We writers can be neurotic about finding ways to make writing fit into our lives. For some, writing alongside a full-time job works fine. I recently met a talented writer who penned stories while riding on the New York subway to and from work. But for others, because of long hours, childcare, illness, or other circumstances, maintaining a full-time job and a writing career isn’t always feasible.
That was the case for me when I made the decision to leave a full-time job in foreign policy to pursue my novel-in-progress. The problem? There was no roadmap for what to expect.
I don’t mean just the finances: That’s another subject and deserves its own space. Here, I mean the emotional path of leaving one established career to transition into writing. The articles I found all covered the technical details – branding, social media, meeting editors. They failed to get at exactly the thing I was facing – the emotional challenge of leaving behind one career and redefining myself as a writer.
I wanted to remember the emotional process clearly and perhaps help someone else, so I took careful notes over the course of the year after leaving my full-time job, like a trail of breadcrumbs left behind to remember what it felt like to get here. Here are the stages I observed. I’ve found, in speaking with others, that many writers making this transition experience these stages in some form along the way.
1. Writing on the side
I spent years in this stage and wouldn’t take it back. This is where I learned to eke out words from small increments of time. I believe this is one advantage later-career writers have over those used to working with larger blocks of time. You become ruthlessly efficient.
This is also the time to save money and look for part-time work. My husband and I spent years paying off student loans and developing a financial plan before making any drastic changes. Scaling back hours at work, if it’s an option, can also be better than quitting altogether.
In my case, my husband and I practiced for a few months living on a single income before we made the leap. Because of personal circumstances, including the cost of childcare, illness in the family, and no available part-time options, I chose to leave my job altogether. I’m lucky to have another source of income in the household as I work toward building up more income through writing and new part-time work. The point is that whatever arrangement you develop is highly personal and depends on what works for you and your family.
This is a precious period, because there’s still no immediate pressure to publish. In this stage, I wrote in the mornings before work, in short bursts on lunch breaks as I was able, and in the hour before bed. It’s a time to take night classes, form writing groups, and hone your craft. This stage was important, because I grew to love the craft for its own sake, before any pressure or hopes of publication.
2. Taking the leap
Nearly everyone who writes on the side dreams of getting that book deal before leaving the job, but it usually doesn’t happen that way. To really focus on a project, you may have to take the leap before you’ve published in the way you’d like. That means taking a risk. You may have little to show for your efforts so far. It’s important here to create your own narrative. This step is about courage. You are girding yourself for the emotional trials. Enjoy the fear and euphoria of leaving – part of a long emotional process that’s just beginning.
The finances here were tricky for me. In some careers, part-time work is an option, but unfortunately for my job, it wasn’t. Furthermore, the part-time jobs I initially found didn’t compensate well enough to cover the cost of childcare. So I pieced together the occasional consulting job, freelance articles, and whatever else I could cobble together. It wasn’t ideal, but it allowed me time to write, so I made the leap.
When I announced to my friends and colleagues I was leaving, their reactions were mixed. Most seemed baffled, some warned me against it, and a few confided they were contemplating the same thing. There was a gendered element as well. Even now, well after making the leap and publishing both fiction and researched nonfiction articles, I still get labeled as a full-time stay-at-home mom. Writing doesn’t feel real to people. You get used to it.
3. Revising your definition of self
You no longer have an “official” title now, except for writer and whatever part-time work you take on. This is one of the most difficult stages.
Why? I think it’s that when you have a formal job title, you are an expert in that area, by virtue of your position. When I worked in an office, no one questioned whether I was a foreign policy expert, because that was in my title, regardless of what I accomplished in a given year. But as a writer, if you’re not producing or publishing regularly, you begin to question whether you are, in fact, still a writer. A title is a position. Writing is an action. They impact you differently.
Furthermore, as a writer, there is no rise in seniority over time. Everything rests on your ability to produce quality work. In most other jobs, your retirement savings grow a little every year, you are a little more senior, and there are usually compensations for the passage of time. For the writer, there is usually no financial compensation for having spent another year on the job, no seniority aside from what you accomplish, no guarantees whatsoever, except one: If you do the work every day, have a good critique group, and continue to challenge yourself, you will improve. That’s all you get in return for the great passage of time.
