Having a Day Job Doesn't Make Me Any Less of an Artist

As I started to want a more grown-up life, I felt like I could no longer afford to be a “real” writer.
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Mari Sasano
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As I started to want a more grown-up life, I felt like I could no longer afford to be a “real” writer.
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I’m a writer. I’ve been freelancing full-time on and off for about 15 years. It’s been great; I’ve talked to a lot of great people, seen a lot of really amazing things, gotten into shows for free, made out with semi-famous musicians, and had access to media platforms that has allowed me to reach thousands of people. 

Oh, and I work from home, too. Being a writer has given me a very privileged life. That’s why people want to do it.

When I was younger and the world was different (I was getting by on a daily newspaper column and there was a craptonne of well-paid freelance work), it was possible to eke out a living by writing a couple articles, sharing cheap, rundown houses and getting into a whack of debt. And that’s the thing. As I started to want a more grown-up life, I was starting to feel like I could no longer afford to be a “real” writer.

At some point, I stopped pursuing bylines in favour of an income. Anything as long as I was writing. As a full-time writer, I’ve had to write copy for websites, create communications plans, churn out promo materials, be the anonymous voice behind social media, teach, and pick up admin work when I had to. And mostly I had to. I was writing full time, sure, but these are things that I am good enough to do, but not great. And the best I could say about some of that work was I didn’t totally loathe it.

I was writing, but I no longer felt like a writer.

There was a time when I’d cling to my full-time writer status as a sign of success. Writing was my only source of income, and like a lot of artists I know, making money any other way was seen as a defeat. Selling out. Abandoning a dream. That I didn’t want it enough, and therefore that I didn’t deserve to succeed. Just a hobbyist.

I was wrong. And I figured it out. After a months-long job search, I recently started a part-time job in government. I might write a bestseller that would allow me to live on royalties and movie deals and such, but let’s face it: it’s unlikely. I’m not that good. I don’t ask for much.

It turns out that in my life I need to feed my ego. I need for people to listen to my ideas and respond to them instead of anonymously writing something to someone else’s satisfaction. In December, I pitched my first piece for xoJane. I’d forgotten how good it felt to be able to share my writing and be credited for it!

I was being read by the biggest audience I’ve ever had (Hi there! Thanks!)and making amazing connections with other women writers. But do you know how many articles I’d have to write to pay the bills? 

I’m not selling out; I’m cashing in.

The stigma against taking on non-creative work is largely a class thing: it takes a lot of money to work all those years for free or cheap while you hone your craft. To keep working without a safety net. This became depressingly apparent at a magazine pitch workshop I went to a couple years ago: the first piece of advice was “marry a rich person.” And sure, that’s probably good advice generally, but should not doing so keep a talented writer out of the pool?

Wallace Stevens had a day job -- he sold insurance. William Carlos Williams was a physician. Many, many more were teachers or academics.

To be perfectly honest, I don’t think I’d really enjoy doing ANY ONE THING for a full eight hours. My job gives me a bit of a break during the day, and I write at night. And changing gears to do a normal job is really good for me. 

When I’m writing full time, I feel like I’m in a bubble of other freelancers and artists and weirdoes. This way, I get to live in the world and talk to many different types of people. People who aren’t hanging around for self-promotion. Sometimes I’ll talk to people who don’t want to talk, so I’ll get better at asking questions. They are just as weird and interesting.

I’m joining the civil service to become a BETTER artist. I’m making my writing a hobby for the sake of the long game. I need to free up some energy to fuck around and think and daydream, not to let my money gig take over my entire life. My day job stays in the office and doesn’t expand to fill the chasm that is procrastination. Think of it as having a double life: kind of exciting! 

Of course I’m really hoping I’m right. I may be wrong. But I’m telling you all: there is no shame in making a living.