“What’s your plan?” As graduation looms closer, high schoolers get sick of hearing this question from friends, relatives, and strangers.
Career decisions are daunting for anyone—and even more complicated for teens who want to shove words across the page 24-7. The hard truth is that writing won’t be profitable from the get-go, so adults tell aspiring young authors that they need to be more realistic. At the thought of abandoning their dreams, young writers either viciously defend their passion or resign themselves to a future that stifles their creative gifts. Though both sides have valid concerns, they’re guilty of being imbalanced as well.
Not all of SE readers are teens, but for those of you who are wondering what direction to take after high school, I’m going to share three reasons you should follow your calling to write but not lean on it as your only source of income.
1. Financial Stability
During my senior year in high school, I had three career ambitions: writer, rock star, and horse trainer. Since this is my own story, I can bluntly say that my list was ridiculous. Bills don’t wait for the publishing house to send an advance, I get stage fright making a phone call (let alone singing in front of a crowd), and breaking horses required more resources than I had at my disposal (plus, it wouldn’t have been conducive to family life).
Thank God my parents lovingly knocked sense into me, and my first job was as a certified paraoptometric. The paycheck covered my phone, car, insurance, and more. I kept writing throughout that time, though it wasn’t bringing me any income. I received rejection letters or no responses at all and hit writer’s block. But since I wasn’t under the pressure of supporting myself with my writing, I could afford to grow through those disappointments.
My friend Jenelle Hovde is in her forties and has been writing actively for years, but she didn’t sign with a literary agent until recently. Before that she relied on other jobs for income and raised a family. If she’d resolved to do nothing except write after high school, she would have starved. A steady paycheck allowed her to face creditors without fear (or at least less).
After I married and had a son, I left my job at the eye doctor. My husband, who works for a local rancher, provides our daily living. But I babysit, give guitar lessons, and do occasional sewing and building projects. I use the money from that to hire editors, buy writing craft books, and enter contests for feedback. My writing projects still haven’t turned a profit, so I need funds to enable me to keep learning.
You shouldn’t feel ashamed if your situation is similar to mine. Whether you’re pursuing traditional or self-publishing, the writing industry requires time and monetary investment. Conferences and courses don’t come free. Neither do editors, cover designers, and formatters. If your books aren’t generating much income (or aren’t published yet), you won’t have the means to obtain the needed services and education.
Even for successful writers like Jill Williamson and Stephanie Morrill, income can be minimal. Jill’s writing earns 5–30 percent of her family’s total income, depending on her number of book releases and yearly expenses. Her husband has a full-time job, and she’s begun teaching elementary school to supplement their income even more. Stephanie estimates a 5–10 percent income from her writing. In the past, she’s held jobs alongside writing, but currently she’s a stay-at-home mom.
Making a living from writing isn’t impossible, as Daeus Lamb explains in the Cultivating a Mindset for Success course he developed for Story Embers. But you need a solid game plan and perseverance to build a lucrative business. Many young writers enter adulthood with starry eyes, believing they’ll become the next J. K. Rowling overnight. Her massive popularity is the exception, not the rule. You must work hard, and sometimes you might have to take a less direct route toward your goal.
Remember, whether you start earning royalties immediately or later in life, neither scenario measures your worth as a writer. Don’t fear jobs that pull you away from your fictional characters. They’re not harmful and can actually be an asset on more than one level.
2. Opportunities to Explore Other Interests
So, you need a job. That doesn’t mean you should pick one at random. Search for a position that appeals to you. And now you’re probably protesting, But I don’t enjoy anything besides writing! That’s not true. If you were a full-time writer, I guarantee you’d have days when you wish your computer would crash so you wouldn’t have to revise a chapter for the fifth time. All jobs have highs and lows.
Evaluate your strengths—and I’m not talking about hobbies. Odds are, you won’t get a part-time job as a musician just because you play guitar. But your personality (introverted vs. extroverted), preferences (spontaneity vs. routine), and life skills (organization, food prep, tech savvy) can reveal jobs that would suit you.