To me, this transition felt like being a teenager again. Transitions involve periods of intense introspection: It happens because, like a teenager, you’re revising your concept of self. Teenagers tend toward narcissism. You may find yourself excessively focused on yourself, too, asking questions like, Who am I now? And, Have I accomplished enough? I found the way through was to be kind to myself and allow this constant self-examination to happen. (You may want to start journaling in this stage if you haven’t already.)
4. Changing relationships with others
This was the biggest surprise for me. You may find everyone in your life suddenly pouncing on you with advice. People have strong feelings about others pursuing their dreams. It’s often a product of their own hopes, fears, and choices. You may have friends contact you from nowhere to encourage you. Others will question your talents, motives, and very worth as a writer.
Some friends gave me incredible advice. We late-career transition people are a special tribe. They will find you, and you them. I contacted a friend who transitioned from corporate work to acting, who has become an amazing source of support. Another friend was transitioning from journalism to creative writing, and we began to hold weekly accountability calls to check in. I can’t emphasize enough how important a supportive creative community has been for me. It didn’t matter that we were often in different fields. They made me feel brave and powerful instead of ashamed, and it’s critical to surround yourself with supporting, understanding people like that.
Unfortunately, others were surprisingly unsupportive. When I confided in one friend over coffee about my plans, he asked, “But have you published anything?” I hadn’t yet at that point. And I could see he thought I was making a huge mistake.
Another friend with more degrees advised me I should have gotten an MFA before attempting to write. That stung too, but as it turned out, neither nay-sayer was correct. I have published since then, and I’m still writing. I found that well-intentioned but misguided advice threw me the hardest, because it made me doubt myself. I had to remember that no credentials are truly necessary to write, as long as you are willing to work harder and longer than you ever have before.
Obviously you will need to consult with your immediate family, particularly about the finances that impact them. But outside of that small circle, feel free to take in or ignore any other advice. This is an extremely vulnerable time for a writer. Comments cut deep. Listen to those who are helping you get where you need to go, and excuse yourself quickly if someone’s advice, well intentioned or not, sends you into despair.
This is it, right? Finally, the work begins. Well…almost. Remember, you may be used to working in small increments of time, whatever room you could make in a day. Working for longer periods is a new muscle that takes time to stretch. Keep to the discipline but understand that it will take time to build up to a new working style.
Personally, I loved this stage. I found I could do more than I thought I could. Once you turn on the spigot and allow time for your writing, the ideas begin in a trickle, and soon, within months, they may begin pouring out. I realized during this stage I had many ideas I could never before have brought into creation because I’d never before afforded myself the time. Of course, not all of them panned out to be successful stories or articles, but there were some that made me very proud.
Here, finally, you thrive or fail on your own ideas, work ethic, skills, and tenacity. Whereas before I had to run all of my ideas by a boss who might or might not allow me to implement them, it was liberating to discover my own voice and instincts. No one would limit me but myself. That was scary at times but mostly freeing.
Even now, I rush to my writing in the morning as soon as I’m able. I believe it’s due to years of conditioning myself to write at every spare moment, because I never before had the time. If you can focus on your craft with no ego or expectations and simply work, this can be a satisfying early stage. In fact, you may be surprised at how well the simple act of writing comes after doing the emotional work of the previous stages.
At some point, you’ll have to backtrack. You’ll waste a lot of time. You may have to throw out the entire last half of your book or that article you spent months researching, and all of a sudden you find yourself drifting back to the “self” stage, where you want to question everything about your decision to write.
At one point, I had to throw out the last third of my novel and rewrite it, because the plot needed to go in another direction. That meant scrapping many months of work – time I would never get back. Other times, I heavily researched freelance articles and conducted painstaking interviews, only to have the story die along the way or to have an editor tell me the article was no longer needed. You get savvier, but I’m convinced now that massive waste is simply part of the writing journey. A lot goes down the drain. You keep going.
7. Encounters with the past
My first encounter with the past happened at a Costco, when, feeling spectacularly un-writerly, pushing my child and groceries in a cart, I ran into some old work colleagues on their lunch break. I asked them how they were doing.
“Oh, you know, end of the fiscal year,” one wearing a suit said, and then seemed to notice my sweatshirt and tennis shoes, and realized the “fiscal year” couldn’t be any further from my mind. I resisted the urge to call out, “I’m doing something with my life, even if it doesn’t look like it!” and went on my way.
