On Working


I’m back to talk to you about “having it all” again. This conversation is everywhere and I can’t escape it, especially when it keeps happening in my own head, especially when my ideas on this continue to evolve.

It feels that recently, in my world, a lot of people (big and small, loud and quiet, public and private) are talking about working for yourself. The glory and freedom and happiness and relief of being your own boss, doing what you love, being a full time artist or living your art to make money, walking away from the structured job in an office and living the dream. I know a lot of wedding photographers, so I’m looking down the barrel of that lifestyle every time I open instagram or facebook. I know writers and bloggers and artists. I know a lot of people who set their own schedule, are chained to a different type of work clock than the 9-5, and who decide when and how to take vacations – not based on PTO schedules but based on money and convenience.

I see these lives and worlds and I have 2 immediate feels: I first feel like “Aw, man I wish I had that. That seems so incredibly awesome.” It’s the grass is always greener, right? My second feel is, “Why didn’t you do that? Why don’t you just work harder, Lauren? Why don’t you just think smarter? Why don’t you just figure it out and make it happen.?” I can beat myself up over it. If only I was more innovative or more willing to take a great risk. If only there was something about me I could change to make it happen.

Many people have suggested that I just work for myself, selling words. In a way it’s kind of a joke. Unfortunately, the value placed on words is not very high at the moment and the amount of work I would have to do in order to make even a dent in what looks like a livable wage would be overwhelming. That is, if there was even enough work to be found. It’s frustrating to hear it all of the time. Ultimately, though, it’s not what I want.

I look at women who are not so different than me, but who are living light years apart from where I am – making livings off of their blogs, writing on the side, having their whole lives about words. I’m really tired of not seeing myself reflected back in that at all. Where are the writers who work? And have kids? And families and obligations and hobbies? Where are the women who didn’t fall into some magic writer hole? Where are the working writers, scrounging evenings and weekends, and more than that – where are the ones who are talking about it? Because I am not seeing me out here. Where am I?

From the time I first started writing, the trick for me has always been to construct a life in which writing could occur. I have never been blocked, never lost faith (or never lost it for longer than necessary, shall we say) never not had ideas and scraps sitting around in notebooks or on Post-its adhered to the desk edge, but I have always been slow and have never had a protracted run of free time. I have always had to hold down a paying job of some sort and now I’m the mother of a small child as well, and the ability to make a literary life while teaching and parenting (to say nothing of housework) is sometimes beyond me. I don’t feel completely outwitted by it but it is increasingly a struggle. If I had a staff of even one person, or could tolerate a small amphetamine habit, or entertain the possibility of weekly blood transfusions, or had been married to Vera Nabokov, or had a housespouse of even minimal abilities, a literary life would be easier to bring about. (In my mind I see all your male readers rolling their eyes. But your female ones—what is that? Are they nodding in agreement? Are their fists in the air?) It’s hardly news that it is difficult to keep the intellectual and artistic hum of your brain going when one is mired in housewifery. This is, I realize, an old complaint from women, but for working women everywhere it continues to have great currency.

– Lorrie Moore, Paris Review, 2001

When I really think about it, I guess I am actually the definition of a sell out because I am choosing the ability to save for a house in a big city, the ability to eventually live debt free, I’m choosing the make money path over the make no money path but write all day.

Sometimes I read about other successful writers who don’t have kids, who lived in studio apartments scraping together bits of money here and there so that they could continue writing and do only that and I think, “But I could never do that now, I have a child. I have a husband, I have a life.” And then I think about the choices I made in order to have those things when I didn’t even know what having those things would mean for the other parts of my life. Would I have chosen differently? Could I have? I don’t think so. Maybe. Who knows.

When I was in grad school I told my professor that I wanted to have a first novel published by the time I was 30. That was my goal. She said, “Absolutely. I don’t doubt that for a second.” Well, newsflash, that’s not happening. Is that bad?

I look at successful writers who seemingly do nothing else but write. Who, seemingly, know people with great cabins and beach houses, seemingly, just so they can lend out a quiet writing retreat for writers who happen to also be friends. Seemingly.

Well. I don’t want to do it that way. (I mean, if you have a beach house you want to offer me as retreat space, I wouldn’t turn you down…) I’ve never wanted to give up the babies and the people and the life part in order to be really, really, really good at something. Live the isolated life? That was never me in college and that wasn’t me in grad school, that was never me even when I knew I was the best writer in the room.

I want to talk about being a writer in the real world, the world were you pay bills and you have friends and you have a family and a job and you still write.

