When a Hobby Becomes a Job

When I hear writers say they would love to “give up their day job” to write full-time, I wonder whether achieving this goal could have an unintended negative consequence: a drop in creativity and production.

I’ve thought about this subject on this blog before (see William Faulker: When Writing Interferes With Work), and another letter featured on Letters of Note has me thinking about it again.  This time it’s a letter from noted author Charles Bukowski to publisher John Martin, who had offered to pay Bukowski a monthly stipend for the rest of his life if he quit his job at the post office to write full time.  In 1986, years after Martin’s offer, Bukowski reflects on how lucky he was to escape his day job:

So, the luck I finally had in getting out of those places [such as a light fixture packing plant], no matter how long it took, has given me a kind of joy, the jolly joy of the miracle. I now write from an old mind and an old body, long beyond the time when most men would ever think of continuing such a thing, but since I started so late I owe it to myself to continue, and when the words begin to falter and I must be helped up stairways and I can no longer tell a bluebird from a paperclip, I still feel that something in me is going to remember (no matter how far I’m gone) how I’ve come through the murder and the mess and the moil, to at least a generous way to die.

Bukowski was one of the lucky ones who became a professional writer and no longer needed a “day job.”  There are many who aspire to do the same,  but I wonder about the drawbacks.  Could their love of writing wane if it becomes their full time job instead of a reprieve from the “moil” of what they previously did from 9-5?  Obviously, the answer is different for everyone and dependent on a number of factors, including how fulfilling their day job is, the security of their livelihood, their motivation, and just how much they love to write. Bukowski thought the latter two to be quite important, e.g., “if you have to wait for it to roar out of you, then wait patiently. if it never does roar out of you, do something else.”

If some crazy person were to offer me a monthly stipend to give up my day job, I suspect that accepting such an offer would likely kill my creativity and productivity.  If my creative endeavors became more job-like, with hard deadlines and a “publish or perish” mindset, then it would be no better than a 9-5+ job, and I would probably end up doing pro bono legal representation on the side as a break from the daily grind of publishing.  Furthermore, I am a procrastinator by nature, and so I will always put off what need not be done today.  Working forces me to use my limited personal time wisely.  If my hobby became my job, without hard deadlines, then I would probably spend more time futzing around on the internet than working on anything creative, having found that procrastination and perfectionism are often paralyzing (see my previous post, Perfectionism and Publishing).

I hope that those who dream of writing full-time are able to achieve this goal and be more successful at turning their hobby into a job than I believe I would be.

25 responses to “When a Hobby Becomes a Job

  1. I’m glad you wrote about this. As a high school teacher, I get the experience of having free time to write for 10 weeks each summer, so it’s like being able to sample the no-work lifestyle. While I sometimes do projects that I don’t have time for during the school year, I am glad I have a job to go back to. The job gives me a routine (I wake up early and write my journals before school) that I lack in the summer, and the job also gives me experiences and ideas to write about, and the job also lets me forget about my own writing each day (as I help my students to write), and that’s healthy, too. I sympathize with people who don’t get extended time off like we teachers do, so that we can appreciate both the vacation and the job.

    By the way, I know I’m commenting weeks after your original posting, but I appreciate what you’re doing here!

    • Thanks for commenting! I have to admit that I’m a bit envious of school teachers (my sister is one) who get the best of both worlds: the structure of a job most of the year and extended time off to follow other pursuits. I had a taste of it, sort of, on my maternity leaves, but caring for a newborn was rather grueling and I didn’t end up being as productive on my creative projects as I had hoped (I wrote a lot, but I thought I would have the time to write more). I needed the structure of going back to work to motivate me to use my personal time more productively.

  2. Interesting post, and good replies. I’ve always wondered the same about professional sport. When I was younger I lived for the weekend – as did most of my friends – and a game of soccer, rugby, cricket (sorry that would be football, baseball, basketball). We all wanted to get to be good enough to eventually turn professional.

