Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The day job

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"You can't give up something you really believe in for financial reasons." - Robert Plant

When I meet new people and they ask me what I do, I tell that I write, but that I also work a day job.

I don’t really try to downplay the fact that I have to work, though people are sometimes surprised to learn that books don’t make any money, unless you’re one of the lucky few (i.e. Margaret Atwood, J.K. Rowling, Stephanie Meyers, etc.) who end up getting really famous for your writing, or who end up getting really lucky by tapping into publishers who will invest in them.

Earlier this year, on my own blog, I wrote about the double life of writers, about all of the things I wish I’d known before I published a book. In that post, I included a bit of math: if I get $5 in royalties for every book of mine that sells, I would have to sell 7,000 books a year just to hit an income of $35,000, tax evasion included.

If I never published another book again, or if I did but it never sold, I would have to consistently sell 7,000 copies a year for the rest of my life to just get $35 grand a year. And don’ t forget that interest in a book can eventually taper off, so this would all be assuming that demand never, ever ceases. If there are people out there who believe that getting published is a golden ticket, then they have to take into consideration that every single book that ever gets out there will never, ever go out of style.

So let’s assume that those people are right, and that I can sell 7,000 every year forever. What happens when the cost of living goes up? What happens if I want to upgrade from apartment living into a house? It would be a pretty tough thing to do, especially considering that moving 7,000 books in just one year is an incredible feat for a Canadian author. To do it forever would be considered phenomenal.

Or, I can show up at work, make way more than $35,000 a year, and not worry about it.

Which is what I do. If I didn’t, I would have pretty close to zero income right now. And that’s not because my first book hasn’t been selling – it’s going into its fourth printing this fall – but just because of how it all adds up.

And if this article ends up being right, then it doesn’t sound like much of that is about to change any time soon.

I explain this all the time to people I haven’t seen in a while who sound surprised when they say, “oh, you’re still working?”

Well yeah, of course I am, just like everyone else I know.

I also explain my math to people who say, “so is writing what you want to do someday?” Which of course I have to answer with, “it is what I do now.”

But these questions don’t really bug me so much. I’ve talked to other writers who seem relieved when I mention my day job first, who seem shy about theirs, who admit they wish their circumstances were different.

I wish mine were, too; most of us would like to work less and play more, but you’ve gotta do what you gotta do and sometimes you have to get a job. I’ve been on the unemployed side of things many times before and am not in any way eager to go back to the instability of those days.

So I don’t have a problem explaining to people that I don’t really make much money off of my writing, because there are a lot of misconceptions out there about how writing works, and how writers work. A lot of it comes from the stubborn notion that money equals success, and if my experiences help people understand differently, well, I’ll gladly take up that opportunity.

"You never want to let your only source of happiness come from something that’s so filled with uncertainty." - Mila Kunis

But on the flipside, I shy away from talking about my writing at my day job.

I don’t completely hide it, but I am cautious about it.

Sometimes, I run into the same line of thinking as mentioned above. People will say, “well, why are you here?” Or, “I wish I had what you had – I wish I had something on the side so I could quit whenever I wanted to.”

But I don’t. I have the same amount of freedom and risk as everyone else I work with: No one is holding a gun to any of our heads to walk into work every day. We are free to go, but if we go, we have to accept the consequences that come with that. I don’t have anything to fall back on without another opportunity lined up, so I might land on my ass. And since I’ve still got bruises from the last time I did that, I’m going to stay where I am and see where it takes me.

I also like to keep the writing thing on the down low at work because, as I believe I’ve mentioned here in other posts, it can be so hard sometimes that I need distance from it. I don’t want to be reminded of it on a bad day, or on a day when I’m trying to focus my thoughts elsewhere in the hopes of clearing my head for a while. A day job can offer great balance that way.

Not that I’ve kept it all a total secret at workplaces, but after having it all way out in the open at a very small, tight-knit office, to having it all way out in the open at a bigger office with very few personal connections to most people, I’ve had some time to figure out what feels comfortable for me and what doesn’t. Of course, if people I work with find me on Twitter or Facebook and ask, or if they wonder why I’m always so busy after work, I’ll talk to them about it. I just don’t wave it around or make a big deal about my writing because it’s really not anything I feel I need to talk about between the hours of 9 and 5.

There is a lot of disappointment and uncertainty in writing. Finishing a manuscript is different from having another book on the way. There is no guarantee that a book will be given life until a bound copy is in your hands. Until then, you can’t believe it until you see it because anything can happen: you could have a stunning debut novel but an impossible time selling a follow-up; you could have a publisher interested in the manuscript, but not interested enough to send you a contract for it; you could sign a contract and have your publisher go bankrupt months later.

I know, I know, it all sounds like pessimistic doom and gloom. But you have to be realistic with all the possible outcomes: when you get a publishing deal, your book will probably be fine. The sky won’t fall, you’ll have a lovely launch party, and you’ll move on to exciting new things. But I feel like it’s important to at least be prepared for other outcomes.

And if a plan does fail, or doesn’t reach its intended outcome, explaining it over and over and over again can be hard enough when you’re just talking about it with your friends. Which is why I’m always careful about talking about things prematurely, because if something does go wrong, I want to focus on it as little as possible, which is hard for me to do. I don’t need people reminding me of it at work.

In work settings, people have sometimes said that I’m “modest” when I shy away from going into too many details about my writing. But I don’t need anyone to speak for me – if I want to talk about myself, I certainly will. If I say I don’t want to, I don’t want to – not because I want to give the impression that I’m really very cute and shy and humble, and not because I secretly want anyone to talk me up, but just because I said no. No, no, no.

Because the other thing that a lot of people won’t know – about my book, or other people’s books – is that they can kill a little piece of you. My first book changed me profoundly; I am a different person in so many ways since finishing Treat Me Like Dirt.

There are things that I learned and felt and experienced during the making of that book that I’m still processing, and that I still need distance from. Even though it’s been out for almost two years, there are days when I have trouble reconciling certain things that I had to face when I was putting that together. Work is not the place I want to bring it all up at, and it’s not the place I want to be reminded of things I’m trying to calm inside myself.

And that’s hard, too, trying to decide what to reveal about yourself at work and what to keep closed off.

Where do you draw your boundaries?

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Related item from our archives

Liz Worth 2011

Liz Worth is the Toronto-based author of Amphetamine Heart (Guernica Editions, 2011), Treat Me Like Dirt: An Oral History of Punk in Toronto and Beyond 1977-1981 (Bongo Beat/ECW, 2011) and Eleven: Eleven (Trainwreck Press, 2008), a shot of surreal punk fiction.

Go to Liz Worth 2011’s Author Page