Be passionate but be practical

Posted on January 14, 2015

Let’s talk about the reality of how to making a living as a writer.

I love writing fiction. I could do it all day, every day, and nothing else (well, that and settling fights between bickering children, but that’s another story). But I don’t.

Yesterday, I read this little post, an extract from an interview with Elizabeth Gilbert, author of ‘Eat, Love, Pray’. In it, she recommends that authors not expect to make a living from writing. Instead, she says, they should get a job and learn to live frugally.

I have read other posts about writers who had day jobs. Charles Dickens worked in a factory. Robert Frost was a teacher. Anthony Trollope worked at the post office. And there are countless authors today who keep the financial wheels turning by writing articles and blog posts, given talks and workshops, teaching, and any other thing that they can do with their skills base to ensure an income.

My dream has always been to sit in a rose-covered weatherboard studio and write novels. My reality is a little different, but I’m practical enough to realise that if I had more time to think and dream, I’d probably waste it eating M&Ms and twirling around Facebook.

“I just want to write.” I’ve heard these words so many times from would-be authors who seem to believe that they’re failing if they aren’t working on their novels fulltime. Or feel that they can’t possibly fit the writing in around all the other things that need to be done. My response is always, “Well, why don’t you?

“It feeds my soul,” they tell me. Yes, I say, but if you don’t feed your body your soul becomes extraneous. Plus, I truly believe that going out into the world, observing all the things, that’s what feeds inspiration. Not sitting in a room, staring at a wall, willing the Muse to arrive.

In my case, I go ‘out into the world’ through teaching, speaking, writing feature articles and corporate newsletters, and interviewing experts for various things. All of which goes into the swill of my subconscious to hopefully come out in some literate form or another down the track. Maybe.

I write when I can and I work when I have to. I am passionate, but I am practical.

I am okay with that. And so, it seems, is Elizabeth Gilbert.

At this time of year, when everyone is considering what they’re doing with their lives, it’s a concept worth thinking about. Fitting your writing in around other things doesn’t make you less of a writer. If anything, it makes you a more passionate writer.

So-You-Want-To-Be-A-Writer-–-THE-BOOK-feature-imageWould you love more writing tips and advice? Check out my book So You Want To Be A Writer: How To Get Started (While You Still Have A Day Job), co-authored with Valerie Khoo and based on our top-rating podcast.

Buy it here!


  1. Rashida

    Very comforting and wise words Alison!

  2. Claire

    When I finally learned that I’m a successful writer if I write everyday (including mentally!) and love what I write regardless of where my income comes from, life got a lot easier! It’s tricky because we’re conditioned to believe that if we are good at something we’ll get paid accordingly, but it just doesn’t work like that for writing (or anything creative, for that matter). Thanks for this – it’s an important perspective to keep in mind.

  3. Malinda @mybrownpaperpackages

    I definitely think that any good writer will have a life outside of writing. You need to go out into the world and experience and see and do and be … to be able to write. And yes, you need to feed the body, so some other work (money!) is very practical.

  4. Alyson

    Thank you! Sometimes I just need to hear someone else say it, for it to be alright. People ask me why I didn’t just stay home and keep writing after my book 7 years ago (and retrospectively I probably should have) but we knew we were entering into expensive time with the kids (those bloody teeth and they eat ALL the time) and we needed the regular second income. I forget too that it’s not all rose covered cottages – I can see myself curling in a ball having to deal with the things Em (Have a Laugh on Me) says about having to do rigid writing – being a high school Front Office chick does indeed give me much ‘swill for the subconscious’ and I’ll get to use it one day. 🙂

  5. Amanda Kendle

    But you know Al, I think you could actually eat M&Ms AND write all at the same time. Just a thought. xx

  6. Sandra Kelly

    Thoughtful, timely, wise thoughts – thank you for sharing them. Xx

  7. Naomi

    As a teacher, journo and corporate writer who writes fiction, I get this! Like you I have my version of the rose-covered weatherboard studio dream and this is a timely reminder that all these other jobs make me a better, more passionate storyteller. Wise words A. Tait. Wise words.

