In his 2000 craft book On Writing, Stephen King says,
My mother knew I wanted to be a writer, but she encouraged me to get a teacher’s credential ‘so you’ll have something to fall back on.’
It’s the great dilemma for every writer of fiction. You get up every day passionate about your work, passionate about the latest story or novel you’re working on. But for 99% of us, being a full-time fiction writer just isn’t realistic. And yes, we need some kind of job, whether it’s teaching or marketing or something to keep the lights on every month.
But what you don’t want to do is ever look at what your job is, what you spent the majority of the day doing, as your back-up plan. It’s not what you’ll be doing for the next forty years if you fail at fiction writing. It’s just… your job. Call it a job. Don’t call it what you do. Don’t tell people when they ask what you do for a living only about that job you go to five days a week and then not bring up your writing.
If you’re serious about writing fiction, and you’re in it for the long haul, you’ll never need a back-up plan. Because there’s no such thing. Even if you go ten years without making any significant earnings from your fiction writing. Even if you’re still only managing 30 minutes a day to work on your latest writing project. As long as you don’t stop, as long as you wake up every day and call yourself a writer, then yes. You are a writer. You’re a writer today, and you’re a writer tomorrow. Don’t let yourself think anything differently.
Unfortunately many people look down on writers, especially writers who haven’t published anything yet, who haven’t made any money. I’ve written eighteen novels, have a literary agent, have a book on submission, just graduated with an MFA in Creative Writing, have about ten short story publications… and people to this day still ask me what my back-up plan is. They nod when they say I’m a writer, and then say, “Yeah, but what are you going to do for work?” I can’t stand the kind of negative thinking writers are blasted with from non-writers day in and day out.
Stephen King’s mother obviously had his best interests in mind when she told him to have a back-up plan, but the wording upsets me. Again, if you’re a fiction writer, and you make your money as a teacher, don’t think of teaching as your back-up plan. Maybe you love teaching. I’ve taught English composition at the college level for five years, and I love it. I love the students, love the material. I have a blast as a teacher. But it’s not my back-up. It’s a way I make money to live, while I continue to pursue my passion for writing every day. Teaching is a job to me. And there’s nothing wrong with a job. It’s necessary. Realistic.
But as long as you keep pursuing your dream every day, even if it’s for an hour or less (take a look at my post in May about the need for consistency in your writing), then you’re a writer. You’re going after your passion, believing in yourself no matter what.
No back-up plan needed.