Before I started looking for employment, my parents had me fill out Focus on the Family’s lengthy career assessment. Unsurprisingly, writing and creativity were among my top five, but so were math and administration. I excelled at prioritizing and delegating to complete a task efficiently. This influenced the college classes I enrolled in and the type of jobs I applied for.
If you’re going to attend college, concentrate on the big picture. Instead of majoring in English by default, you could focus on one of your secondary interests (like I did with business administration) and mix it with writing electives. Not only did my college writing and editing classes improve my storytelling but also my aptitude as a paraoptometric. I helped write employee bios and proofread the office’s marketing material, which gave me a sense of satisfaction because those duties related to my natural strengths.
As I mentioned in the previous section, Jill Williamson is now an elementary teacher. Originally, she studied fashion design in college—which has actually tied into her writing (have you seen her costumes?). It didn’t end up being her career of choice, but when she decided to return for her master’s degree in teaching, she’d already accumulated enough credits for her bachelor’s.
Young people often view the moment they join the workforce as a death blow to their writing. A job, like any daily responsibility, will reduce the amount of time you have to put pen to paper. But several of the traits you need to thrive as a novelist, such as empathy and understanding, will be learned in the world beyond your desk. If you limit yourself to one profession, you may never discover your maximum potential as a writer and as a person.
3. Creative Renewal
Never balk at gaining more experience. Every relationship and circumstance in your life is story fodder. If you read author Louis L’Amour’s biography, you’ll notice that he traveled and was a ranch hand, miner, boxer, and merchant seaman before committing himself to writing. His adventures inspired the stories that eventually made him famous.
Jobs can be stressful or have toxic environments, but in general, they shape you into a well-rounded person. Writers tend to be introverts, and though that’s not necessarily a problem (it can even be an advantage), constant isolation is unhealthy for anyone. Jobs encourage you to leave the house, interact with people, and distance yourself from your writing, which is essential to being objective.
Most of the writers I spoke to while planning this article cited time restraints as the main drawback to an outside job. However, they all agreed it’s an obstacle that can be overcome and doesn’t outweigh the benefits. For Story Embers staff member Gabrielle Pollack, having a job keeps her accountable and productive. The less time she has, the more valuable it becomes. So she may spend most of her day at her job, but when she clocks out, she’s determined to utilize her free time to accomplish her writing goals rather than wasting it.
You’re Still a Writer
Whether you sit at your computer for five hours each afternoon or peck out ideas on your phone during spare moments, if you write, you’re a writer. A day job doesn’t negate that fact, nor does it indicate you aren’t a good writer.
Don’t be scared to broaden your college horizons or apply for jobs that have absolutely nothing to do with writing (like fixing eyeglasses). Writers are crazy—we fuel ourselves on caffeine, attempt to write 50,000 words in thirty days, obsess over tiny details, and do extensive research on obscure topics. Tackling a nine-to-five job should be easy compared to all that. And if you ever reach a point where you no longer need supplemental income, fantastic! But if not, you’ll have a safety net to fall back on.
The Aberdeen and Mariposa Instagram page describes writer problem #12: “When being an author prevents you from writing, reading, earning a living, eating, drinking, sleeping, and being a generally agreeable human being.” It’s meant to be humorous, but it also contains a heap of truth. Don’t listen to the naysayers who scoff at your aspirations to be an author. But don’t let that desire prevent you from experiencing life to the fullest.
Maddie Morrow grew up with her mom reading to her and her dad telling stories about cowboys hunting Bigfoot. The combination sparked her love of writing early, and she’s been lost in her notebooks ever since. Aside from writing, she enjoys loud music, good horses, and hardcover books. She lives on a farm in Nebraska with her husband and son. Her Gaslamp novella, Red as Blood, won the 2018 Snow White retelling contest hosted by Rooglewood Press, and it released in December 2018 with the Five Poisoned Apples collection.