Don’t take the obvious path. That’s the best piece of advice I can give to any other writer, artist, or creative just starting their career. As you’ll see with my story, I didn’t take the obvious path, and it led me to a place where I’m well-paid and deeply fulfilled. I have a day job that I love, one that gives me more energy than it takes, and I’m free to explore my creative vision on my own terms at home. That’s what I want for you too.
In other careers, as far as I can tell, there are obvious paths to follow, and those paths lead to well-paying, comfortable jobs. If that’s true of your industry, more power to you. For artists like us, though, the seemingly easy and obvious paths will lead you to burnout and regret.
I know, because I know a lot of other writers who are in rough spots right now. They’re toiling away at jobs they don’t enjoy for comparatively little pay, and the stress of their situation saps the energy and focus they need to do their best work. Some of them still make the Herculean effort to keep writing, and I respect the heck out of them for that.
Still, wouldn’t you rather have a comfortable lifestyle while you find your creative path? I firmly believe it’s possible to do both, which is why I want to systematically dismantle this myth that you must choose between a well-paying career and the life of an artist.
The Two Most Obvious Paths for Writers (Are Awful)
The first most obvious path for writers is to become a teacher. Teaching is a noble profession. We desperately need good teachers. Our civilization will survive or collapse based on the quality of our teachers. So please, understand that I mean no disrespect to teachers when I say we don’t need you to become a teacher.
We need you to become a teacher only if you are profoundly committed to the art and science of coaching (which goes far beyond teaching in the institutional sense) our young people to reach their full potential. We need you to become a teacher if you are open to the immense emotional challenges and punishing workload that come with teaching. We need you to become a teacher if you are willing to put the needs of those young people far, far above your own.
We don’t need you to become a teacher because you’ll get summers off. We don’t need you to become a teacher because that’s what most English majors do. We certainly don’t need you to become a teacher because you think it will be easy, or you think it won’t require commitment, or you think it will open up opportunities outside of teaching. It won’t, it will, and it won’t (unless you make those opportunities yourself).
Like with anything else, don’t do it unless you mean it.
And for the love of everything holy, don’t do it because you think you don’t have any other options! Teaching is the path of most resistance, not the path of least resistance. It would be easier to dive into a career you’re completely unqualified for (like I did, twice) than it would be for you to become a teacher out of desperation.
Have I made my point there?
The second most obvious path is to get a job in screenwriting, most likely in the writers’ room for a TV show. To be fair, there is a path here. There are successful writers (including showrunners, screenwriters for film, and novelists) who have worked their way up through writers’ rooms. It can work, but be warned: you’ll have to be cutthroat, and you’ll have to spend a very long time following someone else’s creative vision before you get to explore your own.
If you’re the ultra-competitive type and that sounds exciting to you, then go for it. If not, then heed the words of warning I heard from a pair of novelists who work on a TV show by day: it’s exhausting to spend all day telling someone else’s story and then come home and work on your own. You’re drawing from the same well in both cases, which means you’ll be scraping the bottom by the time you get to your own vision. It can be done, but it’s not ideal.
Now, let me be honest about something here before I get into my own story: I am fantastically stubborn, enamored with my own intellect, and extremely particular about my creative tastes. If you have the audacity to call yourself a writer, I’m guessing you fit this profile too.
Ultimately, I think it’s a feature, not a bug, but the thing I’ve learned is that artists like us need to play a certain game of cat and mouse with ourselves if we want to succeed. Here’s what I mean:
When I Discovered that I Was a Writer
When I was in sixth grade, our music teacher (oddly enough) asked the class to write short stories and bring them into class. I wrote a story about a shy little boy getting a visit from a woman in a sparkling white dress. She said she was Destiny, and she explained to the boy that even though he was shy and awkward now, he would go on to do great things.
Our music teacher loved it so much he read it aloud for the whole class. And because, obviously, I was the awkward young boy in the story, he was wise enough and kind enough to keep me anonymous.
The deep lesson I learned was that my words have a power extending far beyond my own mind and body. They can travel into another person and create thoughts and feelings that wouldn’t have appeared otherwise. This is what it means to be a writer.
That’s also the only definition you’ll ever need. Trust me, I’ve had a wonderful and unexpected career so far with that definition alone.
Why The Worst Year of My Life Made This All Possible
I’ve couched my story in pretty lofty terms so far, and that part is true. I’ve experienced real magic in my career and I’m exactly as optimistic about your future as my tone suggests.
So let me turn now to the instructive power of pain, disappointment, and disillusionment. Those things are part of my optimism, you see, because I know everything that will feel like a problem to you is in fact a crucial stepping stone in your path.
2014 was the worst year of my life. It was the year a school shooter opened fire at my university. It was the year I graduated from that same university still grieving and still licking my wounds from other recent traumas too dark to mention here. Because my parents had paid for college, it was the year I had to start truly supporting myself for the first time in my life. And because I had just graduated college, I felt I knew vastly less about the world than I’d ever known before.
None of those alone would have been enough to make 2014 the worst year of my life. Even together, they shouldn’t have been enough to crush my spirit. The real disaster was this: they conspired to make me do the one thing I’d never done before: I gave up on writing.
I started to consider other career options. For a while, I seriously considered becoming a therapist. I’ve always enjoyed coaching others, and it would give me an excuse to go back to school. At one point I also considered banking, which goes to show just how lost I was. No disrespect to bankers, all I mean by that it is that I’m the furthest thing on earth from a banker.
