I got my first full-time job when I was 20 years old. The year was 1990 and the US was in the midst of a recession that made it incredibly difficult for young people to find work. It felt like I’d won the lottery when I got the offer. I’d been hired by a small radiology office to transcribe medical reports. This same year, I also began my second year of college as an English major.
I needed to pay my way through school, so I scheduled all my classes in the evening which allowed me to work full-time. The transcription job was my first foray into office work.
I lasted about two years with the radiologists before moving to a much larger medical practice where I did secretarial work for the group’s aging CEO. I hated that job almost from the start. It involved typing up the CEO’s transcribed correspondence, fielding all his calls, and doing (endless) menial tasks like organizing lunches with physicians and drug reps.
Youth got me through those years as did my ever-present dream of becoming a successful writer. I wanted to be the next Stephen King or Terry Brooks. I wanted to live in a big house with a porch and write in my own cozy office surrounded by books. My fantasy of what being a real writer looked like was the main thing that prevented me from achieving my dream of actually becoming a writer.
In 1996 I moved upstate with my soon-to-be husband and worked at a tiny hospital in yet another administrative job, this time for the Nursing Director. By then I’d been working at administrative jobs for five years and my novel-in-progress was over 100,000 words.
On my toughest days, like the day that I realized I could no longer afford to pay for college and had to drop out, my novel (and the dream of its wild success) kept me going.
Something happened in 1995 that changed the course of my life forever. I got a job at a web development agency as a freelance copywriter. For the first time in my life, someone was paying me to write.
The agency offered me a full-time position six months later which involved copywriting but included the standard administrative tasks I hated. Even so, the work was truly interesting. Everyone at the agency was comfortable around computers (a breath of fresh air compared with the archaic medical offices where I’d started out).
All of us, except for the founder, were in our early to mid twenties. The year was 1997. I was putting the finishing touches on my now 130,000 word novel — a novel I’d started writing in 1990. The agency job wasn’t just distracting. It was all-consuming, but in a good way.
I managed to finish my book and I sent the hard copy (complete with an SASE) off to Tor, my dream publisher. About six months later, the full manuscript was returned to me with a form rejection letter. By then I was fully immersed in my agency job. I'd been promoted to Internet Marketing Manager and relieved of all my secretarial responsibilities.
So, while I was disappointed about the rejection, I no longer saw writing novels as a way out of secretarial drudgery. The Internet had opened up a new career path for me, one that I was more than ready follow.
I stayed at the agency job for five years before getting laid off in 2002. The dot-com bubble had burst and the first wave of wide-eyed digital pioneers were left scratching their heads, wondering what to do now.
Many of my friends and colleagues fled agency life. They are now teachers, writers, therapists, and business owners. Those of us that stayed found new success either with other agencies and organizations or as freelancers.
It was incredibly difficult to get a full-time job at a digital agency in 2002. Companies were shuttering daily and even if they didn’t fold completely, they were laying people off in droves.
In retrospect, it would’ve been the perfect opportunity for me to focus my attention on writing again. But several things got in the way. First, I had an 18-month-old baby and I needed to start making money. There was simply no time to write another book or wait for publishers to get back to me about the novel I’d already written (a novel that was far too long and needed considerably more editing).
The rigid idea that full-time writing meant being a (rich, famous) novelist also got in my way. I simply could not imagine myself earning a good living as a writer any other way. This is one of my biggest regrets in life.
I was still enamoured with the potential of the Internet though, so I began looking for freelance digital marketing work and I quickly found it. Within a few years, I’d become the primary breadwinner for my family. I worked remotely using office equipment that wasn’t quite up to the task, but as technology advanced it became easier and easier to efficiently run my home office.
That was seventeen years ago and that 18-month-old baby grew into a gorgeous 15-year-old girl. She died in 2017 after a nearly five-year battle with cancer.
I didn't work for the first six months after my daughter died, delegating my projects to two dedicated subcontractors who kept my business going when I could barely get out of bed each morning. While I started working again after that six-month mark, I couldn’t fully focus on my business until a good twelve months after she died.
