I always thought that landing an agent was like winning the lottery for a writer, but that’s not how it happened for me. My first agent sent my book to publishers, and when no one “bit,” my agent pretty much disappeared for over a year. Because I was just starting out, I didn’t know what the agent/client relationship was supposed to look like, and I didn’t want to create a fuss or burn bridges, but I was filled with despair. I was already 50 years old, and it felt like my years of trying to become a professional, full-time writer were utterly fruitless. It’s not as though I would ever give up writing, but it felt like the publishing world had me in a half-nelson. I thought, “Maybe I should stop trying to get published.”
I’m so glad I didn’t. Despite my doubts, I eventually got to a place where I could live out my longtime dream of quitting my day job to become a full-time writer. Here’s how I did it.
I was always a writer
For my 8th birthday, Mom gave me a filing cabinet. For my 9th birthday, Dad got me a manual typewriter at a yard sale and then begged me to stop typing so the family could sleep.
In college, I took a few writing classes, but, honestly, I didn’t have a lot to say. I was 18 or 19 and hadn’t lived much yet. For the first 30 or so years of my life, I happily wrote for myself, with no impulse to publish.
It was in my 40s I decided to see if I could finally become the writer I suspected I was capable of becoming.
I joined a local writing group but quickly realized I craved instruction from people who knew more than I did. The local university where I was a full-time lecturer had just launched an MFA program, and so I signed up. I worked full time and went to school full time, and at 49, I graduated with my MFA in fiction.
A first success
A year or so after I graduated, without an agent yet, I sold my first book, a collection of short stories, which was published when I was 52. Short-story collections don’t make enough money to live on…not even close, so this didn’t allow me to become a full-time writer, but it was a step in that direction. Publishing a book made me feel legitimate. The book was reviewed. There were signings and interviews. It was also with the publication of this book (The Subway Stops at Bryant Park, published by Leapfrog Press), that I knew I had lived long enough that I finally had a lot to say and enough skill to convey those thoughts in writing.
Searching for an agent
I knew that, in order to interest an agent, I had to complete a full-length book, so over the next year or so, I wrote a memoir about an illness I had recently lived through. Once I had completed a full draft and revised it many times, I used it to get my first agent. Initially, she loved the book, sending it to a first round of editors who mostly praised it. But this is when I lost contact with her. She simply stopped returning my emails. As a novice, I thought that this was how things worked, and I despaired a lot about my writing career. I felt old and hopeless. My dream stalled. Finally, she sent me an email that gave me a chance to make a graceful exit without burning bridges, and I took it.
With the help of author friends, I found a new agent, and by the time I signed with him (Michael Carr at Veritas Literary), I’d already rewritten the memoir. With Michael’s notes, I revised the memoir a bit more before he again sent the book out. Soon it was purchased by Algonquin, a lucky fate indeed.
A second book
I was 57 when that book (Flesh & Blood: Reflections on Infertility, Family, and Creating a Bountiful Life) was published. Yes, it had taken me five years between book publications, but I had learned a lot. I now not only had an agent I trusted, but I also had a tiny and growing reputation. The memoir was reviewed widely. I was interviewed on NPR. I spoke at conferences and met with dozens of book clubs.
I continued to write short stories and essays and was publishing them, often for money now. Editors sometimes reached out to me to ask if I had anything, and I made sure always to have a piece ready to share. Readers were also contacting me, and just as we were getting ready to launch Flesh & Blood, we got the news that my middle grade novel had been acquired by Christy Ottaviano at Little, Brown.
My husband and I were finally financially stable. We had caught up with home repairs. We had paid off our cars and had begun to save money. With all of these factors in place – an agent, three book deals, and financial stability – my dream of writing full-time came into sharper focus. My goal was to have at least six months’ worth of money to live on without having to touch my retirement savings, and I was inching my way in that direction, all while writing whenever I had a free moment. I began to take whatever steps I could think of to make myself ready to make the leap. For instance, I started saving intensely, making my own lunches, cutting back on driving to save on gas money, etc.
Full-time writer: A turning point
Soon thereafter, my dear 89-year-old mother got very ill. As her health care proxy, I took an extended leave of absence from my job to care for her. Mom, who remained utterly lucid for the three months between her diagnosis and her death, grabbed my hand every day, pulled me close, and said, “Promise me you’ll give up your job and write full time.” Every day, I looked into her eyes and promised I would, not knowing how, or whether, I could pull it off.
While I didn’t have the energy or focus to write during those three months of caring for Mom, I made time, here and there to research and apply to a large range of writing residencies all over the world. I ended up submitting about 10 applications to residencies located everywhere from the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York to the Jura Mountains on Lake Geneva in Switzerland. Those applications gave me something to look forward to after my mother was gone.
Then Mom died
A month or so after her death, I took a deep breath, and with grave misgivings but a sense of “now or never,” I gave tearful notice to my employer over Zoom. I was now a full-time writer.
I consider having many irons in the fire an essential element of being a full-time writer. In my experience, the huge time lag that often comes between selling a book and its publication should be filled with other writing projects.
In the first month of writing full time, I completed a solid draft of a new middle grade novel and sent it to a writer friend for notes. While he was reading it, I pitched several article and essay ideas to editors I’d built relationships with since I got my MFA nine years ago. I signed up for a playwriting workshop where I could learn about how to make a play work (and I have a lot to learn).
About a month or two after Mom died, I heard I’d gotten into two of those residencies I’d applied to, both in Europe, news I interpreted as validation that I made the right choice to write full time.
While I did save up enough money to cover six months of expenses, I also had paid work coming. For instance, I said yes to teaching a class in the coming semester, so not only will I get a wonderful dose of the energy that only 19- and 20-year-olds can give, but also I’ll have some extra income. I’ve also built a relationship with a writing school in New York City that often gives me work as a story doctor, editor, and teacher. This particular work pairs well with my writing life in that my clients, who are all serious and dedicated writers themselves, have conversations with me about the writing process that inform my own writing. Additionally, it’s the kind of work I can do at any time of the day or night, in my pajamas. And when I am away at my residencies, I can say no to extra work. So, while I continue to write, the truth is I need to make sure I have enough income between book deals. The difference now, though, is I am choosing work that is intermittent so I can put my writing first. It’s also work that I can put on hold without guilt if needed. A full-time job can’t offer that flexibility.
Privileges of note
It’s important to note, too, the privileges that allowed me finally to choose the writing life. I’m married, and having a partner means expenses are shared. This is an enormous cushion against adversity. Also, when I quit my job, we moved our health insurance over to my husband’s job. We need health insurance, and with the current state of health care in this country, I can’t imagine I’d ever have been able to quit my job without my husband’s health insurance.
As I write this, it has only been a couple of months since I became a full-time writer, and although it is in the wake of my mother’s death, I can say I’ve never been happier. I am writing every single day. I have projects and adventures to look forward to, but mostly, I feel like I am finally, at 58 years old, spending my days doing what I was put on this earth to do.
N. West Moss’s memoir, Flesh & Blood: Reflections on Infertility, Family, and Creating a Bountiful Life, is out now from Algonquin. Her short story collection, The Subway Stops at Bryant Park, was published by Leapfrog, and she has a middle grade novel called Birdy forthcoming from Little, Brown. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Salon, McSweeney’s, the Saturday Evening Post, and elsewhere.