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19 April 2016 ·

Should you make the leap and become a full time writer?

The messy side of a writing life

The biggest question I’ve been asked at talks to emerging writers lately has been about making the leap the from part-time writer to full time, seriously committed, throw-all-your-eggs in one-basket, author.  

‘Follow your passion and success will come. Follow your dreams or regret it forever.’ We’ve all heard the mantras, and there is truth in them. We’ll never grow if we don’t take risks; the regret at never trying our dreams is deep and bitter.
Writing takes time; ideas are all very well, but even once they’re captured in words, that manuscript has to be reworked, rethought, rewritten and edited. You can physically write more words if you have more time. And it seems obvious that the more time we spend writing, the more income we’ll earn from it. That’s how most jobs work. But it’s not so simple with art. 
I’ve been writing for thirty years, fulltime for 25, and I’ve been lucky enough to make a living from it so far. But my dream was to work two or three school-length days a week, and write on the alternate days. A speeding car took the decision from me, but I still think my two main reasons were valid:
1)    Writing is lonely. I liked interacting with colleagues, and my clients. (Admittedly, I was lucky enough to love my job, and didn’t want to give it up.) Would I go crazy spending five days a week speaking only to people in my head?
2)    I wanted to be free to experiment and take risks with my writing. I didn’t know if I could do that if the family was financially dependent on it.
And some fun: movie memorabilia and cover art

The first is easily dealt with. We lived on a fairly isolated farm at the time, but for most people there are lots of routes around the loneliness – writers’ groups, writing in a café… even walking a dog in a leash-free park can give you enough superficial interaction for the day.  

The money problem is more serious, and more complicated. Developing your art means risking failure (and yes, I’ve had a few!) but ironically, a safety net can sometimes let you take those risks. I know a painter who’s married to an extremely wealthy man, but when she gave up her outside job, she painted only in a genre that she particularly disliked, because it sold well in the local artists’ outlet. She didn’t need the money, but she needed the validation. Would she have been freer to experiment and find out what she’s capable of if she’d had the status and security of another profession? Maybe. Maybe she’ll still find the strength without it – I hope so. 

I’m not trying to discourage anyone who’s determined to leap into fulltime writing – you just need to accept that a pair of dice would be a better symbol than the ubiquitous quill pen on your author cards. If you can embrace that whole-heartedly, it can be a wonderful life.

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Wendy Orr is a Canadian-born Australian writer. Her books for children and adults have been published in 27 countries and won awards around the world. Nim’s Island and Nim at Sea have also become feature films, starring Jodie Foster and Abigail Breslin (Nim’s Island) and Bindi Irwin (Return to Nim’s Island.) Her latest book is Cuckoo’s Flight, a companion to the highly acclaimed Bronze Age novels Dragonfly Song and Swallow’s Dance. Read full bio