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.