So, I’m here. I’m not working for myself, I have a job that I go to Monday through Friday and I have a kid that I tuck into bed every night and I have this blog and I have a few other projects and I would love to write for more things, give voices to more characters, tell more stories in more places for more eyes and ears and people.

And I’m not ever going to be the artist who works for themselves and has the interesting loft with the exposed brick and wears clothes from vintage shops or from their clothing designer friends. I’m never going to be that cool.

I wear my jeans until they have holes on the seam where my thighs rub. And I rent an apartment that is probably considered expensive for most of the country, but coming from the bay area is a freaking steal. I take hour long lunch breaks to either read or meet my husband for a mid-week date, and by the end of the week my eyes are blurry and puffy from overuse. I stay up too late crafting blogs and I do fun sponsored posts not for money but for experience, for fun.

I might write a book one day. Honestly, I’m probably going to write a few. But it won’t be by the time I’m 30. And I work. I write and edit for companies and I freelance on the side, but I don’t make my own schedule and I’m limited within the constraints of sick days and paid leave. But I like having a 401k and stability.

And that’s real. That’s how it is. Everyone needs to do what they need to do, but there isn’t just 1 way. It’s exhausting having to hold myself up to the 1 way I see most often as the key to success and not see myself there. So I’m done doing that. I’m going to breath a sigh of relief knowing that I haven’t missed my chance or my boat or whatever because I didn’t do it the way someone else has done it. I make my own success the away I make it.

30 thoughts on “On Working”

  1. Writers who work, woooooo! 😉 I love that you start these conversations.

    A few years back (geez, probably five years now) I had a plan to gather up enough freelance writing until I could do the full-time, work-from-home thing. HAHAHAHAH. Like you say, getting enough freelance work to pay the bills is HARD. Like, really really hard. One company expected me to edit a 10 page paper in 25 minutes, tops. I didn’t even return their email.

    At some point, something changed, and I realized, “You know, I really LIKE having a steady paycheck. And healthcare. And a savings account.” Which is so boring of me. It means it’s going to take me much, much longer to finish any work, but it also means I don’t have the very real stress of wondering where the next bit of money is going to come in.

    Austin Kleon has a lot of great posts about this — I’m fond of this one:

    1. I love that link!! Thank you! This quote is pretty much my whole existence: “A day job gives you money, a connection to the world, and a routine. Freedom from financial stress also means freedom in your art. As photographer Bill Cunningham says, “If you don’t take money, they cant tell you what to do.”

    2. Just wanted to add, I’ve spent the last three years trying to be a writer who writes and makes that a career. And it has been so hard and we have been so broke. I’m starting a non-writing job tomorrow, and I am really excited — for a steady paycheck, for something motivating, for not having to feel like I owe it to myself to just keep pushing on doing something I’m no longer happy doing.

  2. People often asked me why I don’t just go into business for myself, start my own firm. And the reality is, I like working. I like working with other people. I like going to an office everyday. I like having somebody else to hold me accountable.

    I have become obsessed with other lawyers who have hobbies. Not just hobbies, but basically entire second lives. The woman who writes Swim Bike Mom. Rose Runner. People who run 15 miles before work or who train for ironmans. I love reading about other lawyers who are photographers, or have other side gigs. Because I like knowing that some of us are well suited to lawyering at work, and still able to pursue other passions. Sometimes, it’s okay that that thing that you love to do on the weekends stays that thing you love to do on the weekends – we don’t all have to spend our time trying to make money from things we love doing.

  3. “Everyone needs to do what they need to do, but there isn’t just 1 way.” Rock it, Lauren! Sometimes structure can produce great freedom – especially when it enables stability!

  4. Yes. I often worry that I’m not working hard enough, and that’s why I’m not having the success I really want. And then I try to remember all the work I’m putting into every other aspect of my life. It’s so hard to find a balance, but I think we’re both doing a good job of it! Plus, didn’t Virgina Woolf say not to bother publishing at all until you are 30?

  5. You’ve nailed the main reason I slowly dropped a bunch of blogs that I used to read regularly. It’s not that I only want to read about people with lives exactly like mine, because I don’t. For me, the problem is that many blogs are aspirational and raise the same types of questions that you identify in your post: Ugh, what am I doing in an office? Why don’t I start my own shop? Even though I know that I would not thrive working for myself and I love the benefits of working for someone else and it’s just not realistic for me to take that risk when I’m supporting a family. Like you, I want to read about working creative-types, but also working moms. This is a rambling comment. I don’t really have a point, but wanted to respond because this post resonates with me.

