“For all sad words of tongue and pen, The saddest are these, ‘It might have been.’”
— John Greenleaf Whittier
It was always just a dream.
For those of us that write on the side, we have this romanticized notion of what being a full-time writer is. We envision someone sitting in front of a massive oak desk, in a room with bookshelves stretching high to the ceiling, and maybe a fire crackling in the background. It is a utopia of creative thought and concentration.
It’s also unrealistic.
There are all different kinds of writers and there are all different kinds of approaches — some have a separate office or shed while others live in tiny apartments and have to write at the kitchen table; some write outlines and follow it religiously, others let the story take them along — but, as far as I can tell, the experiences of those that write full-time are pretty similar to those of us that do it on the side.
Stephen King is one of the most successful authors in history. His books have sold more than 350 million copies, there have been scores of TV shows and films based on his work, and his net worth is estimated to be about $500 million. If anyone would have the perfect writing life, it would be King, right?
Well, as he recounts in his brilliant work, On Writing, the ideal writer’s colony is:
“…so far from my own experience, where the creative flow is apt to be stopped at any moment by a message from my wife that the toilet is plugged up and would I try to fix it, or a call from the office telling me that I’m in imminent danger of blowing yet another dental appointment. At times like that I’m sure all writers feel pretty much the same, no matter what their skill and success level: God, if only I were in the right writing environment, with the right understanding people, I just KNOW I could be penning my masterpiece.”
In the end, writing is a job and even the best jobs are still jobs.
Many of us that have the writing dream also succumb to survivorship bias. We devour the stories about John Grisham and Andy Weir penning a novel in the early morning hours before going to work, J.K. Rowling going from near homelessness to becoming a billionaire, and even Bill Simmons going from writing a simple local blog to blowing up to becoming a rich and famous media personality that gets TV deals.
But for every Grisham, Rowling, and Simmons, there are literally millions of others that will forever languish in obscurity. Writing is extremely hard, even if you self-publish, and only a select few can make a career out of it. Also, for those of us that don’t depend on it, we can choose to only write when the mood strikes or when we have something we want to say. We can go weeks without jotting a word. Career writers don’t have that luxury.
Just google “the fantasy vs. reality of being a full-time writer” to see how far apart the two really are.
“With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.”
— Max Ehrmann
It was always just a dream.
There was a point, about six years ago, when it looked like it could’ve been a reality. My readership was steadily increasing, I was getting some nice attention, and I even had conversations about joining a few websites of which I was a fan.
The numbers never made sense. I started too late. I have an MBA and two graduate certifications and have been on this career path for two decades so jumping off that fast moving train was never all that realistic.
Anyone can change careers at any age, of course, but I had built a life and in the process had become accustomed to a lifestyle that would have been compromised had I started over. I’m not Stephen King, but I do well. I have a fat mortgage, a couple of retirement accounts, and a couple of 529 accounts. Moreover, while my wife does fairly well herself I am the primary breadwinner in my family — if I chose to starve while chasing my dream, that means my kids starve as well. Needless to say, that’s unacceptable.
Salaries and benefits weren’t the only numbers that didn’t align. My writing stats are no longer trending upward. In fact, they’re cratering. Two months ago, my website views and visits hit an all-time low…until last month when they went even lower. The graph of my readership looks like Enron’s stock price throughout 2001.
So, it’ll never happen. And that’s fine.
I’ve shifted my mind state. Rather than thinking about all of this as leading to something bigger, driving towards a new career, I now just enjoy it for the process of writing while also appreciating all of the good things that did happen.
I’ve had some great moments.
I’ve penned nine books, including one that hit number two on Amazon. There are thousands of articles with my name across the top, some of which hit the top of the Medium list and were picked up by larger publications like Business Insider. One of my pieces has garnered half a million views; three others have passed the 50,000 mark; nearly two dozen others all have at least ten thousand views. That’s not bad.
I’ve been interviewed on camera for a few documentaries and legendary hip-hop figures like Combat Jack, Stretch Armstrong, and others have read at least one of my pieces. Journalists I looked up to, respected, and emulated have always had kind words and offered sincere compliments.
So, I’ll never be a full-time writer, at least not until I retire. The dream is dead. But the reality is fine, and that’s certainly not the worst possible outcome.
Christopher Pierznik is the worst-selling author of nine books. Check out more of his writing at Medium. His work has appeared on XXL, Cuepoint, Business Insider, The Cauldron, Fatherly, Hip Hop Golden Age, and many more. Subscribe to his monthly newsletter or follow him on Facebook or Twitter. Please feel free to get in touch at CPierznik99@gmail.com.