In fact, it was more like fourteen months. In May of 2018, I finally felt ready to sit down and dedicate myself to work again. I updated my resume and website. I reached out to clients — old and new — and let them know I was available to take on their projects.
As the work began to roll in and my days grew busier, I began to have a sinking feeling in my chest. I was rebuilding my business, doing the work I knew how to do, and showing up each morning with the best of intentions. But, my heart was no longer in it. I’d been a digital marketer for twenty years and I couldn’t stand the thought of writing ads or analyzing performance data. All I wanted to do was write.
I was, in fact, already getting paid to write at this point in my life. I’d had over a dozen essays published on various publications including the Washington Post and Longreads. Several of my agency clients were paying me to contribute semi-regular blog posts on their own websites. This was the only work I had any enthusiasm for and I wanted to do more of it.
That’s when I finally realized that I didn’t have to be a novelist to be a full-time writer. In fact, I am already a novelist. I’ve written and self-published three young adult fantasy novels in the past five years. They don’t sell well, but I’m proud of them and the fact that I accomplished what I always dreamed — I wrote a book. In fact, I wrote three books.
Now I could let that one goal go and figure out a way to make enough money to support my family which didn’t involve logging into Google Ads each and every day.
I started slow. I already had relationships with several agencies, so I offered to create more consistent content for their blogs. As my writing portfolio grew, so did my confidence. I began applying for writing gigs, updating my LinkedIn profile and revising my website so that it included writing samples and a list of writing services.
I landed my first writing-only agency client in August 2018. At that point, writing comprised about 20% of my total freelance income. In March of 2019, I got my first job as a regular contributor for a digital marketing publication. I write 8–10 pieces for them each month. This bumped my writing-related income up to 40% of my overall income.
I took another big step this past summer, admitting to my biggest agency client that I no longer wanted to manage digital marketing campaigns. He was incredibly supportive and we began working on phasing me out of the day-to-day requirements of running these campaigns. I’m now working with him to create regular content for his blog and have started doing ad hoc writing projects for his clients. This bumped my writing-related income up to about 70%.
I joined Medium in August of 2018, but didn’t start contributing until the end of February 2019. I started out by republishing essays that I’d already published. It was an experiment. I wanted to continue my own creative projects in addition to my freelance writing work, and Medium seemed like a good place to start.
In my first full month on Medium, I earned a little over $300. This was small compared to my freelance gigs, but it was my own work and I felt the platform had potential. I’ve been averaging about $400/month for the past few months (with the exception of July where I earned over $800 due to having a featured piece in GEN).
This month I’ll likely earn a little over $500 . So, my income from self-publishing on Medium has been slowly growing and (so far) has been consistent. It’s also bumped my writing-related income up to about 75–80%. That’s high enough that I can stop doing all digital marketing related work even though I’d see a 15–20% dip in income.
My days look entirely different now that I’m writing nearly full-time. My weeks look entirely different too.
If I’m feeling particularly productive, I can get 1 to 2 pieces written by noon and spend the rest of the day contemplating my navel. Ample down time is essential for me because my brain works differently since my daughter died. I get overwhelmed more easily. I need to walk away from screens much more frequently than I used to.
I’ve translated my digital marketing skills into content management skills, planning content out a month in advance, pitching clients with new ideas, building my portfolio (and confidence) into something solid, something I’m proud of. I like making things that people value, even if they’re just 1000-word posts on someone’s agency blog.
Unlike digital marketing, writing leaves traces. My essays are out there in the wide world being read years after I’ve written them. My client pieces exist on blogs and publications throughout the internet, solid evidence of my hard work.
The tangibility of producing a piece of writing is meaningful to me. It’s fulfilling, particularly after two decades of working in an industry that is defined by impermanence and change (kind of like fashion).
My office window looks out over my backyard where I can watch the birds at my feeders.
My hours are flexible, my days filled with creativity and renewed enthusiasm.
I’m not Stephen King or Terry Brooks, not even close. But I am a full-time writer, at last. It doesn’t look anything like I’d imagined it was supposed to look like, but you know what? I’m totally okay with that.