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Writing: Is It a Hobby or a Job?

Categories: Brian Klems' The Writer's Dig, Live Blogging at the Writer's Digest Conference, Writing Fiction Tags: Brian Klems, online editor blog.

The question many writers often face when asking themselves about their writing is: Is it a hobby or job?

This is an argument I’ve had with my husband Mike many times, and you’ll no doubt have it with parents, friends, and teachers as you venture down your own writing path.

Guess which one I think it is?

—Kerri Majors, author of This Is NOT a Writing Manual:
Notes for the Young Writer in the Real World

Yep. Except, I don’t get paid.

Which is why Mike says it’s a hobby.

See, for him, the key is money. If it won’t keep you fed or pay your rent, it’s a hobby. A hobby could be the great passion of a person’s life, the thing he or she lives to do, but it ain’t a job.

That, as they say, is why they call jobs work.

But you’re a writer, so you feel strongly about the nuances of words, and to you, “hobby” just doesn’t cut it. “Hobby” implies “side gig,” or “weekend fun.” It does not imply sitting for hours at your computer, turning down invitations from friends, anxiously stringing together words on the page, and biting your nails while strangers read and judge your work.

Hey, there’s that word work again.

Surely writing is work, if there ever was work. It’s hard. It may be the only thing you want to do in life, but it’s still really, really hard. It requires discipline and study, and many failed attempts. You may labor at it on the side of your paid work, at night and on the weekends, but it is work. It feels like a job.

Sure, my devil’s-advocate-on-my-shoulder, a mini-Mike, says, but so can a hobby.

Let me cite a relevant example in the form of friend of ours, Phil. Phil and his wife Jo moved to New York from London a few years ago, because Jo is a cardiac surgeon and she got a big fellowship at a New York hospital. This required Phil to quit his job in London, and because of visa issues, he has not been able to secure a work permit in the States. As a result, he has had some time to pursue his hobbies—namely triathlons and photography. Because of these hobbies, not only is their apartment decorated with stunning, arty pictures he’s taken, he looks ten years younger than his real age, and he’s placing respectably in triathlons all over the world. He appears happy. His days are full.

And surely he had to study, apply amazing discipline, and endure many failed attempts in his quest for triathlon and arty photography success.

So: Hobby or job?

For some reason, I would agree with mini-Mike that Phil’s “work” endeavors are hobbies. Why? For this critical reason: Phil doesn’t aspire to get paid to do photography or triathlons. It would be nice, I’m sure, but that’s not his goal.

For many, many writers—likely the kind of writers who are reading this book—the goal is to make a living at writing.

Phil’s photography and triathlons are “work,” but they do not equate to a “job.” He’s just lucky enough to be able to fill his days with his hobbies.

So now we’re getting somewhere. You can be doing work, and it can be difficult and tedious as well as rewarding and essential, but that doesn’t make it a job.

Let’s look at a more directly relevant example for a minute.

Julie Powell temped all day to pay her rent and buy groceries, but her hobby was cooking. For fun, she decided to cook her way through every single recipe in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking in a single year and blog about her triumphs and failures. Her blog caught on like wildfire, got written up in The New York Times, and ultimately landed her a book contract and movie deal.

Okay: hobby or job?

It seems to me that the cooking and blogging were hobbies. Side gig. Weekend fun.

But having read her book, I know that the cooking and blogging were hard work. Some days she had to drag herself through the tasks. She got little sleep and schlepped all over the city to procure ingredients.

Work.

But I’m a writer, so shouldn’t I call it a job? I mean, she was writing, after all. And she did dream that her project would eventually become profitable, maybe even enough to allow her to quit temping.

I’m no hypocrite. Wasn’t her blog a job?

Why am I so hesitant to call it that?

Probably because I am realizing as I write this that although it was work, it was not a job. I’m sure it felt like a job, just like my own writing sometimes feels like a thankless job.

But what I’m realizing is this: Until your writing pays you, it’s work, not a job.

But mini-Mike and everyone else who tells you it’s a hobby is also wrong.

Writing is NOT A HOBBY.

Writing is just too freaking hard to label it with a word that connotes relaxation and pleasure. It’s work. It may not pay you—so you can agree that it’s not a job, and let the other person feel like they’re winning part of the argument—but for your own sense of self-worth, and for all the other writers out there toiling away on their novels in their spare time, be sure you call it work.

