Am I selling out?

For years I worked as a journalist. Some days I loved it, some days I tolerated it. Most days, however, it was simply what I did. It rarely felt like work. Sometimes, flying over mountains in a float plane or interviewing sled dog mushers for a story, I’d stop and think: I get paid for doing this? And I’d pause and look out the window or at the dogs racing through the snow and it seemed a pretty incredible way to make a living.

But then the bad days began outpacing the good days. And I stopped loving journalism. It felt like too much damned work.

I was finishing up my first novel Dolls Behaving Badly at the time and living down in Seward, Alaska, a small town of about 2,000 at the end of the road system. I loved living in Seward, loved the mountains, the bay, the way the wind blew so fierce and sudden that it felt almost holy against my face. Afternoons I’d run mountain trails with the dog, and standing up there so high and looking down over the town I’d often weep with happiness.

Seward photo
View from halfway up Mount Marathon in Seward.

But writing all day for work and working most of the night on my novel caught up with me. I was exhausted and stressed, and the day I burst into tears in the middle of the Safeway was the day I knew I had to make a choice: journalism or my writing.

That’s when my newspaper went out of business. I took this as a sign from God: “Cinthia,” I imagined him saying, “you’re not suppose to be a newspaper hack, you’re supposed to write beautiful and funny books.”

For two years I wrote books and, when my money became low, I freelanced. I spent days lost inside my head. I wrote all night if I damned well pleased. I finished my second novel. I wrote and published poetry and essays. I ran a couple of marathons. I worked on my abs.

Then I became restless.

I was tired of sitting on my ass all day at my desk, tired of spending so much time alone. I was tired, dare I say it, of writing books and poetry and essays.

I was also tired of never having any money, tired of running up my credit cards, tired of writing stories for magazines and waiting over half of a year to get paid.

So I slid back over to journalism and really, it felt like coming home. In the past few weeks I’ve attend a beauty pageant and a poetry reading, had breakfast with a school board candidate, chatted up legislators, went birding with a family and yesterday I spent the day eating Fig Newtons (sorry, don’t think they were vegan, hee, hee) while riding around a Humvee with two Army PR guys.

camo hat2
Riding around in a military Humvee with a real Army hard hat. So. Much. Fun.
1
And sled dogs!
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And more sled dogs!

Not a bad way to make a living.

Yet I wonder: Am I selling out? Am I turning away from my “real” writing just when I’m seriously beginning to make it?

I wrote most of Dolls while working full-time as a journalist, waitressing weekends and raising a child by myself (without a dime of child support, either). So I know that it is possible to do both. And journalism offers the kind of flexibility not found in most jobs.

Still, I worry.

So, here’s a question: How do you justify your day job? Do you feel that it sucks up too much writing or personal time and, if so, how do you balance two opposing wants/needs?

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16 thoughts on “Am I selling out?

  1. I work a day job because I like like running water and heat and living in a house. I work because I also really like my two horses and they eat a LOT. But I feel that same pressure these days and I’m wondering if its worth it, thinking this may be it — my last book. Or thinking maybe I need a different job. This just isn’t fun. . . but face it, when you hold that book in your hand at the end of the day it always feels euphoric. Like you’ve made something that will last. This morning though, at 5 a.m., taking up quilting sounds a hell of a lot easier. P.S. I realized the other day that I store pens and pencils in my cookie jar. What does that say about me as a grandmother?

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    1. Thanks, Kaylene! I too like hot water and heat, and food. I know what you mean, how sometimes writing stops becoming fun. That’s why I started working at the ER paper: My novel/essay writing didn’t feel like fun any longer. It wasn’t making me happy. So I decided to write a different way, with a different mindset and purpose. So far, it’s working. Though I could be in the infatuation stage that comes with each new venture. P.S. Invite me over to ride horses someday, okay? I grew up with horses but haven’t been on one in over 20 years.

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  2. My experience with journalism is limited. I took it in high school years ago, and had a grand total of one article published in the paper for an entire year! For reasons I can’t convey in a comment.

