Literature 11-7-2014

The Case for Plan B

Claire Zulkey has a long-lived pop culture blog and a young family. She writes books and has freelanced for publications around the country - and she can do that, she says, because it's not how she makes her living.


Every once in a while, especially after reading a profile on a writer who has an amazing office where she spends her prolific days, or after spending time with a colleague whose one and only job is full-time freelance writing, I return to a complex I harbor about the fact that I have a salaried job in addition to being a writer for myself. What if…I think to myself. What if I’m not really a writer, if I have a full time job? What if — secretly, deep down — I am just too much of a scared hack to take the plunge and pursue my work without the safety net of a dayjob?

But then, I’ve got a long list of sensible rationales I pull out to explain making the practical choice to work for a living outside my chosen creative practice. Maybe you do too?

If, like me, you struggle with the decision to maintain a stable job to support your freewheeling artist lifestyle, I say, embrace it. Working for The Man isn’t so bad. A creative working life doesn’t have to be an either/or proposition. In fact, many of us would be better served to think in terms of both/and instead. Here’s why:

1.  We need those good benefits.

Baby goes to daycare. I go to therapy. Husband sometimes forgets to go to the dentist and needs root canals. Maybe I’ll want to have another baby. Maybe our son will have to go back to the hospital sometime (god, I hope not.) Since my husband does work for himself, full-time, somebody in our house needs to pull in the good insurance, retirement plan, flex-spending account and so on. It makes sense to me that, since I’m already at a job that I like which happens to provide good benefits, why should we pay more to get them of our own accord? I’m 35 years old, and no longer a young adult immune to the sinister touch of mortality. The security of benefits for my family — not to mention the amount of money it’s required to pay for them out of pocket — seems like a pretty good, straightforward reason to keep a dayjob.

2.  Look hard, and you can likely find a dayjob that uses your creative skills.

I’m a writer, and for nine years I had a job that did not involve writing. I assisted an editor to a medical journal, which would make some people say “Oh, so you at least you’re using those skills.” But I wasn’t really. The gig was largely an administrative job where I answered emails and clicked on things; I received faxes, and then I filed those faxes. It was not a bad job in the grand scheme of things: I had a salary and good benefits. I even had my own office (not because I was fancy: my office space did double duty as a meeting room and storage space). I was quite often left alone for long periods of time, during which I would write or research or do interviews or just mess around. Day to day, the work was pretty easy.

Sometimes, though, when I made an error, my boss would have a closed-door, sit-down talk with me so we could try to figure out my “fatal flaw,” the thing that was wrong with my general personality or work ethic that led to my making such a mistake. Also, once, I showed her an article I had written in the Chicago Tribune about female scientists (which was my boss’s line of work) and she mused, “I wonder how you have time to write when you work here, too.” I got the message. I rarely mentioned my freelance life after that. No one in the office shared my interests or, even my temperament (the place was full of socially awkward scientists). I felt like the person I was at work was not the person I was everywhere else. I told myself that working the dayjob was just rent I had to pay for the literal and psychological space to write for myself, when I had time. When people asked me what I did for a living, I found myself saying, “Well, I work for a medical journal but really I’m a writer.”

I probably could have just said, “I’m a writer” but, under those circumstances, it didn’t feel true to me.

Anyway, nine years later, that job ceased to exist and, to my amazement, after looking around, I got hired for a position at a terrific university, where writing is the job requirement. As it turns out, I wasn’t just hired for my dayjob experience, but also for the clips and blog posts I’d been churning out on my “free” time, which was extremely gratifying — testament to the fact that my writing was actually professionally meaningful, and not just a hobby.  It even says “writer” on my business card. My job performance reviews involve conversation about working towards crafting better pieces. They send me to writers’ conferences. It is considered a valid use of company time to hang out for a half-hour and read the New Yorker, and I can talk about my personal blog without being questioned about my professional investment at work.

The job affords me a steady paycheck and benefits. And they treat me well here: my employer offers flexibility for working mothers. There is free tea and hot chocolate and Intelligentsia coffee; I like the people I work with, and you can even swear in meetings (the small ones, anyway).

I’m not working or writing for myself in this job, but it could be a whole hell of a lot worse, no?

