“Do you want to be a librarian when you grow up?”
A few weeks ago while I was shelving books at the library in the kids’ school, one of the younger elementary students asked me this question. I smiled and told her no, that I just enjoyed helping out at the school. I wanted to add that I’m already “grown up” but I didn’t because this question–what do you want to be when you grow up?–is more complicated than ever.
It used to be that people knew how they would spend their lives after school was finished, whether they graduated from high school or college. The future was laid out in a factory or a corporation or a professional career. Maybe it’s still like that for some people.
When I graduated from college, I’m not sure what I pictured myself being when I grew up. I got a job at a newspaper and I stayed there for years then moved on to another newspaper, all the while wishing I had more time to write things I wanted to write, like stories, true and fictional. When I was writing for a living, it was hard to write for fun or enjoyment. I learned this about myself in those years of full-time work and singleness.
Then I had children and stayed home with them. I began to write out of necessity because it was a habit from the journalism years. Millions of words live inside my head and only a fraction of them make it to a page or screen, but some of them have to get out or my brain rejects any other kind of information. Sometimes, if I haven’t written for a while, I forgot how to do normal everyday life things. My brain is too full of the words I have thought but not written. This is my head space.
I have been casually writing from home for almost 10 years. I have a few successes to show for it. A teensy bit of money. A lot of unpublished, unedited words. Turns out the dream of being a writer is still hard work and I am easily pulled in other directions. Volunteering. Coffee dates. Housework (the bare minimum!). Cooking. Yes, I’ve been writing, too, and it’s not nothing. But it’s also not enough.
Two months ago, we started to have the talk in our house about how we were going to increase our income. Adding a part-time job made the most sense and I wrestled with the familiar shame of being capable of earning and falling short. (The truth about being a freelance writer is it requires building momentum and planning ahead and some entrepreneurial effort, many of the things I lack. Maybe this is not how it is for all freelancers.) Even when I did write something and got paid for it, the payment often came months after the writing was over. This was not the way to a sustainable income.
After some tearful discussions and some heart wrestling, I applied for a part-time job that fit with our family’s life and schedule. It took weeks for all the paperwork to clear and for everything to line up but it’s official–as of today, I am employed part time outside of the house.
I’m excited about the opportunity, and the regular income will help our family pursue our dreams and goals.
Still, there’s a part of me that feels like I’m giving up.
Once upon a time, I had this picture in my head of how dreamy it must be to write from home. To write books and have a publisher send them out into the world, or to publish them yourself and send them out. I thought it was possible to spend my days in front of my computer reflecting on life while sipping coffee and creating characters and plot lines out of nothing more than my imagination. If I’m honest with myself, I thought it sounded perfect. And if I wasn’t doing that–devoting every waking moment to my writing–then I was doing it wrong.
Fifteen years ago, I didn’t even know that people who weren’t NY Times Bestseller famous could even make a living writing. That’s when I first started dreaming about the possibilities. It’s a frustrating art sometimes, especially if you want immediate results, especially if your definition of success is some kind of tangible like a paycheck or a publishing credit.
To me, staying home to write was “living the dream” even if it was sometimes more like a nightmare.
Now that I’m starting a “real job” it feels like I’m giving up on the dream. There’s a little voice–it’s really quiet–that tells me this. It whispers that if I had worked harder, if I was more disciplined, if I was smarter or more clever or had taken one more marketing or self-publishing course that I could be “living the dream” with actual results to show for it.
This voice is mostly quiet and I mostly ignore it because I’ve seen differently, especially in the last few years. I’ve seen writers I admire and respect work another job to pay the bills, sometimes even on the day of publication of their first book. I’ve heard how some of my favorite writers squeeze in their art between work and sleep or during lunch breaks, how they’re basically always writing but not always sitting in front of a blank page or a computer screen.
I think what I’m beginning to see is that sometimes the dream and reality are more linked than I want to admit. That there can be both a dream and a reality and I don’t have to give up one in favor of the other.
I’m working an outside-the-house job, yes, and I’m going to keep working at my writing. I haven’t failed or given up on my art because I got a job. I suspect that having a job will make me more motivated to keep at my writing.
I think most of us writers, creators, artists wish our creating paid all the bills. Someday it might. And for some people it does. But it definitely doesn’t happen overnight or without effort. For most of us, we’re going to create right alongside some other work we’re doing.
Because the truth is that I’m a writer at my core. It’s what I was made to do. And I don’t have to be at home, sitting in front of a screen all the time to be writing. I don’t have to sit in my favorite coffee shop gazing out the window or taking a walk in the park with a notebook to be a writer.
I. Am. A. Writer. Having a job doesn’t change that.
But I do have to get the words out some time and somewhere. That is my goal for this year. To make a regular practice of getting some words out of my head, whether I publish them here or not. You might see less of me around these parts. Or you might not.
Rest assured that even if I seem a bit absent here, I’m still writing. (This is the assurance I’m giving myself, too.)