    I don’t think you’re a sell out. If someone offered me to go dog sledding in Alaska, you bet your ass I’d do it! And I’d take the money without losing a minute of sleep.

    It seems to me you’re doing what you want and that’s not selling out.

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    1. Thanks! Alaska is a pretty special place and working as a journalist I’ve been able to do neat things like sled dog mushing and glacier hikes, kayaking, halibut fishing, etc. I just hope that it doesn’t push my other, “real” writing to the background. P.S. I love “I’d take the money without losing a minute of sleep.” Thanks for that–it’s totally what I needed to hear. Cheers and happy weekend.

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  3. Writing as a journalist, book author or PR pro are all worthy professions. You have to do what you need to do to survive and you feed what needs to be fed at certain times in your life. That could mean mentally, spiritually or physically. People probably appreciate that you keep on telling stories no matter in what capacity.

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    1. Hi and thanks so much, Angela. I’m so excited that you posted on my blog since you’re one of my favorite people on Twitter. Love your posts so much. And we all do need to do what we need to do to survive. I wonder why there’s such a stigma among artists and writers about working a “real” job, almost as if we are less talented because we admit that we actually need money to live. Anyway, thanks again, and big hugs.

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  4. I don’t see it as selling out at all. You’re using your best skills to create a situation in which you can write. These days, hardly anyone can make a living writing novels — especially high-quality, literary novels (like you and I write 😉 ) — so some kind of food-on-the-table job is a given. And, as you say, journalism offers some flexibility that many jobs can’t offer.

    As long as you can maintain a literary style in your novels and keep journalistic imperatives from creeping in, I think you have a great scenario. Not getting paid on time is a drag, but if you’re getting the assignments there should be a steady flow of income, right?

    Sounds, too, like you’re gathering plenty of material for future novels. Not a bad deal!

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    1. Ah, Kevin, thanks so much. And it’s so true that very few people can make a living writing novels. (Why then, does everyone assume that I can and am making a living writing novels?) I hope I can keep my two writing lives separate. It’s difficult because they are both such different styles, not writing as much as lifestyles: I’m an introverted person by nature and have to be extroverted in order to work in journalism. This is good and pulls me out of myself but it’s not easy to burrow back down deep so that I can write with deep emotion. The age-old problem, eh? Cheers and happy writing.

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  5. I am lucky enough to have a pension, so when I quit my after-retirement job to write full-time I could still pay the bills. But that is rare nowadays. I think as long as you still have some time and energy to write your beautiful books, you’re doing fine. Keep on keeping on, Cinthia!

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  6. Oh Cinthia I love you so much! I love what you say here and the question you’re posing. And it doesn’t sound like you’re selling out. It sounds like a beautiful evocation of the balancing game of life. You felt drawn to immerse yourself in creative writing; you did so. You tired of the specific sacrifices of that way of being, and life sent you the journalism work and reignited the part of you that loves that.
    Many of my favorite writers had “day jobs” quite unrelated to writing. I envy my journalist friends because I feel their work gives them a framework for writing discipline in a “get ‘er done” way that can short-circuit a lot of the fidgety perfectionism the rest of us can get up to.
    Hope to see you soon and catch up!
    love
    Ela

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  7. Oh, how I miss you, Ela! We must get together soon and talk books and writing and everything else that touches our hearts and souls. Big, big hugs and a writerly smooch on your cheek. Take care. P.S. I keep trying to comment on your blog but for some reason I’m locked out. Technology sucks sometimes, eh?

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    1. I look forward to whenever we can get together!
      Yes, technology _literally_ sucks time/energy/resources. There are lots of things to do with my blog that I hope to figure out in the not-too-distant future. Need to find me a twenty-something tech-head.
      We’re having an incredible windstorm here–as in no-sleep loud house-shaking! And finally, some snow, which is barely sticking because the wind is howling so much.
      lots of love
      Ela

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