Thursday, February 2, 2017

Fulltime Writing, Ready Or Not

This is a post adapted from my old blog, The Daring Novelist, a post I wrote after I got laid off from my day job and decided not to seek a new one.  I think it describes what this new blog is about -- the concept of Wordsteading -- better than any introduction I could write for this blog:

Full-time Writing: Ready or Not?

I am not ready to make a living at writing.  Far far far far far from it.  Before I got laid off, my plan was to write seriously for two more years, and then get serious about the business, and only then start thinking about things like making a living at writing.

And yet, unprepared as I am, I am dancing in the streets anyway.

The truth is, even though my writing business is not ready, I am ready. Spiritually, professionally, financially. I am ready for this.

But I'm not sure most people in my situation would be.

Everyone in my father's family had a side business.  They were farmers and teachers and they lived in a place with a seasonal economy, so they did all sorts of other things too.  That's just how you get by.  You pack stuff away for the dry times, and you pick up work where you can, and you make and buy and sell a little something on the side: whether it's spare berries from the patch, or home crafts, or copy editing, or real estate.

Building tennis fence with high-end tools
When I was in high school, we boarded horses on our farm to support my horse. Then my dad converted one of the pastures and built three professional-level clay tennis courts.  He did it by hand, totally on a shoestring.  Wheel barrel, shovel, sifting clay on a bit of screen on a frame. He'd buy some hardware here, and hire a local farmer with a backhoe/bulldozer to do a little digging or smoothing there.

We didn't have much in the way of cash. My dad was a teacher in a poor district.  So every summer, my parents would give tennis lessons, and hold tennis tournaments -- every single weekend -- and maybe rent out the courts to some up-and-coming player who was looking for more experience on clay before a big time tournament. We had two antique pop machines -- purchase at a garage sale for maybe ten bucks each -- which sold pop to the trickle of customers.  Sometimes we would spread a sheet on the tennis court fence and projected 16mm film and have a Movie Night, with popcorn and hot dogs.

I have an uncle who made (and lost and made again) many fortunes with bigger versions of that sort of thing, but for us, it was just the way we lived.  Just a way we could have a life we wanted. Boarding horses meant I could have a horse.  Tennis lessons and tournaments meant my dad could play with dirt and play tennis all summer.  Selling pop out of a machine meant we had pop.

Sis' lemonade stand. I am customer.
And so that just seems to be a natural way to live for me.  I never had a lemonade stand (though my sister did), but instead of comic books, I liked to read Mother Earth News, especially the "bootstrap businesses" column.

So it was perfectly natural for me to start a business selling buttons at science fiction conventions when I was in college, and especially after college. It paid for the computers I used to design and create the buttons.  And the car I used to transport them to the cons.  It was also natural to take the job as a noon-time playground supervisor, and do tutoring, and help people write their resumes and fix their computers, not to mention freelance script analysis, and um, you know... writing fiction for magazines!  I did these things in lieu of regular work, and in supplement to it.

So I never really saw any source of income -- even my Day Job -- as anything but another income stream.  The Day Job was like showing movies on that tennis court: it was fun, rewarding, and it kept me in hot dogs and chips.

So I was never emotionally dependent on that job.  It was never my identity.

What that job did for me, though, is allow me to become financially complacent.  Sure, while I worked there I still designed t-shirts for Printfection, or wrote SEO articles for eHow on the side.  But I didn't need to, and so I didn't do it "for reals."  It was more experimental than lucrative.

I never made a lot of money at those other activities, and one thing this 25-year temporary job did for me was to give me cash for investment. Which is the other thing that makes this transition go better.

Investing and Saving

Because of my squirrel-like upbringing, I have a tendency to pack stuff away for winter. It's not just my bank account, and my IRA, and my brokerage account.  I have nuts buried all over the place -- from penny jars and first edition books, to tiny amounts of stock in direct investment programs.

My investment secret is this: Stock is a cool toy.  If you feel like buying yourself a cool toy (like, say, a wireless mouse) buy stock in the company that makes it instead.  (Or some other company you've already vetted.)  If you buy a toy, you'll have some fun, and then a year or two down the line, you'll have junk to get rid of.  If you buy stock, you still have the value of the stock.  Even if the price goes down, you've got more than you had with the toy.  (And over time, stock prices trend upward.)

And because I am a squirrel, I am always thinking of what value something could have later -- in the long term.  Amusing anecdote from work: long ago I had a coworker who was a neatnik. He would go nuts throwing everything away. But he noticed that when did, I'd often pull stuff out of the trash and stick them in my crowded office (not everything, just a few key items).  Then later, when we had a crisis, I'd pull out one of those items to save the day.  After a while, he started asking "Can I throw this out!" (with an exclamation point at the end, not a question mark) and I'd give him my assessment of the item's possible non-standard usefulness, and then he could decide for himself.

Among assets I pack away are my writing and art.  My blog posts are savings bonds.  I don't have time or energy to convert them to cash right now... but down the line, I have some potential books or booklets out of it.  That sketch I did of a policeman and a trench-coated reporter way back at the beginning of this blog... that could adapt into an interesting book cover.

I have a freezer full of rice, and you'd be really shocked at how much you can get out of even 10 square feet of garden, if you work at it and go vertical. (Also if you're home and not too busy to notice whether the beans are setting seeds. Whoops.)  I know how to grow cucumbers and how to bake great bread from scratch.

I think one of the reasons that going over to the freelancing lifestyle is hard for most people is because it's not just about schedule and time. It's not about what you do, it's about how you think -- and that way of thinking takes years to develop. It takes years to know what works for you and what doesn't. Sometimes you do something for one reason, and fail, but you find some other value in it.

In some ways, the freelancing lifestyle is about always making lemonade out of life's lemons.  You fail constantly, so you recycle, and sometimes even come up with something much better than if you'd succeeded.

But here's the thing -- if you know how to do this, if you are adaptable and always ready to think outside the box, and have skills and knowledge to get around barriers, you're often at less risk than you would be with a regular life and job.  Living on your own terms can mean you have more margin for error, and greater options... at least if you do it right.

So now, on the new blog, I will be talking about self-sufficiency, and adaptability, and finances, and about research and history, and about my great grandmother Gramma Lu (whose voluminous memoirs I am transcribing) and other pioneers who created a life for themselves.  I'll also likely talk about the Vortex of Life That Eats Your Writing and other such subjects.

This weekend I'll be talking about my garden plans -- probably a weekly update -- and next week I will talk about a couple who took the idea of self-sufficiency to extremes, back in 1932, and ended up the gurus for a whole movement -- Scott and Helen Nearing.

In the meantime, see you in the funny papers.

Tennis Tournament 1979. See horse peeking out from beyond those barrels.


  1. Sounds like a really awesome concept for a blog. Looking forward to reading what you post!

  2. Absolutely wonderful post, I really enjoyed reading it.