  8. Lauren Chater

    What a wonderful endorsement for ‘living’ life, not just writing about it. I often find myself wishing I had more time and thinking nostalgically back to my early 20s, and inevitably the statement arises: ‘the things I would do if I didn’t have kids!’ But if I hadn’t had them, I would never have stopped working full time. I would never have felt that stirring of deep connection to something greater and more mysterious than just my tiny, insignificant existence. And I would never have started writing again, no longer hampered by the worry that I had nothing of value to write about. Great words, Allison – thank you for this inspiring post!

  9. Emily @ Have A Laugh On Me

    Right now I’m having a crisis because I’ve taken on a boring client that I don’t want to be writing for and my heart is just not in it. It’s draining my soul in fact the fear/loathing about writing on business subjects is making me very unproductive. I’ve decided I’m going to have to fall on sword, admit it’s not for me, apologise for saying yes to the work, which I did because it paid very fell, and suggest someone else to take my place. This is slightly off your point but not really. I LOVE writing about people, features, with a few book ideas up my sleeve, but I also know there is good money in content writing/ghost blogging/newspaper advertorials etc so I do it to be my bread and butter. It’s what I have to do, the practical side you speak of. But my advice is to not say yes to writing work if it’s not what you want. I’m lucky I can be picky and should have been and now regret that I wasn’t! A very timely piece for me, thanks Allison! 🙂

  10. Anna @BombardedMum

    Yeah your’e right… I say with feet scuffing. But it is still nice to dream about that little house with computer perched in front of you on a balcony looking over the crystal clear waters of a tranquil beach with hours and hours of free time to write what ever you desire and the distant sounds of your kids having fun with their dad, right?!

  11. Vanessa

    As much as lamnet having a 9-5 sometimes, I get my best ideas at work. I’m forever scribbling things in notebooks and on post it notes.

    • Vanessa

      Or lament…doh!

  12. Kym Campradt

    Ah yes, the dream of writing away in a little room. I saw a house once where I thought I could do this – by the window that looked out at the bay. But I’m sure I would have spent the time eating chocolate and reading instead. Oh yes and my kids were being looked after (in my dream) so I was sleeping too!

  13. Rebecca Bowyer

    Absolutely! Added to that, every sort of writing informs every other sort of writing. My day job is corporate writing and, while it’s a little more dry than my blogging, it has taught me amazing skills in clear communication, structure and writing for an audience. All of these are extremely important in any sort of writing, including fiction.

    And YES YES YES to the ‘Just write’ advice – I write in five minute blocks sometimes, or on my tablet on the train to and from work. With work, two small children, a husband and a household to run you take any chance you can get. If you want to write, just write.

  14. Emily

    Great post as always! Smaggle had one about passions last week (earlier this week) that ties in perfectly – about how people often claim passions that aren’t passions at all. If you’re not willing to put in the hard work that comes with the fun bits, it’s not a passion. Some people might enjoy writing, but if they’re waiting for the time instead of making it happen, perhaps it’s a love rather than a passion.

  15. Rochelle Del Borrello

    Yes, I totally agree with you, it’s important to be realistic. Not many people realise how many great writers worked full time and wrote at night or used their writing gift in ghastly places like advertising so they would have the money to publish their more serious work under a pen name. It would be terribly lonely sitting up in your ivory tower all day every day writing your great master piece. I prefer stealing moments during the day to scribble away in amongst the other things of day to day life, writing for me is like secretly eating good chocolate, a little bit at a time else I’ll get a stomach ache …

  16. Helen K

    Jack London was an oyster pirate? Just reading that makes me want to read ‘White Fang’ (I’ve never read any of his books). I’ve always guessed that, while some people might have a great inner life, most writers probably benefit from a breadth of experiences (and of course you are right – you do need to feed your body too!)

  17. Kelly Exeter

    “Fitting your writing in around other things doesn’t make you less of a writer. If anything, it makes you a more passionate write”

    Nailed it!

  18. Karen

    I think it’s really important to keep your writing life grounded with reality, whether that be paid work, washing dishes or caring for kids. If you want to write, you’ll find a way – we always fill up the time available, don’t we?

    • Allison Tait

      So very true on all accounts!


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