I am a writer. I was a scientist too, but I was a writer first.
Every bit of advice about writing that I have ever seen includes 2 main ideas. First – you must write. Goes without saying, kinda, but people still need to say it. Second, though, is – don’t quit your day job. Even successful writers struggle for years before they make any kind of comfortable living from their writing income alone. And most never even make it to that level, so above all else, don’t quit your day job. So I quit mine. Let’s do a little Q&A to get to the bottom of that, shall we?
Why on Earth would you quit your job?
Well, looking at my age – rapidly approaching 40, some might say ‘midlife crisis.’ And if that’s true, well, I guess it’s better than some of the other most common hallmarks. But I would say that’s largely coincidental. I’m not here to dither away the years working on some ‘great American novel.’ This is hard work ahead of me, and I am looking at that with wide open, even fearful, eyes, and I am buckling down to do it. Not to write a great American novel, but to share as many damn stories that are cluttering up my head as possible.
OK, sure, but that’s why you need to write. Why did you quit?
Quite honestly, my entire adult life has consisted of 3 things: Family, Work/commute, and Writing. And not a single one of them was getting enough time for me to do them right. One had to go, and work/commute was the only one that didn’t feel like cutting off a hand.
I’ve been out of college and working in the same field for 17 years, and in all that time, my daily roud-trip commute was less than 2.5 hours for only five of them. Depending on which stage of my scientific career we talk about, it was even as long as 4.5 hours a day. That’ll kill anyone’s spirit. There was a day I remember getting off a MetroNorth train in Grand Central Terminal. Another train had arrived at the same time at the track across the platform. As I got off the train, carried by the press more than walking freely, I stopped in the middle of the platform and turned around to face away from the exit to the subway. I just stood and stared at the mass of people, hundreds upon hundreds from just these two trains alone, as they trudged, dead-eyed, carrying half drunk coffee and half-read newspapers tucked under the arm of their suits and pantsuits. They all had dead eyes. None of them could even see where they were going, they just followed the herd through the chute. I knew even before then, but that day crystalized it in my mind, that I didn’t belong where I was. I had no business being there. If I had kept at it, I would have become every inch the mindless drone they already were.
But commuting is a lot of sitting on a train, right? Why not write there?
True enough. I was train commuting for about half of my 12 long-distance years. So, I tried it. (The other half I was driving, and it’s really hard to write in Long Island traffic. I tried it. The voice recordings I attempted aren’t even laughable, they’re just awful.)
When my wife and I first moved far enough away from my lab that I needed to commute, I convinced myself that spending that long on the train every day would give me plenty of time to write. I bought a laptop specifically to write on the trip. But something about the ride sapped my energy, my creativity, my mind. I wound up watching a lot of Netflix DVDs and reading a lot of books. Every day started off the same – lurch onto the train, sit (if there were even seats available for the 2 hr ride!), eat breakfast, open computer, stare at word processor in confusion and haze, close computer and read. (or watch DVD)
I was working 40 hours a week in a job that expected 80, commuting 20 more, and spending all of my time at home in a fog of anger or malaise. Though I never stopped writing, after 12 years of commuting, all I had to show for it were four unpublishable stories, and the first acts of two troubled novels. And a lot of frustration. I knew that if I continued, my writing wasn’t ever going to go anywhere.
And the thing was, if my scientific career was going stellar, then it would have been managable. But see the part above about 40 hour weeks in a job that required 80. And the part about constant anger or malaise.
But what about income? You don’t seriously expect to support yourself writing, do you, you delusional idiot?
Not yet. Hopefully someday. No, I am well aware of the statistics about novel advances, the rarity of paying out your advance, the hordes of earnest professional writers unable to pay bills via writing, etc. But my wife and I sat down and looked long and hard at our finances. Here’s the sad, raw truth. Being an academic scientist doesn’t pay much, and being a postdoc pays even less. We compared our finances with me in my current position, as well as expected income and expenses for the next few years with finances without me working. Turns out that the loss of income was almost exactly balanced out by the drop in tax bracket, the reduced usage in gas, and the loss of paying for child care (kidlet2 was finally old enough to enroll in full day school.)
Sure, things are tight, but we’re not in much worse shape than we were when I was working. But the truth of the matter is, I would never be able to write anything worth money in the state I was in before. Now, at least, there is enough less stress and more time that there’s a fighting chance that I can shine. We’ll ask more questions next time.
In the meantime –
Here I go,