It is a truth universally known that a parent hopes their child will grow up to be a doctor, lawyer, engineer, or some other respectable profession. Maybe a politician. Or a CEO. Something reliable, steady, well paying. Something estimable.
Then there’s the list of feared careers. Musician. Actor. Artist. Performer. Writer.
Lately, I’ve been listening with some amusement—and horror—to parents discuss the futures of their teenage children. Another generation of parents is insisting their kids stick to STEM careers and fervently praying that the arts won’t catch the attention of their little darlings. Anything but fine arts. That they’re saying this in the presence of someone who’s been a professional writer for the greater part of two decades—and openly deriding the career choice—doesn’t even occur to them.
“I wanted to be a writer. Then I got a real job.” This comment (or some similarly dismissive version of it) is something of a joke among authors and writers. We laugh at it now, but the message remains: Writing isn’t a real job. Unless, of course, you can manage to become a near-instant bestselling author. It never occurs to these well-meaning folks that most of the time, writers don’t just wake up one day and pen a bestseller. It takes years, sometimes decades. It takes skill and perseverance.
My friends and family are still waiting for me to be that bestselling author. But they also dearly wish that maybe I might just find another job so they can stop worrying.
There are a million or more writers and authors out there who have heaps of great advice. Some of the best advice—for writers of all levels, not just those who are new and emerging—comes from some of the most famous and prolific authors. (Look at Nora Roberts’s fantastic “Here’s How I Work” or Stephen King’s On Writing.) But sometimes the biggest challenge you might face in your career is getting your family and friends on board and supporting you.
So what happens when you decide to pursue a writing career—regardless of your age or current occupation—without your family’s blessing and/or support? How do you deal?
Listen to their concerns
Setting aside the psychological projection of your family’s regrets, unfulfilled dreams, and hopes on you (there’s little you can do about it other than accept it), their lack of support isn’t personal. Far from it. Rather, your well-meaning family members—parents, siblings, grandparents, and even spouses—just worry for you. Because in the highly competitive and often not-financially-rewarding career of writing, they’re concerned about your security and safety. They may worry that they’ll need to support you financially. They may worry that not finding traditional success will break your heart. More importantly, they worry about the challenges you’ll face and the impact that can have on your emotional and mental well-being. Will a writing career prevent you from owning a home? Starting a family? Living the kind of lifestyle you might be used to? Can you live without medical benefits or insurance? What about savings and retirement? These are all considerations they’ll be thinking of—and hopefully you are too.
Try to put your loved ones’ fears to rest by showing them that you have thought carefully and thoroughly about the financial and personal risks you may be taking. Perhaps you have a sizable nest egg in the bank to buffer a career transition. Maybe you’ve given yourself a window of time to try this career and if you don’t reach your goals by a certain date, you might shift it to “side project.” Perhaps you already have offers of representation or have published work, proving that this is a viable option for you. What’s essential is that you ensure you have a financial backup plan for earning income, whether that’s freelancing, a part-time job, or some other means of supporting yourself. Unfortunately, the chances of your loved ones financially supporting a career they don’t endorse or respect are slim to none, so ease their fears as best as you can.
Emphasize your priorities
One of the biggest issues when there is a disagreement over career choice is differing priorities. A parent who sees security and financial stability as the most important thing in the world likely isn’t going to understand someone who doesn’t share those same priorities. In some ways, it can be like speaking a different language. You might not see that working a not-particularly-enjoyable nine-to-five office job with a steady paycheck, benefits, and job security could be an attractive career option, but for millions of people, that is a perfectly acceptable choice. Your loved ones may not understand that freedom, creativity, and loving your work—being passionate about it—is worth putting aside financial security in order to pursue a career that is unstable and financially challenging. For many people, jobs in logistics, accounting, IT, software, science, business, and more are their passion. Those fields are just not yours.
Try to find a way to demonstrate your priorities without dismissing those of your loved ones. But it’s also important to clearly communicate what your goals are and what kind of career you consider attractive. It can be a hard sell, and not everyone will be willing to listen or even understand how your priorities work. But if you’re looking for a little added ammunition, it’s worth pointing out that in these times, a nine-to-five office job is no guarantee of job security. And making a good salary is no guarantee that you’ll be debt-free (in fact, many people who earn “good” steady paychecks live beyond their means). Take the time to thoroughly explain why you’re undertaking this career journey and the steps you’re taking to protect yourself and them.
Accept the possibility that you might not succeed the way you hope
One of the biggest challenges of a writing career is dealing with expectations of those we love, and also of ourselves. Most of us have, at some point, held the cherished dream of writing a book, finding an agent, getting a book deal, and watching our beloved project soar on the bestseller lists. Every book is hope. Every writing opportunity is a chance for something unexpected to happen. It’s invariable that for many (if not most) of us, those dreams might not come to fruition in quite the way we expect. But our loved ones also have a similar view of what success means in the writing world. A big fat book deal. Bestselling books. Book tours and fans. Movie options. And unfortunately, the other side of the coin is failure. Poverty. A broken heart. Disillusionment. All the things they want to shield you from. But what is your plan if the Big Impossible Dream doesn’t happen for you, or if it’s delayed to a much later date in your writing journey?
Don’t give up on your dreams. But also come up with a plan that takes into consideration that that dream might not come true—or not when you expect. So many first-time authors are crushed when their first book is released and doesn’t garner the life-changing success they’ve expected. So come up with alternative goals that you can also work for. What does success look like to you beyond the Big Impossible Dream? For some, it’s continuing to write books, creating a following, and slowly building up their book sales enough to continue writing full-time. For others, it could mean a pivot into different kinds of writing, such as copywriting, journalism, content/marketing, blogging, or publishing short stories or essays. Give yourself other ways to succeed, and share these goals with those family members who worry about you.
Understand that they may never be OK with it
For some families, especially those with parents who are immigrants, deviating from the plan your family created for you is unacceptable. The same can be said of friends, spouses, and even other family members. One of the worst feelings in the world is knowing you’ve disappointed the people you love. For some people, this is the deal breaker. It’s not unheard of for many people to continue to follow the expectations placed upon them. Sometimes these folks can manage to continue a writing career outside their full-time job. Some have even been able to publish books and small pieces of fiction and nonfiction. In some cases, they’ve managed to channel their experiences and expertise into a book or writing project of its own, and achieve their dreams that way. Others just give in, and regret the writing they never pursued. But for others, writing full-time is the goal…and that’s where it gets tricky.
The truth is, there’s a chance your loved ones may not come around. In the worst-case scenarios, relationships become fractured and possibly broken. In other scenarios, you’ll face low-level disapproval or passive-aggressive remarks for years and possibly decades after disappointing the hell out of your loved ones. Hopefully, you’ll find a way to make it work. Avoiding any kind of career talk is sometimes the mainstay. Or you may choose to relate some victories, so that your family understands that you are succeeding on your own terms. In time, they may accept that this is just who you are. But the painful reality is that some families just won’t accept your choice. And for many of us, that is the price we have to pay—and the sacrifice we must make—in order to pursue our own paths.
But every day is the reminder that you love your work. That this is who you are.
The writing path is never easy, but it also strengthens our resolve. Sometimes it pushes us to even greater heights in our writing career. And at the end of the day, most of us aren’t writing because it’s easy.
Hannah Guy lives in Toronto and is a professional writer and copywriter who specializes in books, books, and more books. Follow her on Twitter at @hannorg.