A decade ago I emailed the only person I’d gone to high school with who’d gotten a PhD in History. This was someone who had a good job and even better sense of humor. I asked if they thought my plan to pursue an MA in History was a good, or a bad, idea. Their reply was “if you love History and you don’t care if you ever make a dime, then dive right in!” I took that advice to heart, went to grad school, and got exactly what I expected: a fine education, a new set of academic skills, and a degree that was only marketable in the most narrow of niches. (In short, I went after that degree knowing that I probably wouldn’t make any money with it.)
I’ve wished, since then, that I could foster my erstwhile classmate’s sense of honesty and goodwill when it comes to hopeful writers. I keep overhearing optimistic, would-be authors lamenting how they’re just holding out for the day that they can break free of their workaday shackles, be published, and get paid to do what they love. This, quite simply, is tantamount to waiting on that winning lottery ticket. I don’t want to sound cynical about other peoples’ dreams but it just doesn’t work that way. (Yes, it works that way sometimes, but only about as often as someone wins a mega-lottery.) But there’s more to it than “don’t quit your day-job.” Besides the fact that the earnings might never be enough to live on, there’s the do-what-you-love factor.
Any activity gets a lot less lovable when it changes from haven and hobby into something fraught with deadlines and scrutiny. While it’s a hobby, writing is a stress-relieving wonderland where your imagination runs free. Once you’re being paid to do it, it’s like any other job. The stakes are high and other people get to tell you how they want it done. (And total strangers get to criticize your wonderland.) That doesn’t mean you can’t love being a writer, and it doesn’t mean you won’t ever earn any money at it. But let’s not be delusional. There’s better ways to escape a daily job you despise and better hobbies to hang on to, unless you just love writing (and you don’t care if you ever make a dime).