Last December, I did something crazy — I quit my job. It felt strange to do something so bold in this economic climate and even stranger to tell people about it. Not only was I ditching a steady paycheck, I was leaving the career path that I’d been on for more than ten years, which included getting a PhD and doing several years of postdoctoral work.
I can’t say that my colleagues were impressed with my decision, except maybe a few that knew how unhappy I’d been. My misery had begun in graduate school, but I finished the degree and continued with the work anyway. This is partly because I did love it once and hoped I might find that feeling again. The rest was pride and stubbornness. Oh, and fear. Lots of fear. I was afraid to venture out because what I really wanted to do instead seemed so impractical, I could hardly admit it to myself, much less anyone else. I wanted to be a writer.
When I finally reached my breaking point and planned to quit, I decided to seize the opportunity and see if I could make a living as a writer. To quell the fear (and make the decision seem more legitimate), I took the most practical approach I could think of. I secured a job as a contractor for an editing company that caters to folks in my old line of work. In between jobs with them, I arranged to work through freelancing bid sites to supplement my income.
In the 10 months after joining the editing company, they only sent me work three times. The first time, the topic was far removed enough from my field that I couldn’t do it — I let them pass it along to someone else. The second time, it was to write a grant (not my cup of tea), again on something completely unrelated to my specific expertise. (The selling point of the company is that your documents will be edited by experts, not some random schmo filling in their knowledge gaps with Google.) By the time they sent me the third item, which was relatively close to my expertise, it was too late. Science is something you need to mentally keep up with and my brain had gotten too rusty. Besides, I didn’t want to think about that stuff any more. So, I turned down the work and terminated my contract with them.
I did pick up work through the bid sites, however. I had plenty to keep me busy during weekdays, mainly through one particular client. After my first few assignments, they brought me on as a full member of their project team to write web content and promotional materials for their company. They loved my work, too. I basked in the positive feedback and wrote whatever they asked me to. As my other clients trickled off, I didn’t replace them.
As for the content itself … meh. And the message? Er… yeah. Let’s just say I wasn’t a fan of what they were selling. It was ghostwriting, however, so I assured myself that my reputation was safe. I did like the people personally, we were just coming from different places. In writing on their behalf, I did what I could to keep them honest (from my point of view). Truth be told, most of it was just fine and I was left to my own devices enough of the time that I could write what I felt was right.
The summer marched on. I was pretty happy. I enjoyed not dreading Mondays for once in my life. And then I got a little wake-up call from a surprising place: Jonathan Coulton‘s How I WoW appearance. He was asked whether it was a conscious choice to steer his songs toward the geek culture. He said no, he just wrote what he wrote and didn’t steer his creativity toward any particular mold. If he wrote what others wanted him to, it would just be like any other job.
And I thought, Damn, he’s right. I think I did it wrong.
But I kept going. I was getting paid, right? Paychecks good.
Fast forward a few months. My pay had marginally increased, but the client was asking a lot more work from me. I had enough to do that I could keep myself busy full time, but given the low pay, I worked part time. Since they were satisfied with my progress each week, I didn’t ask for more or rock the boat.
Then, a few weeks ago, they rocked the boat. They’d asked me to write some sketchy things in the past, but I usually just let them fall to the bottom of the priority pile. This time, there was a concrete deadline, so I had to do it. Given the particulars of the assignment, I had enough editorial control to express what I really thought about the topic, so I did just that. I was pretty sure they were going to disregard my work, so my rebellion might not not pay off, but it was worth a try.
About a week later, they gave me an assignment that was even worse. This one I could not do. I joked early on in my freelancing career that I’d probably start with high standards that would spiral downward when I found myself in need of money. It seems it was the opposite. I hadn’t had a decent paycheck in a year, but for personal, ethical, and philosophical reasons, there was no way I could write what they wanted. In fact, I realized I didn’t want to write for them at all any more. It was a tough phone call to make, but I did it. I was honest, too, and told them exactly why I was leaving the team. They called a few times after and asked me to reconsider, but I held my ground. I’m done with them.
Even though I’m now starting from scratch after almost a year in this job, I think it’s been a good year and a great experience. It certainly crystallized some things for me; I have a much better sense of what I want to be as a writer and what I’m willing to write for others.
I’m going to fully embrace this fresh start, too. This time, I’ll choose what I write. Maybe I’ll get hired for regular writing somewhere (web or print), maybe I won’t. Maybe I’ll manage to sell a story, an essay, a novel… who knows? I won’t know until I really buckle down and give this work an honest try. Besides, if I’m not going to make much money writing, I may as well do it writing about things I care about.
So, the time has come. Enough with this working-to-live crap. Life is too short for that.