    But then you think – your contract has six months to run, you have a young family and a mortgage, you’re playing badly and the crowd are booing you. Exactly how much are you enjoying being a pro now? Maybe you wished you’d just become a lawyer or an accountant like your teacher said.

    • I agree, plus with professional sports, there’s the added concern of serious, life-long injuries (like chronic traumatic encephalitis with American football players). To me, it would definitely be more fun as a weekend activity as opposed to a job. And hey, there’s nothing wrong with being a lawyer. I rather like it. Thanks for stopping by and for commenting!

  3. After nearly 25 years of gov’t service, I’d give up 1/2 my retirement to get a monthly stipend to write. Well, okay, maybe not 1/2, but still I’d think about it. If calling writing a “job” kills your creativity, call it something else that doesn’t do that. Simple as that, you’re a professional (i.e. paid) writer, though you might call it freelance.

    Labels bring emotions. Emotions bring doubt and fear. Not good things for a writing career (or hobby).

    Write, be free, be happy…the rest is just details.

    • Maybe changing the label would help, but I suspect that a new label would be similar to a soft, self-imposed deadline for me (I KNOW it isn’t real!). I may change in time. Your last line (“Write, be free, be happy… the rest is just details”) are words to live by!

  4. I can attest to having your passion wane as creativity becomes a job. For many years, you look to everyday as a new and exciting experience, flush with ideas and inspiration. Then when having that creativity tied to monetary gain and career advancement, it starts to become a chore with deadlines, responsibilities and pressures. Many things become mundane and repetitive. I do have different creative outlets that fill the need for the ‘fresh’, so the job at least has not become something I don’t look forward to, but I can see that in the future. So I can bet if writing was full time, after a book or two, things would start to change.

    • Yeah, I completely agree! It helps to have different creative outlets to fulfill the need for the “fresh” (which is a nice way of describing this!).

  5. I don’t know that it’s limited to writing. For instance, I used to like to design websites for friends. I decided I could charge for it, and develop a nice little niche for people who weren’t technical enough to do their own, but still too small to hire a “real” company. It went well, except I immediately began hating it! I now do it only for free, and only for friends (and not very often even with those stipulations.) The same thing happened to my better half. As soon as wood-turning went from a fun hobby to a potential income source, all the joy was gone. The best solution would probably be if we could quit our day jobs without having to rely on a hobby as our source of support. Wouldn’t that be nice? :-)

    • Yes, that would be nice! Then it can stay a hobby, one you have more time to do, because you aren’t relying on it for income. Some writers are lucky enough to get to that point, while many others struggle if they aren’t able to sell their next work. Even if I no longer needed to work as a source of income, I don’t think I could give up my job. I like it too much.

      • You’re in a good place then, for sure. I could give up my job in a heartbeat (even though I do really like it) but I agree I’d have to do something. I’m not good at festering. :-)

  6. I know a few people who decided to quit their job so they could work on their novel full time (even though they were an unknown, unpublished author). It took everything I had to bite my tongue and not explode lectures on them, but I suppose the process is different for everyone.

    First of all if a person can’t write under the pressure of time, I wonder if that person should be in this business at all. I think having the day job mixed with writing makes for good training for the future when the editors and publishers are pressuring you for another book. Secondly, even when we do get published it’s going to be awhile before we see enough success to reasonably quit our day jobs. It’s not like we publish a book and suddenly we’re millionaires (and if that’s what you’re in it for, I wonder if you’re writing for the right reasons).

    Thirdly, a day job offers unique interactions, often with very frustrating people which is great fodder for storytelling. If a person is able to write full time without a day job, I hope they’re making efforts to get these interactions a day job would provide. Like you say, I think the day job offers more than we realize when it comes to our writing.

    • I agree with you. It’s different for everyone, but I do believe that keeping the day job has its benefits (such as providing inspiration for storytelling, as you say). I also think you’re right about how often writing full-time becomes like a job with similar externally imposed pressures and deadlines. For writers who want to be published authors, writing IS a job, which might take the fun out of the creative process. For writers who want writing to remain fun, it’s probably best to keep it a hobby.