3.  Having a dayjob gets me out of the house.

Here’s my version of the freelance artist dream: I am a full-time writer who works from home and is diligent about it. I do that thing that writers I admire say they do, where I get up at 6, write for awhile, eat and interact with my family for a bit, and then go back to writing through the rest of the morning. I take time for a civilized lunch and maybe a workout, and then I write more until the workday is over.

In my dream, I do not mess around on Facebook. I don’t interrupt every single task the moment a fresh email hits my inbox. I certainly don’t spend downtime browsing online sales; I use it to brainstorm compelling ideas to pitch eager editors. And, of course, I would read, too. In my fondest full-time artist fantasies, no moment would be wasted. Oh, and I would eat perfect amounts of healthy food, too, the type that is nourishing and delicious and wholly satisfying. And I would only take writing assignments I find interesting.


I know from my own periods of unemployment and maternity leave, that the freedom and solitude of being home alone can be relaxing and refreshing for a day or two, but long stretches of such time aren’t for me. At the office, I find a happy paradox – a combination of socializing and diligent focus — that I just can’t achieve at home. Give me one thing to accomplish and all day to do it, and it will never get done. Give me eight things to do in six hours, and a few extra distractions, and I’ll get to most of them handily in the limited time allotted. The truth is, I need to get out of the house and see people. I need a structure in my day that is not entirely self-imposed, and then I need leave that place, so there is a beginning and end to my work day. I need to have a day that generates stories I can come home and tell my husband.

Besides, I like having a place to wear my nicer clothes.

4. When you’re not counting on them to pay your bills, you can be choosy in your creative endeavors.

I attended a writers’ conference many years ago and sat in on a few panel discussions about trade publications, one of which was devoted to the manufacture and sale of screwdrivers. I always think of the screwdriver magazine when I think, with gratitude, about the fact that I don’t have to write for publications like that to make money. With the income from my dayjob a given, I get to work on what I really want to work on when I write for myself. I’m sure I would have even more freedom and expertise in the freelance writing I do if I pitched and wrote more often, to keep up that hustle, but I don’t have to take assignments that are uninteresting to me. The dayjob absolves me of taking the sort of gigs I would otherwise need to be doing for the screwdriver magazine as a full-time freelancer, and it’s frequently much more interesting as well. (But, truth be told, I never wrote for the screwdriver magazine, so I can’t say for sure — perhaps it is riveting work.)

5. There’s no shame in wanting to be comfortable.

I feel a need to apologize for this, to atone somehow for my privilege, but it’s just a fact that I have become accustomed to a pretty cushy life. I could live without HBO and Showtime, and I could scale back on the nice haircuts. But I like being able to buy some new clothes every now and then to refresh both my wardrobe and my spirits. It’s nice for our family to be able to have two cars, so I can drive to the office in 40 minutes instead of spending twice as long in public transportation. I like going on vacation. If I’m honest, I don’t want to do without the steady income of a dayjob that supports these frivolities.

I don’t think I could cobble together a freelance writing career that would afford the same sense of security and comfort. Does this mean I don’t believe in myself enough, or that maybe I am not a true artist if I’m not willing to take the risk?

Here’s the thing: I work hard. I’m creatively fulfilled. But every now and then, I feel like an impostor because I’m not hidden away in a writing garret, warmed by my own creativity and the literary mystique that comes with pure dedication to craft, if not reliable heat. Tell me: how many artists do you know who are mature, financially secure (or secure enough) and creatively fulfilled while pursuing their own work alone? Such folks are more visible, perhaps, than artists who also punch the clock every day, but I’d argue they’re few and far between. And it’s worth noting that a lot of full-time artists have to put aside passion projects for things that make money, or else eke by with very little. And working in solitude can make for a lonely day-to-day life.

I’ll own it: I’m a part-time artist. But if the only true cost of that choice is occasional self-doubt and fantasies of what might-have-been, I’d still say it’s not such a bad gig.

Since 2002, Claire Zulkey has run the blog Her work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Wall Street Journal, Jezebel, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and the Los Angeles Times. She is the author of the young adult novel, An Off Year, and will be publishing a middle-grade novel with Harper Collins in 2015. She lives in Chicago.

Claire Zulkey

Since 2002, Claire Zulkey has run the blog Her work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Wall Street Journal, Jezebel, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and the Los Angeles Times. She is the author of the young adult novel, An Off Year, and will be publishing a middle-grade novel with Harper Collins in 2015. She lives in Chicago. …   read more