-date! It’ll probably be a few months until there are any results, as I’m supposed to be working on a master’s thesis this summer. We’ll see how that goes.

  2. “And my landlord doesn’t accept short stories as a monthly tithe for my one-bedroom apartment.” Lol. It is hard these days, that’s for sure, and it does take tons of effort to make a living as a fiction writer. (I can speak for other types of writing careers). I write full time and barely make enough to buy groceries, which is why it’s so important to love the process and love being creative. If you have that “optimistic” attitude, you will persist. And… I didn’t start writing until I was fifty, so don’t fret too much about your “old” age and not making a living writing yet. 🙂

    1. Thank you for this! I try to remind myself that my fiction writing is too dear to me to encumber it with expectations of money. Yes – money would be nice, but writing is nicer. Our culture places a premium on material success; I think it’s important to dismantle that expectation a little bit and embrace writing for the joy of it. Life is short. I’d rather spend it writing.

      1. And you will make money at it! It just may not pay the rent. And yes, the fact that our culture monetizes everything, including a person’s “worth” as a human being, is unhealthy. Happiness is priceless. 🙂

  3. I’m in the position where I left a horrifying, emotional-vampire-ridden nonprofit job after building up JUST enough savings and copywriting clients to cut the cord, and even though I don’t regret it and I’m now officially making a living from writing, it’s no walk in the park and sometimes the contracts run a little too dry for comfort. I pretty much constructed it as an escape route and I’m happy to say that it’s actually something I can see myself doing as a support long term (because, like you, I have an astounding lack of ambition for any career path that’s not writing fiction), but I have to really organize myself now and treat my freelance writing like a business rather than the desperate measure it started out as. And ALSO, I have to say that even if you haven’t published a word, I’m envious of your dedication in writing fiction every single day — I desperately need to get into the routine and habit of pursuing what really fulfills me. You inspire me!

    P.S. It’s definitely not easy but totally possible to slowly but surely pick up a few good clients on places like Upwork. That’s where I started. I’m into vintage clothes and thrift store shopping, and Upwork is like the thrift store of freelance work — mostly bargain basement 90’s denim, but occasionally some rich lady died and her kids had to clean out her closet filled with Burberry and Dior. As soon as I got in the door with my main client, from Upwork, I started to get a steady and decently-paid barrage of work from them.

    1. First of all – you comparing good freelance writing projects to finding Burberry in a thrift shop is the best thing I’ve read all day. Thank you for that. And secondly, thank you for the keeping-it-real advice. It’s so much better and more realistic than googling “freelance writing” and finding a bunch of mega-blog millionaires who are like, ALL YOU HAVE TO DO IS NETWORK, IT’S FINE. It’s really encouraging to hear the truth: that making a living writing is hard, and tenuous, and scrappy as fuck. But possible.

      I just recently got approved for an Upwork account. I’ve sold a couple of articles on Constant Content, which I’m currently writing a blog post about (because I can’t do anything without also writing about it bc I’m compulsive LOL). Once my contract job ends in August, I’m really hoping to find the courage to NOT look for a new job right away but to invest all my energy into freelancing.

      And I’m so glad my fiction writing is an inspiration! For years, I had so much trouble sticking to my fiction projects, and I eventually realized it was because I was only writing short stories. I enjoyed these projects and even finished some, but I was never fully invested. Once I delved into writing novels – a trilogy of them – the characters became so important and real to me that the idea of abandoning them simply doesn’t occur to me. It surprises me every day how inevitable it is. Even when I’m in the dregs of rewrites (right now), I can’t abandon the project. Because it’s hundreds and thousands of words, and a whole world to me.

      Good luck with your writing – and thank you so much for your comment!

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