I was watching Steven Seagal: Lawman the other night. In case you don’t know, Steven Seagal: Lawman is a documentary following Seagal’s exploits as a deputy sheriff in the Jefferson Parish County Sheriff’s Department in Louisiana where he has worked for the past 20 years – that means before and throughout his time as a Hollywood star.
That’s got to be the ultimate bummer for the petty criminal. You’re sneaking out of a house with a TV and there on the sidewalk is Steven Seagal pointing a 9 mil at you. Whaaaaaat? Of course, if you dropped the TV, you could outrun him; a snail could outpace Seagal with the weight he’s put on in recent years. The downside would be him deciding to pull the trigger, because he was shown in the documentary shooting the head off a cotton bud, then one off a match. Smartass. Don’t tell him I said that.
Sorry, this is supposed to be about writing. Okay, my point is that this guy has kept doing a regular job when he didn’t have to. He didn’t give it up when he became successful. As a writer, your goal may be to reach a position where that’s all you have to do to earn a living. It’s probably the ultimate goal for many writers to give up the day job.
However, you need to stop and think if that’s really the best course of action. For one thing, you need to be good at writing. Stating the bleedin’ obvious perhaps, but I’ve spoken before about the delusion that infects so many people involved in the Arts.
When I was an actor, I agreed to do a read-through of a script in front of gathered TV and film commissioning people. There was no pay, but expenses were covered, so it was a free trip down to London. I could see an old buddy of mine, and perhaps one of the head honchos might take a shine to me whatever the script was like.
I say “whatever the script was like” because I told my agent I would do it even before reading the script. My role was to be the lead part, which I would get if it was made into a film. I went to Liverpool to meet the writer and he showed me around the city, pointing out all the locations where he envisioned the different scenes playing out. He was super-confident. So much so that he had several months before given up his job as an English teacher to concentrate full-time on his writing, and he had spent thousands of pounds of his savings promoting his script, booking a central London meeting place, paying expenses for the whole cast, and generating interest from film and TV companies so their people would show up for the read-through. It was all very exciting.
Then he sent me home with the script and I read it.
It made me laugh, but it wasn’t a comedy. It was the bitter amusement that derives from incredulity that someone could be so terribly deluded. It was a thriller that didn’t thrill. The characters were crap, the dialogue dire and dull, and the plot pointless. What plot there was had so many holes you could have zig-zagged a London bus back and forth through it from start to finish. It was a total disaster and there was zero chance that anyone would ever commit their money to making it. Quite simply, the guy couldn’t write to save his life.
I went down to London, had a great day out, and never heard anything about it again. Of the TV and film people who showed up, all but one left halfway through when we broke for tea and biscuits, and I think she only stayed because she was an ex-RADA friend of mine.
I can only assume that the “writer” went back to teaching.
Freelance writers work hard for their money. It can be a very lonely job, and there is no holiday pay or health insurance or pension. These are down to you to cover. If you take a vacation, you effectively lose money, and you may even lose existing clients if you can’t help them out at short notice. First of all, of course, you need to get the clients, and that’s not easy with so much competition.
Great as it sounds, working from home can also have its problems. The people you live with may not view your working day as that. You may be interrupted, which is bad when you need to be flowing. And it may not be a working day; it could be a working day and evening and night. Free weekends may disappear. Self-employed people are at the mercy of their clients. You cannot start at 9 and close at 5.
If you are not terribly organised and supremely committed, you will find the life of a freelance writer very difficult. Above all, you must love writing, not just the romantic notion of being a writer, and you must be prepared to have that love tested every day.
If you check out my website, you’ll see a bit of artwork of mine. I paint the odd picture and I’m pretty good, but I couldn’t be a professional artist because I don’t enjoy the process enough. I cannot sit down day after day and paint. It sounds like a dream scenario, but I couldn’t do it. I struggle to complete one picture a year. A few years ago I spent 18 months driving artics (big rigs) around the UK. Incredibly long and solitary hours away from the family I love, but, as jobs go, I really enjoyed it. That’s odd, no?
If you feel you are on the cusp of giving up the day job, take stock. Do you really hate what you do? Would you not miss the people you work with or even the daily routine? Living in Spain, I meet people who came out here to retire. Many of them are working again now. Not for the money; for the activity. They could be painting or writing every day, or indulging any passion they wish, but they are doing the very jobs they thought they hated in the UK – shop work, bar work, driving, cleaning, etc.
It is not my intention to crash your hopes and dreams about writing; that is never my aim. I am, as usual, just offering an alternative take on things. If you are feeling miserable every day because you want to write full-time and you can’t, stop beating yourself up about it. Check the grass under your feet. It may be greener than you think.