Selling Out, Or Surviving?

Selling Out, Or Surviving?

It was a moment of dichotomy. I’d just been offered a job. An employed job. It was my first job interview for twenty years and they offered me the position. (Clearly, they were desperate!) I was going back into the world of employment, albeit on a part-time basis.

But the euphoria was tempered with guilt. After all this time working as a full-time self-employed writer, was I selling out on the dream? Would this make me less of a writer?

Nobody knows what lies round the next corner. Six months earlier, retinal problems meant I needed emergency eye surgery to save the sight in my left eye. Thankfully, the surgery prevented any further sight loss, but the recovery took time. I was unable to drive for four months and looking at a computer screen was challenging.

It knocked me financially. I managed my regular writing commitments, but developing new work was difficult. One day, a friend mentioned a job they’d seen. It was a part-time, 12-month contract, and they thought I could do it blindfolded. (The irony!)

But being a full-time self-employed writer was important to me. It was my dream, and I loved the freedom self-employment gave me. So was I selling out?

We are never just writers

‘I have been a translator, a writing tutor, a consultant, a sub-editor, an editor, a food judge – all while being a writer,’ says Alex Gazzola, author of the Mistakes Writers Make guides and associated blog (http://mistakeswritersmake.com). ‘In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever been only a writer. Writing doesn’t always expose you to the world nor give you many ideas in itself. Getting out there and doing other stuff can give you lots of ideas. You’ll meet people. They will tell you stories.’

This is true. I am collecting many stories and observations. Within weeks of starting I had a meeting with someone whom I used to work with in my previous employment days, and they said, ‘If you can’t get at least four novels’ worth of material from your 12-month contract here, then you’re a rubbish writer.’ Suffice to say I now have many more notebooks filled with observations and thoughts!

People Perspective

Diane Perry has been a full-time freelance writer for a couple of years, but has recently taken on a part-time job working weekends.

‘By taking on a part-time job it has really helped me as a writer,’ she explains. ‘It can be very isolating sometimes, but taking on part-time work has given me some interaction with other people. That helps me to get new inspiration and ideas for writing projects that I have never thought about before.’

Regular Money

The pact when you sign away some working hours each week to an employer is that you get regular money in return. This makes financial survival easier. However, there’s less time to write.

But Diane has found that taking on employed work has given her writing time more focus.

‘By doing part-time work it gives me more structure to my week, as I know I can’t write on certain days. When I get a day off I feel more energised with my writing and the ideas seem to flow more as I know I have to use that time effectively. I have so many new ideas and genres that I want to try and that is just because of my part-time working environment.’

For me there was another consequence: I still had to run the writing business I’d built up over the last twenty years, and keep it going, because I could be back to full-time self-employment when the 12-month contract ended. You can’t tell clients that you’re putting most of your business on hold for 12 months, and then expect them to pick up where you left off a year later. That’s not how business works. There were regular columns and blogs to write, loyal magazine clients to continue submitting work to, and editing work for an American client.

Typically, Murphy’s Law came into play at the start of the 12-month contract. Several article pitches I’d sent before applying for the job came home to roost. I had more commissioned work and less time in which to do it!

Decision Consequences

It meant being much more focussed with my time, and making decisions and accepting the consequences of those decisions. I worked long hours, which meant less time with family.

It also had consequences on what I wrote. While the employment brought in regular money, it wasn’t quite enough to live on. My self-employed priority had to focus on the work that brought in money. Only when I’d done this, and if I had any time left over, could I risk working on more speculative writing, such as short stories or my novel.

As Diane says, ‘The drawbacks may be so different for so many people. You may be limited to when and where you can write depending on the hours you are working and the hours you feel at your best writing.’

I got little writing done during my three and a half days a week of employed work. I was always irritable by the time I’d finished my employed hours each week. I really felt as though I’d sold out. Yet I felt so much better during the second half of the week, when I was writing.

New Routine

It took a couple of months, but creating a new routine was vital. I spent as much of my self-employed time planning and writing first drafts. That way, the evenings of my employed-days could be spent editing. My irritability during those days eased because I felt I was still pushing my writing projects forward.

Diane agrees. ‘You just have to set tiny goals in whatever time suits you and that will fit in with your work. Even if it is just a scribbled idea in a notebook before you start work or after. It may turn into something amazing when you have time to work on it.’

But my new routines needed to be flexible too. A regular magazine client got in touch and commissioned me to do a travel piece which involved a fantastic press trip. But organising that press trip during my three and a half self-employment days was challenging, and took longer than I’d have liked.

Again, I felt I’d sold out, because I couldn’t be as flexible as I had in the past. However, I delivered the job, and the editor even emailed to say how much he liked it. That job also enabled me to break into a new market.

Annual Review

As I write this, I’m approaching the end of my 12-month contract. Looking back, there are some interesting observations to make.

Firstly, I earned more from my writing business during this last 12-month period when I was writing part-time, than I did writing full-time during the previous 12 months. My eye condition certainly played a part in the reduced income during that last full-time year of self-employment, though. However, it also illustrated that being part-time employed for half the week did not see my writing business shrink by half.

Secondly, I broke into a couple of new markets during this period. So not only did my writing business survive, I was also expanding into new markets.

I also had several writing opportunities arise as part of my employed work. As soon as the Communications Director heard about my published work, I was asked to write for the website and other communications material. So this meant that I was paid to write during my employed time.

There’s now talk of extending my contract. I’m not adverse to the idea, although I’ve asked to reduce my hours. For the last 12 months my time has been split 50/50 between employment and self-employment. If there’s a new contract (subject to funding), the new split will be 60/40, in favour of my writing time.

‘A lot of writers come to writing gradually,’ says Alex. ‘This transition is considered by some the real mark of writerly success, but taking a step back – whether by necessity or desire – is no sign of failure. In fact, it’s a sign of success. It’s a sign that you recognise that there is more to life than writing, and that you have to be prepared to adapt and respond to changing circumstances throughout your life and career.’

For some writers, employed work has other benefits, as Diane explains. ‘Getting paid as a writer is incredibly hard. For some, the benefits of working part-time takes a little pressure off while sending submissions that may get you a publishing deal one day.’

And she still sees herself as a writer. ‘I am always a writer and feel proud of that. I will always introduce myself to new people as a writer, as that is what I do. I will add on afterwards that I have a part-time job that I enjoy.’

Looking back, I agree. I haven’t sold out by taking on employed work. It may not have been part of my original grand plan, but then, neither was emergency eye surgery! This part-time employed work has enabled me to keep my writing business going. I am still a writer. And one with lots more ideas too!

Business Directory – A Part-time Survivor’s Guide

  1. Be realistic with your writing time and what you can achieve with it.
  2. Try to move your projects forward every day, including those days when there’s little time for writing. Psychologically, you’ll still feel you’ve achieved something.
  3. Look for writing opportunities within your employed work. You can still include it on your Writing CV.
  4. Exploit the employed work for ideas. They may be useful for your future writing.
  5. Avoid getting caught up in the office politics!

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