Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Career, Job, Occupation or Hobby?

A few weeks ago, we had an interesting debate on the Romantic Novelists' Association forum, about whether we consider our writing to be a hobby or a job. I've often discussed this topic with fellow writers and it seems to be something that some of us can get quite hot under the collar about, so I thought I'd throw it open to bloggers too!

For those who are really successful and earn their living from writing, I can quite see how they would be offended to have it called a hobby! In their case, there isn't any doubt in the matter – it’s their career, obviously.

But what about the rest (the majority) of us? Personally, before I was published, I thought of my writing as a hobby – simply because I had a full-time, stressful job, three children and everything else that had to be fitted in – how could I possibly think of my writing as another job? I’d have felt even more stressed. It was a hobby that I enjoyed whenever I could, it relaxed me and then brought me in a bit of extra money occasionally when I started getting short stories published. To be honest, at that stage I'd have also thought I was being a bit 'up myself' if I'd referred to it as anything other than a hobby - (but perhaps that just showed my lack of confidence as a writer!)

That certainly changed when I had my first novel published – but I still needed the day job, and with eight books behind me now, I still would need, at the very least, a part-time day-job, if it wasn’t for the fact that I’ve since acquired both my State and my NHS pensions. Anything I earn now from writing is the icing on my financial cake but it certainly isn’t a proper income – and never was. I know I’m not a best-seller, but nor are the majority of authors. The Society of Authors' figures bear this out: a pitiful few of us earn a living wage from our writing. We obviously all have some other means of support – whether that’s a day-job, a pension or a rich partner! So can this underpaid majority of us really call writing our job?

Don’t get me wrong – I love the kudos I get from telling people I’m an author, a writer, whatever - yes, I'm proud of it, because it's what I've wanted to 'be' ever since I was a small child, and I'm thrilled that I finally achieved it after years and years of trying. I love putting it down as my occupation on forms. But before I retired, I tended to put down 'medical secretary' even though I was a published author - because it was my day-job that actually kept me financially afloat, paid my Tesco's bills and helped to put my kids through university, not my writing. (Ironically, the only form where I needed to write down both of my occupations was my tax return!).

Yes, part of me does bristle if my husband sometimes refers to my writing as my hobby, as if it’s a bit of knitting. So, personally, ‘occupation’ best sums up the way I think of it now. To be honest, thinking of it as a ‘job’, for me anyway, would make it a lot less attractive! A job is something you have to do whether you like it or not. Something you only do because you need the money. I realise that for some successful authors who don't have (or need) any other form of income, and are contracted to write book after book, it must start to feel like a chore. In a way -although I would obviously dearly love to be that successful! - I think it must be quite sad to feel like that. Half the pleasure must be gone.

Of course I agree with those who say they want everything they write to be published. So do I, desperately! I'm sure it's the aim of nearly all writers. Sadly, it’s often unrealistic, but surely the whole point is that we keep on trying, and live in hope. But I DO advise would-be writers, whenever I give talks, to think of their writing FIRST as a hobby – in other words, do it first because you enjoy it, rather than having some wholly unrealistic plan of giving up the day-job and earning pots of money.

In a perfect world we’d all be paid pots of money for what we do, but I don’t want to be miserable about the thing I love doing the most! If I had to think of it as a job, I'd say the pay is abysmal, the prospects very limited, but the working conditions (hours completely flexible, come and go as you please, work with glass of wine on desk and cat on lap, or in garden on laptop, stop to read e-mails and look at Facebook whenever you like, etc etc etc!) - absolutely amazing!


  1. Excellent post!
    My writing is a hobby and I never never NEVER refer to myself as a "writer." I am in complete agreement with you about it sounding a bit up yourself (I believe you said) or myself if I did. It earns me a tiny bit of pin money and I do it because I enjoy it. having said that I do enjoy the discipline of having a deadline set by an editor. The ones that I set myself don't carry enough weight. I don;t think that I would ever refer to myself as a writer until I earned my living from it.
    This is just my opinion of myself and my own experiences and I hope no-one will be offended.