I ended up getting a job at Macy’s. Then my aunt helped me get a job I was absolutely unqualified for at a small tech company. It was supposed to be an internship in project management, but while I was there I managed to transform it into a technical writing job. I felt intensely out of place, so much so that toward the end I broke down crying in front of the HR manager. Soon, I was let go because they realized they just didn’t need a technical writer.
I Needed a Writing Job
On the day they let me go, I felt relief. Deep in my chest came a rising heat, the heat of an engine roaring back to life after sitting cold in the garage. I knew two things: one, I would have to move back to my parents house in Orange County while I looked for my next job and two, the next job was going to be a writing job. It had to be.
I just happened to do a job search for writing jobs near Orange County and found a listing for a Content Writer at a place called Fit Body Boot Camp. I knew nothing about fitness, but I knew a ton about writing. It was essentially a marketing position, but I knew nothing about marketing. In fact, at that time I still had a lingering suspicion that marketing was evil. Maybe not Stalin evil, but pretty close to pollution evil.
As I’ve discovered since, marketing can be a beautiful thing…but more on that later. Out of everything I mentioned above, the one thing I didn’t mention in the interview was the evil bit. I watered that down to “some companies get it right, some get it wrong.” In other words, I was honest.
That’s my second best piece of advice, and it applies to any career: be honest in your interviews. Now that I’ve been on the other side of hiring multiple times, I can tell you this: if you lie, they’ll know. Most likely you’ll give yourself away instantly, and if not, they’ll find it in the background check.
More importantly, it builds trust. Just like people can sense when you’re lying, they can sense when you’re being honest. Want to know the fastest way to stand out when you’re fresh out of college and applying to an entry level position? Admit you don’t know anything and you’re willing to learn. Deep down, that’s the only thing any manager wants to hear when hiring for entry level positions. They need you to be teachable, so demonstrate that in the interview.
When the Magic Started
I could claim here that everything fell into place once my old manager left and I took his position, but that’s not exactly how it happened. The truth is that it was a gradual process, starting with my very first day. I finished all my blog assignments quickly and had time to spare, so I just started wandering around the office asking if anyone needed help with their writing. Turns out, all of them did.
That’s the third best lesson I have for writers out there: understand that most people are mortally terrified of writing. To them it feels like watching It while skydiving and meeting their partner’s parents for the first time. Even if they’re actually good at it (which you and I know, most of them aren’t) they still feel monstrously insecure about it. You can open a lot of doors for yourself by offering to write people’s emails for them.
At some point I turned around and realized that I had a job where I was respected as an authority, I got to work on a vast array of exciting, challenging new projects, and I was well paid. Aside from “world famous novelist,” that was the closest I’d ever come to a vision of my dream job back in college.
Like I said, though, it wouldn’t have been possible if not for the darkness of 2014. Looking back on that year, I’ve come up with a sort of motto for it. I can’t say it’s a piece of advice, because I think it’s only a good idea for people have my same mix of stubbornness, obsession with learning, and weird creative tastes.
So I’ll let you be the judge. Here it is: sometimes you have to wander off the path so you can find your way back to it.
Do you need to go as far off the path as I did? I don’t know. I do know this: you’ll learn vastly more about the world and about people if you avoid the obvious path. You’re welcome to find a smoother path than mine, but don’t fall into the trap of “this is what writers do, so I’m going to do it too.” That will leave you sounding just like all the other writers, which is no way to make a name for yourself.
Instead, be open to adventure. Be willing to work hard on something even when your heart isn’t 100 percent in it yet. Fall in love with the people around you, whoever they are, and use your craft to make their work easier..
A Quick Reading List
In no particular order, here are some books you should read as you find your non-obvious path:
- Linchpin by Seth Godin—This is required reading for anyone who wants to do meaningful, important work in the 21st century. Seth Godin is a marketing thought leader with a deeply generous perspective on the work and on human potential. Make sure you read his daily blog too.
- Deep Work by Cal Newport—By profiling legendary figures in the worlds of writing, philosophy, science, computers, psychology, and more, Cal Newport demonstrates that you don’t need to work more to reach your full potential. Instead, you need to make a habit of doing the right kind of work, which might mean way fewer hours of “work” per day.
- Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert—I’ll admit, I was skeptical at first. “Okay great, the author of Eat, Pray, Love wrote a self-help book, who cares?” I was so, so wrong. This book is an incredibly honest look at the creative process, the joys and pains of success, and the mindset you need to keep doing creative work for the long haul. It’s a must-read, even if (maybe especially if) you ultimately decide to let your art remain a hobby.
- Elements of the Writing Craft by Robert Olmstead—One of the hardest things to learn as a writer is how to bring your writing to life on the prose level. To help you with that, Robert Olmstead has collected passages from some of the world’s greatest writers and pulled back to curtain to show you how they work. Here’s the real magic: for every passage he examines, he provides a Mad Libs-style exercise for you so you can inject the wisdom of the masters directly into your own prose.
- Understanding Comics: the Invisible Art by Scott McCloud—Don’t be fooled by the title: this book is not only for writers and readers of comics. I read comics occasionally, and I don’t write comics, but I still refer back to the ideas in this book constantly. Essentially, it’s book about how we tell stories, and how deeply our choice of medium shapes our stories. Be prepared to have your mind blown.
Now go write!
Sean Mabry writes literary fiction, fantasy, science fiction, horror, essays, and poetry. He also works a copywriter. His work has been published in lipstickparty magazine, Into the Teeth of the Wind, Spectrum, Chantwood Magazine, and The Catalyst. You can find more of his work at www.seanmabry.com.