    I also want to recommend my friend Ru’s blog. She hasn’t updated in awhile, but she is a lawyer writer with a lot of posts about balancing the day job writing books. http://andthenshewaslikeblahblahblah.blogspot.com/

  6. Oh. My goodness. Yes. I completely understand. Lindi and I can only afford to have one of us work for ourselves, and right now, that’s her. So I work in an office doing a job that is okay but not inspiring, and she edits, and we do photography together on nights and weekends. It’s wonderful and exhausting all at once, because it means we don’t have a lot of free time. I mostly wish we could both work from home. (Silly mortgage! Silly health insurance!) And sometimes, the tired part of my brain wishes we both had normal 9-5 jobs so we would have weekends like normal people (what even IS THAT?! a real weekend!?) instead of working seven days a week, almost every week. But it’s worth it. Because we love it. But we are scrounging the nights and weekends, like you, so I understand. Lindi writes late at night, and I’m trying to get up the gumption to start writing again too since I have to sleep late at night so I can get up early, and I photograph with her when I’m not at my day job. It’s a balance. A really hard balance, sometimes. So, keep at it. You’re amazing, and a brilliant writer, and there is no shame in choosing the day job because there are things you want in life that writing all day every day can’t give you at the moment.

  7. There is NO shame in making choices that enable financial and emotional stability. I was brokity broke broke all through college and it has greatly shaped my desire to make more money and hold a steady job with health insurance and paid vacation.

    Mostly this post makes me wish we had a more supportive society. One with single payer health care, subsidized childcare, and rent control so that talented people like you could even work part time (or not at all) and create beautiful things for people to enjoy. We could all stand to enjoy more free time.

  8. You are such an inspiration. You are making it right there, even if it does not feel so. I mean, you work writing, and then you write some more. And you read. And you makes us things, and you turn trips to the supermarket into thoughtful stories. And you have a rich family and personal life, and you have dreams and things that you will keep on pursuing. Don’t feel bad because you don’t fit in some mould.

  9. “Sometimes I read about other successful writers who don’t have kids, who lived in studio apartments scraping together bits of money here and there so that they could continue writing and do only that and I think, “But I could never do that now, I have a child. I have a husband, I have a life.” And then I think about the choices I made in order to have those things when I didn’t even know what having those things would mean for the other parts of my life. Would I have chosen differently? Could I have? I don’t think so. Maybe. Who knows.”

    YES. Yes to all of this. I grew up very, very motivated to become a Capital W Writer. I sent off manuscripts to teen publishing contests, sent my work everywhere in college, interned for two literary journals/websites, tried to get my foot in the publishing door…and then I graduated. And made Choices. Choices about my career and not doing an MFA but instead going to grad school for library science, and…that was that. Could my husband and I have scraped together a living if I’d pursued an MFA and “made it”? Sure. But…we have debts to pay. We do have a life. At this point, with the choices I’ve made, I don’t see me ever being self-employed, the same way I don’t see me not being the head breadwinner. And that’s okay. This is the life I chose when I made those decisions, and with it come good and bad things. I have health insurance through my employer. I am also beholden to their schedule. It comes down to a sort of parallel universe sort of thing. In one, I chose an MFA and sold a book and lived on its meager profits until I could write the next one for more possibly meager profits, but making my own schedule. In the other one, the coin-toss I ended up with, I’m not my own master, but I have other freedoms, like the freedom to save more of the money I make because it’s decent. I guess the thing is, I see things as limited — I don’t expect to enjoy “it all” and instead focus on enjoying the slices of “it all” that I do have. I freelance and I enjoy it for what it is, knowing it’s not going to be a jumping-off point to something full-time anytime soon. Not expecting more from it is rather freeing, really.

    <3 This stuff sucks, because I think it makes us think less of ourselves for not "making it" with words. And it shouldn't. There is no shame or failure in working a "regular non-blogger person" type of job. It's just…life. And you're living it. And that's pretty real.

    1. If this gives you ANY solice at all – I did get my MFA, and though I popped out with a book and some skilllzzz, it was also incredibly hard to find a job. So, an MFA may have been your ticket to author-hood, but not necessarily. And I think many, many, many people find themselves incredibly successful sans MFA.

      I actually think you’re probably in a much better position than I am. With a real life useful trade and all. 😉

      Thank you so much for telling me all of that – I think we all just wander around trying to make the best choices possible with the info at hand and then it gets kind of scary when you look and think “Oh god, look at all the other roads and paths and options of “could have been”!!! Could have been is a tricky tricky gollum.