  2. Thanks, Colette. Of course, how you describe yourself and your writing is a completely personal thing and I agree, I certainly don't intend any offence to anyone who feels differently from me about this. I'm sure part of it relates to whether or not someone has another job apart from writing. And as you say, whether or not writing generates much income.

  3. I haven't been successful (yet). I live in hope but if I didn't enjoy it I wouldn't do it. A couple of quotes spring to mind:
    You've achieved success in your field when you don't know whether what you're doing is work or play. Warren Beatty.
    What's money? A man is a success if he gets up in the morning and goes to bed at night and in between does what he wants to do. Bob Dylan.

  4. Brilliant quotes, DITDI - so absolutely true! I hope you won't mind if I re-quote those when I do my next talk!

  5. I do describe myself as a writer now but I think that's because it validates my writing to myself. It's taken me a long time to get here!
    I used to think it was "up myself" to say this, but I've come to the conclusion that writers write and others don't, therefore I'm a writer. It has nothing whatever to do with whether I am paid or not (although that's obviously fab!).
    I think we live in a society where people are classified according to what they do to earn money, but that's not really what we are, is it? It's just what we do. The only exception to this is when I'm getting paid for my writing when the two actually come together.
    I am a writer like a waitress who is audtioning for parts is an actress: I am a writer who does other things to earn money.
    Creative people are often paid poorly. I was recently shocked to learn how little a jobbing member of a classical orchestra is paid (all those hours of practice!).
    Oh dear! I seem to have climbed onto some sort of soapbox - better get down before I'm pelted with rotten vegetables!
    Completely agree about wonderful working conditions! It might not earn me much money, but I wouldn't swap it for the world!x

    P.S. Just read "Buttons and Bows" in one of my PF back issues - loved it!

  6. But Lydia, of course you should describe yourself as a writer!
    I hope nobody thinks I'm questioning what they call THEMSELVES - yes, we're all writers if we write! My point was just that I didn't put down 'writer' on forms, while I had a day-job. The difference is that I haven't got one any more!
    My question really is how you refer to your WRITING. I just don't like thinking of it as a 'job', because that makes it sound tedious and kind of compulsory!

    Thanks for saying you liked that story! It was one of those that I wrote from a given illustration so I was very happy that it worked out well! x

  7. Is my writing a career move or a hobby? Neither, it's an obsession. I live and breathe it from the moment I wake up until I go to bed. At work, I think about it while I'm working and in my lunch & tea breaks I'm taking notes. I get up at four every morning to write on my computer before going to work. At weekend I'm still up at four to writing before the rest of the house is awake.

    I read somewhere "if you want 100% out you must put a 100% in." I want to be a writer 100%, I'm aiming for the top and I hope to see you there too one day, Olivia.

  8. Blimey, Jarmara, I take my hat off to you! (Or I would if I was wearing one). Nothing on this earth, apart from the cries of my daughters when they were babies, would get me out of bed at 4am. You certainly deserve to get to the top with the amount of effort you're putting in! I hope you do. x

  9. What a thought provoking post, Olivia.
    I think writing is an addiction, much more than a hobby or a job. Two years ago, at the tender age of 48, I decided it was time to admit I wanted to be a writer and to make it happen. For me that meant spending every spare hour doing it and every hour thinking about it.
    Happily, all good things followed but my luck coincided with my hardest work ever and a new self belief.......

    Anna May x

  10. Hi Anna, and thank you for your comments. And congratulations on your success! Like you, I was ... ahem ... kind of middle-aged when I finally had some writing success. Over 50 when my first book was published. And yes, because of my day-job, I was spending every spare hour on my writing, so it did feel like an obsession. Now I'm retired, I can write whenever I want to and still fit other things into my life - so it all feels a lot nicer and less frantic. It's because I enjoy it so much that I can't bear to think of it as a job! x