Chip MacGregor

January 18, 2012

What do I do with my life?


Steve wrote to say, "I have a degree in teaching, and I've taken classes in a professional writing program… but I feel stuck between two careers. What do I do?"

If you're trying to make it as a writer, you've got an uphill climb. But so does everybody who wants to make a living with art. Making a living in the arts (ANY art) is hard. Here's an example I've used several times: I'm a pretty good ballroom dancer. (Really. Publishers love it when I come to their publishing balls, since there will be 300 authors and 6 guys who know how to dance.) I took lessons, was in dance classes, and hoofed it in musical theater. If you saw me on the dance floor at the Harlequin ball, you might think I was head and shoulders above most beginners. But I realize there's a huge gap between being pretty good at the local dance club and asking people to pay $80 to come watch me dance in a show on Broadway. There's a gap between being "pretty good" and being "a professional."

My son is a good guitar player, but there's quite a leap from playing in a garage band and asking people to plunk down $18 for your latest CD at Wal-mart. My daughter Molly could act and was in the plays in school — but there's a big gap between "being pretty good in the high school comedy" and "asking people to come see me at an equity theater." All of us who grew up in churches have heard really good singers over the years… but there's a big gap between the woman who is pretty good with a solo in the Christmas concert and the professional singer who has been granted a record contract. 

So just because someone is a pretty fair writer doesn't mean she can expect a reader to pay $21 for her latest novel. There's a gap between amateurs and professionals. And that's true with music, with dance, with acting, with painting, with anything. It's tough to make it in any art. Writing included. 

Therefore, what do you do? You work at it. You get better. You study the craft. You take classes. You join a critique group. You locate a writing mentor. You pay a professional editor to review your work. More than anything, you sit your butt in a chair and write a lot. Because nobody gets good by "thinking about" writing — you get good by actually writing a lot. (The same holds true with all those other arts I mentioned earlier.) Most novelists don't get their first book published — they write several novels before hitting on a story that's salable, and having the writing chops to be able to tell it well. I used to teach writing courses in Taylor University's excellent Professional Writing Program, and I was surprised to find so few older or non-traditional students in the classes. Most everyone in my classes was in the 18-to-22 year range — which is fine, since I loved the students, and enjoyed teaching them. But I would have loved to see more returning students who were trying to move forward in their careers, and who had enough life experience to bring depth to their writing. 

I'm sure you're familiar with Malcolm Gladwell's "10,000 Hour Rule," in which he argues that certain people (Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, the Beatles, Robert Oppenheimer, etc) became great at what they did because they invested 10,000 hours in their roles. Basing his theory on a study by Anders Ericsson, Gladwell offers a theory as to why some people become "great" in their roles. It's fascinating stuff, and I think he makes a very compelling argument for writers (if you're interested, download a copy of the book, Outliers, published by Little-Brown). But his basic argument is that a person needs TIME AT THE CRAFT to become really good. 

So back to your question, Steve… what to do? I think it depends on your passion, your motivation, your calling, and your innate ability. Some people need to teach full time and write when they can. Others need to teach part time and write part time. Still others write full time and maybe do some fill-in teaching as needed. I don't know your situation, so I'm not going to offer any career advice… other than to say, "What do YOU think you should be doing with your life?"


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  • Brian says:

    Do what you want to do – it’s really simple that way. Although with no kids, I can afford that lack of practicality, I guess.

  • Peter DeHaan says:

    At a writer’s conference, one of the speakers had published 9 books in 5 years, but he still needed a day to pay the bills. And what was his day job? He was a college teacher.

    • Raj Paulus says:

      Very timely! Been grapling with this very question myself now that my pre-schooler is about to start full time school in September. Should I return to teaching high school English or write eight hours a day?? Sometimes, the practical takes over, and I’m guessing many writers/artists have to juggle careers in order to pay the bills. Wish I could just take a year and write like there’s no tomorrow. And maybe I will. Take that step of faith. Eat rice and beans a little more often. And see if we can’t get this writing dream to be a living, breathing book in the library reality! That’s how I explain my dream to my youngest! Just trying to get my stories on library shelves honey! She gets that! 🙂

  • Ruth Douthitt says:

    This is so true. I quit a good job back in 2000 to hone my craft as a portrait artist. I was successful for a time so went back to school to learn even more about my craft. Best decision I ever made! However, the Lord led me to teach…so now I work at a university full time. I rarely paint anymore. But I know this is temporary. I also write part time and am now honing my craft to perhaps someday write and do art full time. Always learning!! To me, that’s the best part of this endeavor! Keep learning along the way….

  • Judyrridgley says:

    I think I’m up to 20,000 hours. But honestly, I cringe to say it but Thank you to all the rejectons I got. It pushed me onward. Hurt but helped.

  • sally apokedak says:

    This is a great answer. I love the way you compare pretty good to professional. 

    I think added to the part about it depending on passion, motivation, calling, and innate ability, you could add that it depends on what you can afford and what you are willing to live without. I make very little money but I am willing to live without dental and health insurance and nice cars. I live in a mobile home because I’d rather sit home and write things that haven’t yet sold (hope springs eternal) than go to work somewhere. God has made it possible for me to stay home for twenty years to raise my children and now to care for my old mother. This works out perfectly for me. I can write around their needs. But it has cost me, too. I don’t have the gym membership and the healthy food and the money for the dentist. My children haven’t had the piano lessons and the sports’ teams and the private schools. I don’t say God has called me to write. But I often hear others say it. I think if he calls a person to write he gives them the passion, the motivation, the innate ability, AND the wherewithal financially to be able to fulfill the calling. But the wherewithal may be from being able to be satisfied living on less, rather on his giving them more to live on.

  • Simplysue says:

    Love your honesty Chip. Thanks for saying it from your heart! Keep sharing.

  • Ivan Pope says:

    I thnk Steve is stuck between a career and a hobby. Careful now.

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