On Writing: Can You Still Pay The Rent (and Utilities)?

on writing

[Guest Post by Allison Vesterfelt] – A few years ago I quit my job because I wanted to write a book.

A book.

I write it that way because that’s how I saw it in my mind. So much drama, so much mystery. Writing a book (you have to say it that way if you want to understand) was going to be the best thing I had ever done in my life.

Quitting my job happened because someone asked me this question:

“What would you do with your life if you didn’t have to worry about money?”

My answer to the question was, obviously, that I would travel across the country and write a book (sorry, I’ll stop doing that now) about the experience.

So with a little urging from friends, and a rearranging of priorities, I sold everything I owned and set off to visit all 50 states and write about it.

The whole time, the idea of writing was so glorified in my mind. 

I pictured myself living this care-free life of whimsy, sitting in cafes, staring longingly into space as brilliant ideas just flowed into my brain. I imagined how interesting characters, with fascinating stories, would just wander in and out of my life each day. I saw myself doing a lot of smiling and laughing.

So imagine my surprise when the whole thing turned out to be kind of well… mundane.

And those were the good days.

See the problem with the “what would you do if you didn’t have to worry about money?” question was that, while it was great for motivating a person to re-examine her priorities, it was not great for getting a person to live in reality.

Because the truth is, people do have to worry about money.

Yes, even writers.

Even writers who are working on books.

And it can be really, really tough to make a living as a writer.

The first thing that shocked me was that you can’t just snap your fingers and get a book deal (astounding, I know).

So even if you want to write a book really bad (really really bad) that doesn’t mean that you’re ready. You might be still developing skills, or developing your idea, or developing your platform. It doesn’t mean you won’t ever write a book, it just means you might not get a book deal the instant you want one. I had to wait five years.

And so while aspiring authors are waiting to write their books, what do they do?

I found out really quickly that I had to creative if I was going to make a living as a writer:

I searched Craigslist on writing.

I wrote copy for advertisements.

I helped people write content for their websites.

I worked on a couple of ghostwriting projects.

And after a few years of writing gimmicky ads for weight-loss programs and pamphlets for neon sign repair, I realized this was not going to be as glamorous as I had hoped. And oh, by the way, still no luck on that book deal.

The worst part about all of it was that I wasn’t really making that much money.

I was barely (barely) paying my bills. And I wasn’t even doing it all with writing. I was substitute teaching a couple days each week, and taking on just about anything besides lawn-mowing that anyone would pass my way. I kept at it, even when it was difficult, but some days I really wanted to quit. And I’m glad I did, because I learned a lot.

One thing I learned is that there is a difference between artist and producers.

Artists (writers) like me tend to not be great producers. By that I mean that we’re great at making things beautiful, but we’re really not that great at convincing people to buy them.

I feel really lucky that during this whole process I met my husband, who happens to be a great producer, and he was able to help me market myself in a way that got me better, higher-paying writing jobs.

He was also able to help me land my book deal.

But since I get that not everyone has a situation like mine, my advice would be this: If you’re not a producer, you have to either find someone who is, and ask for help, or you’re going to have to stretch yourself to become one.

The other thing I learned is that, if glamour is what you’re looking for, writing isn’t it.

If you’re in the profession for the glamour, you might as well just quit.

Because even once I got my first book contract, I still spent early mornings sitting at my in-law’s kitchen table over Christmas break pounding out 1000-4000 words at a time, words that I wasn’t sure were even good. There were some moments of inspiration, sure, but most moments are spent questioning yourself and your craft, and feeling awful because you aren’t sure how this whole thing is going to come together.

This is all part of the process, and it’s not glamorous.

It’s 5am.

It’s pajamas and messy buns.

It’s tears sometimes because you’re tired of living paycheck to paycheck.

But yes, I believe you can make it work, if you’re committed and creative and keep at it.

Sometimes you have to work at Starbucks in the meantime, but you learn that you’re not too good to make lattes, and you might even get some interesting stories out of the deal. And for all the grief you’ve experienced, and the disappointment, and the days where you think, “this will never work” you also start to see lives changed.

And if you make it that far…

You can be sure you’re in it for the right reasons.

Allison_Vesterfelt-blogAllison is a writer, managing editor of Prodigal Magazine and author of Packing Light: Thoughts on Living Life with Less Baggage (Moody, 2013). She lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota with her husband darrell. You can follow her daily on Twitter or Facebook.

[Picture: maluni, Flickr]


  • Grace at {Gabbing with Grace}

    Allison, I think in the past I had weird ideas about what writing my memoir would be like (read, “easy” “fun”). Seems like a lot of folks start out that way & proceed to be humbled by time & reality. But now that I’ve been blogging for awhile I think I have a sense of how hard it is, how challenging, how much push & hustle is actually needed and how my project isn’t guaranteed a green light, but how I’m still willing to do it. That’s when I knew I was in it for the right reasons… In the end, I’m sure I’ll have found the journey to be worth it. It has been so far!

  • Nicole Cottrell

    I love this. Just good old storytelling and practical wisdom. I love your point too about the difference between being an artist and a producer. I’m neither. I am not a writer, per se, but I blog. I’m certainly no producer.

    But I have learned that this–whatever it is that I’m doing and attempting to do–is not glamourous, like you said. It is discipline and late nights. Early morning and lots of coffee. And it’s good, and rewarding, and worth it.

    • Ally Vesterfelt

      Thanks Nicole. Isn’t it funny how the most difficult and frustrating things in life tend to be the most rewarding?

      And I for one can’t wait to read your book one day. I really hope you write it. 🙂

  • Lindsay

    Awesome. There’s a great story here, Ally. Plus I really liked what you said about artists and producers, the unglamorous side of writing, and the encouragement to “keep at it.” Thank you!

  • Alexandrea J.

    Wow, what an ENCOURAGING post. I really needed to read this right now because if I’m being honest, I am feeling so discouraged about a lot of things right now. Many of my friends and family don’t understand it because they are taking a different path than I am, so I’m sure they would like to help but they don’t know how. So reading this really encouraged me to know that I am not alone when it comes to the issue of self doubt and struggle to try and reach your goals.

    I also have to say that I fell in love when I read that you sold all your stuff and went out! I WISH I could do something like that! I stop myself from doing fearless things like because…well I’m scared but my heart longs to live a little and experience more of life in that way. However, I love that you remind us that it’s not all glamorous and gold pavements just cause you dared to live and do what you wanted. I hope that something will push me and inspire me to not be afraid so I can do what you’ve done.

    Thanks for sharing!!

  • Leah Oviedo

    I don’t find writing mundane at all. I love it, but it is rough living paycheck to paycheck and wondering when it is going to pay off. Overall this was a fun article. Thanks.