‘Can I Quit My Day Job?’

Or, a metaphor for revision.

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Dear reader,

The Reading is going monthly and I’m lowering the cost of subscriptions to $45/year or $5/month. The Writing will continue as it is, weekly on Wednesdays. If you’ve paid for a yearly subscription and would like a partial refund, please email me directly.

The last weekly letter will run next week on 31 January 2021. After that, letters will run on the first Sunday of each month.

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I’m moving to monthly because I’d been finding myself starting to dread writing Sunday letters. I thought the issue was my overloaded fall and my lack of a break since last February, but the holidays haven’t changed my disposition. I’ve proven to myself that I can keep up the pace, as I have since July, but that’s not enough a reason to keep doing it.

Perhaps there are truly writers out there who thrive on weekly columns or frequent publication, but I am not one of them. I like to spend a lot of my time in silence, alone, to reconsider and refine my responses to the world. I know by now that I am a writer who writes books and a writer who teaches. And as those are the main avenues I make my living, a majority of my labor should go to them.

I kept my subscription prices higher because I know the value of my time and work. Publishing less frequently means subscriptions can be more affordable. I’ll be able to think about these letters for a longer time and offer more insights than I can now. I also hope, as a reader myself, you’ll have more time to savor and contemplate what happens here.

Thank you for reading and being a part of my life.

Now, on with the work.

Photo by Yanyi: You see this from the front passenger seat: an open highway is flanked by the never-ending consideration of snow-blanked trees. There’s a railing on the shoulder to the right and the visible forest floor is covered in snow. The road bends to the right, a blue mountain cresting in the distance.
Dear Yanyi,

I have been cobbling together a creative writing life / education / community outside of work for several years now. Maybe the pandemic has accelerated this feeling but working during the day and writing around that...I am so tired of doing it and I don’t want to do this anymore. Sometimes I think come on you, what’s another year or two more while you continue to polish your pieces, send them out, while you work on a book length collection. At other times I think goddamn it, I can’t do this anymore. I don’t want to keep living these two lives that feel one so mercenary and the other genuine, interesting, difficult, inspiring, but real and what I actually want to do. If I don’t invest seriously with my time in the thing I care about now, then when?

Sometimes I just want to quit my day job. Sorry, when I say sometimes, I mean every day I feel the wrongness of sitting at my computer doing the things that I do. Previously, I’ve felt in my day job that I need to at least prove to myself that I can do this too, but I’ve been promoted, I’ve switched companies, and I’ve done well enough, but now I’m still here doing the same thing. Recently, this feeling of weariness has morphed more into a slow dripping sadness. I am willing myself every day to keep doing the work I do in the daytime. Having had a week and a half off during the holidays, it was amazing how much clearer my thoughts were by the end, how having the freedom to read and research generates so many more thoughts, ideas, writing snippets, the beginnings of pieces.

I’m not even sure what I’m asking here. Maybe it’s permission to quit, but then what? I write poetry and creative nonfiction, and they hardly feel like places where it’s easy to carve out a living. I guess I’m just tired of splitting my life in two, the practical and the fanciful. I want my writing life to be my real life, my main life. How does one grapple with the realities of capitalism while having dreams of being a storyteller and living within reasonable means too?

Maybe what I’m asking is how long do I still have to do it like this for? It takes time to write even one good poem, one finished polished essay. I fear that at this pace of working on writing, plus working, it’s going to take me years to get a substantial body of writing together and out into the world. I want to write well, because I enjoy thinking, observing, feeling, reflecting. And I want to not live in a cardboard box or move in with my parents. Is that asking for too much?  The cautious and responsible part of me reminds me to continue working on my writing and have patience. And part of me feels that I can’t stomach waiting around half investing in my passion for that much longer. The frustration is getting more frequent.

You’ve worked in tech for a period yourself while writing before/after work. I know it’s responsible to keep doing what I do for now, saving, paying the rent, etc but I want to know what other ways out there exist. I know you’ve written about improvising to find solutions on that front yourself, and that The Reading is one creative way of creating income while creating writing that you believe in. I just look around and the alternatives don’t seem that great. And that makes me feel stuck. But continuing on my current path is not sustainable either.

Frustrated Artist Working Full Time  

New York, NY


Quit your job.

If you really have the option of quitting your job, quit your job. What makes it an option? If quitting your job won’t put you on the streets within a month; if quitting your job won’t put you in a physically or emotionally dangerous situation that could end in severe mental breakdown or physical danger; if quitting your job won’t get in the way of your being able to eat; if quitting your job won’t eliminate your access to healthcare. If quitting your job won’t get in the way of your finding manageable solutions to any of these possible problems (e.g. state-sponsored healthcare).