These kinds of situations can make you feel like you need to prove yourself, when in fact you have to remind yourself that no one is judging you, and even if they were, it’s not your concern. They can’t see my interior life, and I can’t see theirs. I reminded myself that my friends are rooting for me as I do for them, and that it’s okay not to project success all of the time.
No matter how often we hear that rejections are inevitable, we writers can certainly be a delusional lot. That first rejection from the publication or agent you were sure – sure – was going to love your piece can send you spiraling back into the “self” phase. Let it bond you with your fellow writers instead, and keep going.
A few weeks ago, I wrote an email to some writer friends of mine when I was in a particularly dark mood. Within days, their responses came flooding back, with similar tales of personal struggles, dark times, and full of encouragement. I am convinced that the rejections, as painful as they are, are one of the most important things that bonds fellow writers and makes us look out for each other, too.
Rejections are also likely to feel more personal now. It was one thing to be rejected when you had the old job. It’s quite another when you factor in the sacrifices you’ve made to get here. But if you can bear this part and come through, then you have gotten through one of the most painful things that can happen to writers.
9. Your first significant success
This could mean a lot of things. It might be a book deal. Or, more likely, it might be an 800-word article or a piece of flash fiction. It doesn’t matter how big or small. Celebrate it. I celebrate everything, even if it’s simply with a glass of champagne in the evening or an afternoon with a favorite book.
I’ve also noticed that sometimes life is kind in its timing. I have more than once received a big rejection, followed soon after by a success. Every stage is a roller coaster. Success follows rejection, and rejection follows success. Sometimes life is less kind, and the first success can seem to take forever. But if you keep honing the craft and getting critical feedback, your writing, and chances, are always improving.
10. Reactions from others
Along the way, you will have to decide whose opinions you value (other writers whose craft you respect) and whose you will disregard (essentially everyone else).
Remember that people react in wildly different ways as you pursue your passion. Some you thought would enjoy your work never read it or even hate it. Others you barely knew before leaving your job become your biggest champions. Often, this group will largely consist of other writers, because they understand the process you’re going through.
I have learned through my own experience not too put too much stock in the reactions of others to my work, unless they are a professional writer or editor, part of my critique group, or a reader who loves the same type of writing that I do. Writing is simply too subjective to get tossed about by reactions from others, whether overly positive or negative.
11. The valley
At some point along the way, you hit a crushing low. It may come before or after the first success. It may hit periodically, or every few months as if on schedule, as mine did. Money may be much tighter. You may feel left behind and unsure of what the future will bring. My only advice is that if there was a burning desire to write, so great that you had to leave your previous career, then you owe it to yourself to follow that desire, ignore the noise, and do whatever it takes to make your new life work. Now is the time to get supremely mentally tough if you haven’t already.
There is no getting around the sacrifices you make to be a writer, and not only you, but also others in your life. You will probably question your entire decision to leave and consider going back to your old job if you haven’t already. And if you do go back, it doesn’t mean you’re not a writer. You’re simply finding the best way forward for you. This stage is a painful but inescapable part of the process.
12. The new normal
There is no perfect normal, really. Even after leaving my old job, it doesn’t mean I have all day to write. I devote parts of the day to part-time work and childcare. But I finally have at least a few solid hours to write every day. However messy it may look, it’s more than I had before.
I’ve learned to stay vigilant in my contentment. I have to remind myself of my accomplishments. I completed a novel and have it out on submission to agents. I’m as proud of my writing as anything I accomplished in my old career. It is deeply satisfying work.
And yet, it’s hard. The money, the side gigs, are never quite enough. For this reason, I am intensely skeptical of any connection between success and money or any leap without careful financial planning. I’ve known freelance reporters who do reasonably well for themselves, but compensation for fiction is notoriously low and inconsistent.
Most of the time, I’m glad I did it. I feel content, even if the rest of my life hasn’t exactly fallen into place. The work has intrinsic value, I am hopeful, and, in any case, I am so deeply proud of it. Contentment, for me, was a deep quiet that began to emerge when I realized I had aligned my greatest passion with how I spent significant portions of the day.
I think this is the dream, then. Not the big book deal with the advance, which may or may not come, but the time to write and commit to stories that move and surprise me, change how I see the world, and, I hope, move others too.
Lauren Kosa is a writer of fiction and essays, with publications in Origins Journal, Fiction Southeast, Vox, the Washington Post, U.S. News & World Report, The Hill, and elsewhere.
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