    2. There are soooo many MFA graduates who are my corporate brethren 🙂 They do amazing creative stuff outside of work (and many of them are published and well-respected in the local literary circle), but it’s not their full-time gig.

  10. Mad props to you for recognizing the lack of voices representing you and putting your story out there for others to use as a reference. Way to get it, girl!

  11. This! There was an infograph that came out a few months ago re. schedules of famous artists and thinkers and I just kept going “Where is the part for childcare/cooking/cleaning/etc?” The only person who had any kind of housework section was Maya Angelou.

  12. Are you full of the “Binders full of women writers” on FB? I can invite you if you’re not. I haven’t had… time… to dive in, but I know there are a ton of women talking about exactly this.

    If it makes you feel better, in a lot of cases it’s mostly running a business. Finding time to write is… the dream, right? Ugh.

  13. Also, hilariously, I wonder if women write about this less because they DON’T HAVE FUCKING TIME. Like, I’ve been wanting to write about it, but I gotta run payroll, and check some contracts, and write about wedding exits and do daycare pick up AND dropoff (because obviously a man at a traditional job wouldn’t be given the flex time to do that) so I don’t have time.

    With that. Gotta go. Gotta write something boring I’m paid to write 😉

  14. I tried very hard, once when I graduated from college, and once after I got my master’s and moved to Mexico, to Be a Writer. I learned that, hard-core introvert that I may be, I need to be out in the world, having experiences and interacting and feeling useful, and I learned that I don’t want to write what other people think I should write just so I can make money writing. Right now, I’m working in a food pantry and learning a ton about myself and other people and feeling very useful most days (and saving some money and enjoying great benefits) and I only write what I want to write. I don’t have time or energy to write every day, or even every week, but I’m happier now than I was when I was “living the dream,” writing stupid articles with no paragraph longer than two sentences because “people won’t take the time to read that,” and seeing anything sincere and from my heart that got published disappear into the cyber-abyss.

    Thanks for talking about this. I have a friend from my Being a Writer days who is making a living as a travel writer, has three kids, travels to exotic locales constantly, and also has time to do all kinds of fancy from-scratch cooking and post to Facebook about it. It’s good to be reminded that there are lots of ways to do this writer thing. We don’t all have the same timeline, and that’s okay.

  15. I love this!! I love you!! Even though I am not a writer, so much of what you said spoke to me! The idea of the other paths and letting yourself realice that you didn’t miss the boat 🙂 that is key!

  16. If I had a dollar for every time someone told my husband to “just” start his own restaurant, we would probably have enough for him to actually start his own restaurant. But restaurants are tricky, and heartbreaking, and you’re pretty much not going to make any money for a very long time.

    The flip side of that coin is that corporate chef jobs are rare, and even if you get one that has health care and paid time off you are stuck making the same food day after day that you don’t care about. Right now he’s in the middle ground, making food he loves in someone elses restaurant for an hourly wage. I can’t lie, sometimes it would be really nice for him to have sick days and all that jazz.

    It’s hard. Choosing a path is hard. And when its a path you aren’t super stoked about it makes it really hard. Thanks for letting me see it from your side!!

  17. It’s a bit of a Catch 22 where successful writers are often victims of their own success. Of the 40 writers I interviewed for my thesis, quite a lot were writing full-time. But the catch was that all had to do writing-related activities to put together a full-time income that allowed them the time and space to write. They had to do the festival circuit, and workshops, and book tours and signings and school engagements. They’re also doing freelance writing, competition judging, uni teaching, etc. I think doing all those supplementary activities is the killer for most women writers who have families. We can generally find time to write in the wee hours or the stolen moments – but how do you drop everything for a week or two to do a writer’s festival? To do a promotional tour?

    1. That is a really really excellent point. You become a slave to maintaining the ability to write full time. Which seems counterproductive. Productive in different ways, perhaps in really self satisfying ways (I would love to teach at a university, unfortunately that world looks VERY different than it did 20 years ago), but also incredibly time consuming ways. I would absolutely DIE to go to a writing retreat for several weeks, but how much time is too much time to leave my son? That is my big dilemma.

  18. While not a writer, (web developer) I definitely get this. I’m putting my kid to bed right now and settling in for a night of working that starts at 9pm. It’s exhausting. Some days, I miss going to an office and doing something with like minded people. But I also really wanted to stay home with my daughter, so for now, my life is late night coding.

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