The worst-case scenario you outlined in your letter was moving in with your parents, which makes the possibility of you ending up in a cardboard box rather improbable. Your not mentioning any of the above scenarios as a logical consequence makes me believe that it’s not likely they are concerns and therefore unlikely to happen, too.

I had a feeling I would tell you to quit your job by the end of your first paragraph because you yourself said “I can’t do this anymore.” Even though you also said, in your second paragraph, that you feel wrong sitting at your desk all day and that your “weariness has morphed into a slow dripping sadness,” which reinforce your conclusion, your thoughts didn’t end at what you wanted. You second-guessed and third-guessed yourself. The rest of your letter you were searching for a question, perhaps wondering if you wanted my permission or some thought on what might happen afterward, but your search for a question is a decoy, an overrun thought. You have your conclusion. But you don’t know how to respond to your unhappiness.

Quit your job because everyone who has a choice in the matter should quit a job that is making them unhappy. The same company you’ve stayed late for, for which you’ve compromised your ethics or your sense of value, sometimes for decades, will still forget about your promotion or lay you off if they have to for their bottom line.

For many of us, myself including, unhappiness is a byproduct of getting somewhere else, not a real enough reason to change course. If you wanted to get to college, you had to get good grades; if you wanted to get a good job, you had to turn in that essay or pass that test; if you wanted to live happily ever after, you had to weather through your partner’s abusive behavior. You temper your unhappiness with the certainty of happiness on the horizon.

I know this because you’ve described your options as two extremes—live a materially comfortable life in the lap of a 9-5 or live an inspired life as an artist in a dilapidated warehouse. There are far many more variations in between. I have friends who have day jobs, but they require far less effort and time because they are part-time or with strict work-life boundaries, leaving them space to write. I have many who teach; others who ghostwrite or write cultural commentary. I have other friends who chose to go to graduate schools that provide low but livable stipends; still others have been gifted time by partners and families. I myself saved money and changed my living costs.

Quit your job, but whether you transition into full-time writing, get another job that is more fulfilling for you, or something else, remains to be seen. What does it mean to live a good life? How do you know how to reach it? You’ve been marketed some ideas by your family, your friends, and our society. And you second-guess yourself with those ideas (and their judgments) too. But what might it look like for you?

Perhaps you need security. Perhaps you need a certain level of material comfort. Perhaps your variation of being an artist will include another day job, but one that doesn’t leave you sick to your stomach every time you show up. You won’t know what you’re capable of by stagnating at this dead-end. If you want to know more about the possibilities of your life, you have to try new things, even new lives.

Having resources does strange things to our brains. Your lifestyle swells to the size of your paycheck. No matter how much you have, you either worry about losing it or need more of it. Having more signifies that you’re making progress in your life. Letting go of possessions, of one life as you lived it, can feel like a reversal. You might worry that you’ll never get this life back. You might worry that you’ll prove that you don’t have what it takes to be an artist.

These are all possible. When I first quit my job, I gave myself a runway of one year to get financially stable. One year has become two and, after this year, I have decided to stop counting. My life is much smaller. The income I’m earning is not enough to stop the slow drip of my savings. I’ve floated the possibility of returning to tech. I’m teaching. I’m writing this newsletter. I’m fortunate to have gotten a fellowship at the time I did. I don’t want to stop writing books and that’s still financially possible for me. And for now, that’s enough.

If you want to be a full-time writer, you have to be comfortable with uncertainty. You have to be comfortable with the idea that you won’t know where your next paycheck is coming from—if your next book will sell or if you got that fellowship or adjunct class. You have to be comfortable with things not going according to plan: you won’t get the job or the fellowship, your advance, after fees and taxes, will not be as high as you thought it would be, or your yearly royalties, rather than a stable monthly income, will barely buy you some nice takeout once a year.

I can’t tell you what a good life looks like, FAWFT. I can only assure you that anyone who wants a life where their own wants and opinions matter must act on behalf of themselves. I can only assure you that acting for yourself means exposing yourself to uncertainty, risking a present self to find your limitations and capabilities.

A good life isn’t executed like a plan: it’s carved out by decisions, risks, failures, and illuminations. You will remake your life again and again. I can only assure you that when you find your good life, it’s going to feel good. This good will not feel fleeting or temporary. It will not be loud, most likely. It will be worth whatever risk you’ve taken to learn what it is.

Postscript: How I left my job to write full-time

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About the author

Yanyi is the author of Dream of the Divided Field (One World Random House, forthcoming 2022) and The Year of Blue Water (Yale University Press 2019). To find out more, go to yanyiii.com.