  7. Interesting question. Well, I’ve treated my writing as a job since I first published. I’ve not thought of it as a hobby since then, although, my husband still says it is. I view it as having two full-time jobs, my day job and my writing job. I treat my writing as a business, and I hope to one day do it “full-time”, but I know that I cannot just be a writer, hence the marketing degree. I’d like to run my own publication marketing company. That is what my photography business plan is morphing into, slowly but surely. Thus, I can combine all my loves creatively, but not be bogged down by the “you must write 1,000 words/day tenant”. Hopefully…

    • Good luck! I guess part of it comes from the fact that I don’t necessarily identify as a writer, even though I do a lot of writing (perhaps that will change if I publish a novel). I love to write, but it’s definitely a side activity for me and thus a hobby, not another job.

  8. My freelance editing is starting to take off, and I’m pleased about that. But yes, it cuts into my writing time. I admit I look forward to the day when I can retire and do nothing but write. And if I don’t feel like writing for a couple of weeks, that’s okay, too. Writing is the only thing I want to do right now. Well, that and reading, which I also don’t have much time for. Give up the day job? Oh yeah. Where do I sign up?

    • I hope it works out and that you’re able to write full time (without too much of the business-side of it getting in the way)! I can understand the appeal of reading and writing full time, but I don’t think it suits my personality.

  9. This post is very pertinent to something I have been experiencing recently. I am currently setting up my own business as a freelance copywriter, and it was interesting to see how quickly it has devoured all of my free time. The time I spent on creative projects was squeezed and eventually usurped by more and more business-related tasks. Luckily a two week holiday allowed me to step back and review everything and see how it has affected my main objectives and life goals. I am easing myself back into the professional writing now, as I want to be able to focus on my creative goals, but I do very much enjoy my creative work. Achieving a balance is what I need to strive for. I would love to be a full time novel writer (and intend to be) and I don’t think it would dampen my creativity to the extent where writing a book became a chore. When I think of all the freedoms freelancing writing is already bringing me, I realise just how great anything that isn’t full time employment can be, and I hope one day to realise this as a author.

  10. ThreeKingsBooks

    Yes. MHO: you got it right. I combined it with being a mother, and, for me, the two nicely balanced out, but now that my children are grown?

    • I hope you’ve reached a new balance now that your children are grown. I can’t wait until my youngest is a bit older and doesn’t need to be constantly monitored (which isn’t play time–that’s one of the fun parts of parenting!). I would have so much more time to enjoy creative pursuits without it being too much “free time” with everything else that goes along with working and parenting.

  11. an interesting question (I stumbled about the bukowski letter too and it got me thinking). there is writing, and there is writing. I would like to write full-time, too, but what I mean with that is journalism. research, interviews, deadlines. it’s a craft you have to work on. a job. maybe a more fulfilling one than many others. but a job with routines and ups and downs like any other nevertheless. I wouldn’t want to romanticize it. creative writing is something else. I do that, too. but it’s nothing I would want to turn into my main mean of income. because it would probably kill my creativity. that’s not saying that journalism doesn’t require creativity… whenever I talk to someone these days and the topic of writing comes up these are the kinds of questions I ask. do you want to write? or do you want to lead the life of a writer? because I think that’s what it often comes down to.

    • You make a good point between the different types of writing. As a lawyer, I write a lot and I am able to make creative arguments on occasion, but the writing style is dry and formulaic (we call it CRAC, not that most seasoned lawyers use it religiously). To me, creative writing should be more fun than the dry, legal writing I do everyday. If it becomes more like a job (with pressure and stress), it wouldn’t be fun anymore.

      • but what do you think about journalistic writing, like travel writing, opinion pieces, columns, etc? that’s sort of in between, isn’t it? creative to some extent but also a job… just wondering.

        • Maybe journalism is the best of both worlds? I hesitate to say that only because of how paid journalism is struggling in the internet age, thus adding to the pressures some journalists feel. Whether it’s fulfilling and feels more like a hobby or a job is going to depend on the person, and I hope that if it’s the path you take that it won’t ruin writing for you.

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