Postscript: I wrote the above for my book proposal, when I was still a bit clueless when it came to the idea of getting paid for your writing. After discussing this issue with other writer friends, I have discovered yet another wrinkle in this hobby/job/work conundrum. What if the writing pays you, but it doesn’t pay enough to cover your rent or childcare, or anything else you need to function in order to finish the writing?

What if winning a triathlon involves a monetary prize?

Knotty problems, aren’t they?

It seems to me that my original argument stands: If money is involved, it’s a job, with all the stresses that come with a job—a boss/editor, deadlines, performance anxiety, and so on. It’s just a poorly paid job that you need to supplement with other paid work. This is when you turn to the chapter on “getting a real job.” I apologize in advance.

this-is-not-a-writing-manualGet the book all writers need to help survive the writing life:
This Is Not a Writing Manual: Notes for the Young Writer
in the Real World is a writing memoir for any writer or author
facing the challenges of getting published in today’s world.

************
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12 Responses to Writing: Is It a Hobby or a Job?

  1. Les And says:

    A dream for any writer would be to be paid for his/her addiction, aberration, calling or just plain inner drive. I have been called many things in my career and for the most part, most truthfully explain my personality. Depending on a person’s personality (probably cognitive personality), writing can be a mind relaxing hobby or a mentally driven abstract of one’s inner never to be satisfied personality.

    I don’t think the word hobby or job will ever be suffice to blanket the drive to write of all writers. I grew up with a very severe stutter until the age of fifty. I found that writing my feelings was the only way that I could get people to – visually- listen to me. By my mid twenties, writing had become a way of life and a growing drive. It was neither a hobby nor a job; it was a way of life and survival in a verbally communicative world. So, where do I stand, a writer by hobby or as a job?

  2. Karen Clayton says:

    I agree with Harriet. Writing is an art and therefore the writer is an artist. Writers have to write. They are called to it. It drives them. Writing is both hard and fun, but until you are paid for those words, then the act of writing isn’t a job. But hobby isn’t exactly the right word either – writing is a passion.

    I’ve spent my whole life writing for fun and have only now tried to turn a profit from it. My 13-year-old son and I co-authored a middle grade novel, Mason Davis and the Rise of the Storm Makers (Amazon). It has only just been made available this week and we’ve already had sells. Will it be a success? Only time will tell, but either way we are proud. It was a success to be able to write and complete a novel. It was a success to see it published.

    In the end, I’d say writing is neither a job or a hobby. It is an art, a passion, a craft, a dream, an emotion, a desire. Happy reading and happy writing.

  3. LawrenceWray says:

    Very interesting and well written piece.

    Just a thought, but if a job is defined by a reward at the end, then writing is a reward in itself and when just one other person tweets/comments you on a job well done, then, in effect, you have your reward/payment.

    Technically I’ve just paid you by this comment for you taking the time to share your thoughts in an interesting way. In some ways, it’s better than money. Don’t try lodging this at the bank though.

    Take care.

  4. John Buss says:

    Writing a diary is a hobby. Aspiring to see others reading that diary is a profession, in every sense of the word.

  5. Kerri Majors says:

    Thank you for the comments, Harriet and Will. It seems there are a number of ways to look at it, but most writers seem to agree that “hobby” is just inadequate!

  6. Sharon Bially says:

    I’ve given this a lot of thought over the years and concluded that, for those of us not earning a viable living off of writing, it is an endeavor and a pursuit, but neither a hobby, nor a job.

    I do believe a job has to pay. I have a full time job because I need it, and I write on the side. I often feel it isn’t right that people who don’t actually need a job call writing their job: that’s too easy to do!

    There’s a similar debate in the world of parenting: is motherhood a job? I blogged about that here, and part of my post was quoted by Lisa Valenti in her book Why Have Kids.

    http://veronicas-nap.com/backstory/perfect-madness-motherhood-as-a-job/

    Bottom line for writing though: it’s an endeavor and a pursuit, an ambitious passion. And for a lucky handful, yes, it’s also a job.

  7. Kimba says:

    Thank you for this reminder, including the commenters’ words. I’ve had a bit of writer’s block lately and with the help of a good friend with whom I bantered about it, discovered that it was simply from this very pressure to “publish.” I have two books that are published…but I can’t seem to finish any of the three novels I’m working on now because of my day job—which is teaching high school English Lit. Which, by the way, I absolutely love and THAT feels more like the hobby; but I get paid and I have 150 brains to feed and inspire and so it is also work. The writing is also work, but the kids inevitably find out that I’m a writer…and so their desire to please me has turned into a kind of desire to please them and it results in…block. Have recently worked through it to let that pressure go–regardless of what anyone says, I love story, I love crafting sentences and paragraphs and controlling the reader’s mind…so this article is a good reminder of all of that.

