I recently got an email asking for my advice on this subject. The writer felt now was the time to really commit to their work, and was considering taking a big pay cut and reduction in hours in order to do that. It’s something that comes up a lot – when should you quit your job?
Now, there’s a lot of writing advice around that says ‘always keep your day job’. And it’s true that while getting one publishing deal is not unattainable, making an ongoing living from writing is much harder. But not impossible, if you’re quick and savvy and far-sighted. My heart used to always sink when I read that nugget of advice, because I really, really hated my job. I was convinced writing a book would save me from it. Some mornings I could barely lift my hand to open the office door. To by honest, I wish I’d quit before I got a book deal and just made it work somehow. I did quit as soon as I sold my first book and have never regretted this, but then I have no children and have been lucky enough to find other flexible work.
So my first bit of advice is that if you hate your job this much, you should quit anyway. Nothing is worth that level of daily misery. But if you don’t, think carefully about your reasons. If your writing is blocked and you aren’t doing any at all, chances are it isn’t time that’s the issue. Having acres of the stuff isn’t going to help if the problem is elsewhere.
On the other hand, if you’re already cramming words into every possible moment, on the bus, in your lunch hour, then maybe extra time and headspace is what you need for that final push. SJ Watson chose to reduce his hours at work and take a more junior position as he felt it was time for that exact push. To give getting published the best possible shot. And clearly it has paid off for him.
On the other other hand, I know people who’ve quit work only to write nothing. I’ve also known people who’ve come off MAs and not written anything for ten years afterwards. There is no magic button for getting your writing on track – you have to work out what it is that’s stopping you and address it. Is it work? Time? Family? Tiredness? Lack of confidence? Lack of a story? The way you get round these blocks is not necessarily more time. Indeed, I often do thousands of words in fifteen-minute gaps between other things and wonder how I can spend a whole day at home producing nothing.
There’s also the issue that imminent and terrifying poverty is not at all conducive to writing, other than pleading letters to the bank. It’s like all pressure – time, physical, emotional – too much will kill you. Not enough will leave you flabby and unmotivated. A little bit of money pressure, however, can sometimes be a strong motivating factor. Balance is key. I think quitting your job, especially if it’s stressful or bad, is well worth considering, but not essential. It does certainly feel good to hand in your notice though…