    But don’t expect anybody out there to agree or believe it. This is one of those self-actualization things you just gotta hang on to for your own sanity. A good friend of mine in her late 60s married a guy who was 80—a retired CPA who was highly successful which equals “made lots and lots of money.” She encouraged me to have him do my taxes that first year. Not only did he miss an opportunity to make me an additional $200 (i found out the next year) but, he also tore my heart out. He wanted to see my file on the books I’d published—my friend is proud of me as a writer and loves to read my stuff so he knew this. I told him my royalties weren’t enough to claim and he said to let him see what he could do. Now, I don’t have a huge ego, in fact most of us are rather shy about telling people we’re writers because we don’t have the marketing bravado to back it up with proof of earnings, right? But he looked at my file and his countenance fell. He said, “I thought you were a writer. But this is actually just a hobby for you.” And then he chuckled and added, “To hear (wife) talk about you I thought you were really making some money.”

    I should get over it. But why the heck couldn’t he have just said, “yeah, you’re right, you don’t need to claim publishing income this year” and leave it at that. So intellectually I know the guy is a total jerk (actually, I had advised my friend not to marry him and that was awhile BEFORE this egregious insult), but it is a nagging indictment that persists in suggesting that I am wasting my time and energy BECAUSE I cannot make money at it, given what Will rightfully identifies in his comment as the reality of publishing in disarray today—publishing sucks and always has, really. Except for J.K. Rowling.

    So the challenge is to LOVE the words, LOVE the story, keep feeding the dragons of creativity and let the publishing/selling stuff be a natural development at some point. Day jobs feed the body, writing feeds the soul. AND THAT IS JUST FINE!!! Never stop writing…

  8. Harriet Berg says:

    I totally agree with all that has been said. I worked at a JOB in the corporate world for over 30 years. I got paid every 2 weeks. I had a supervisor to whom I had to report, and several levels of management above that. I got vacation, paid sick time, and other benefits. It paid for some extra things for my family and helped save enough for another house in a nicer neighborhood for them. Did I want to do it? NO. Therefore, it was a JOB. But I got paid.

    When one is a writer for money, one still has to answer to the editor, publisher AND the reader. If one self-publishes, there is still the cost and the READER. The object is to make Money.

    I am a writer. I write because I have to, as most writers do. However, I write what I want, when I want. I don’t care if I ever get paid for my writing. I am STILL a writer.

    Anyone who dreams of making a living by writing needs to have a paying day job because most will never make enough money to do so. And if one does, it becomes a JOB because of all those to be answered to.

    Is it a HOBBY? No. It is hard work. It is a compulsion. It is an art and it is a craft.

    We all approach our writing differently, just as we all have different voices.

    The answer is: if one is a writer, it can be a job, but it is NEVER a hobby.

    • bmorphy says:

      Writing can definitely be a hobby. Take someone who writes poetry for leisure or to blow off steam. They have no intention to ever publicly share it. A lot of it comes down to intention. If you write for fun, it’s a hobby. I don’t see a problem with that.

  9. pevans9 says:

    I know in my soul that it is neither a hobby nor a job. But for the life of me, I can’t figure out if it is a jobby, or a hob . . .

  10. Will Lutwick says:

    Let me add another wrinkle, which is that technically a job is something you do as an employee for an organization or another individual. As a writer, you work for yourself so technically it is not a job. But all this angst over semantics obscures the real issue – for the great majority of us, myself included, we can’t make a living as a writer no matter how many hours and how much personal investment we put into it. Like most dream careers, only a lucky few will grab the brass ring of success, making enough money to live on from writing alone. For most of us the net income is extremely low – well below minimum wage, if we show a profit at all. That’s just the way it is circa 2013 with so much self-publishing and traditional publishing in disarray.

    Ah, but many of us hold on to the dream that if we invest the time now, we will be rewarded in the future with a livable income from writing. So the dream keeps us going when the non-financial rewards plus meager financial income are not enough to sustain us.

    In the mean time don’t quit your day job.

  11. Jessa Slade says:

    Luckily for us writer types, there are more words than just job or hobby. I like avocation. The -voc- part implies a calling, and most writers I know consider their work a calling. The a- implies a negation which appropriately captures the part wherein I don’t get paid like a real vocation.

    Plus, avocation is just a cooler word than job or hobby.

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