Thursday, July 24, 2008

Don't Quit Your Day Job, Honey



by Beverle Graves Myers

Oops! I already did. In the mid-90’s I gave up a perfectly secure, generously compensated position to write mysteries full time. Crazy, huh? Since I was a psychiatrist at a public mental health clinic, I’d prefer the diagnosis of confirmed optimist, or perhaps wild-eyed romantic. My transformation didn’t happen overnight. Actually, I had to do a lot of planning to make my long-held dream of writing as a career happen.

I’d started several novels that went nowhere, mainly because I couldn’t spend sufficient time or energy on them. Trying to dictate as I drove to work, writing for twenty minutes at lunch or in between beeper pages on weekends just didn’t work for me. I realized I was one of those writers who need long swaths of uninterrupted time to produce anything worthwhile. My first thought was to reduce my clinic work to two or three days per week. Unfortunately, the powers that be needed a full-time doc, and moving from our rural area to a city with more opportunities wouldn’t be an option until the kids were through high school.

Deciding that doing what I loved was more important than possessions, I took steps to get our financial house in order. Downsizing was the order of the day. Smaller home, one car instead of two, penny-pinching extraordinaire. Nitty-gritty details aside, readying our household to exist on a smaller income turned out to be easier than other changes that forced me to re-evaluate my goals and self-concept, my strengths and weaknesses.

I was accustomed to my workday being organized around staff meetings, patient care and psychiatric emergencies. As an employee of the state, I had very little control over my schedule, which often resembled barely controlled chaos. On day one as a mystery writer, I sat with fingers poised above a keyboard in my home office. It was very quiet. No one handed me a list of patients who needed to be seen; there were no stacks of charts calling out for diagnoses and signatures. I was total mistress of my writing fate. Scary stuff!

After several false starts, I eventually found the discipline to focus on a setting and protagonist for my planned series. I loved historical mysteries, particularly Elizabeth Peters’ Egyptian archeology series and Steven Saylor’s Gordianus the Finder of ancient Rome, so of course, that’s what I wanted to write. Unfortunately I was interested in so many potential scenarios that it took months for me to settle on the musical world of 18th-century Venice. Then, the research was so much fun I didn’t want to stop. I realized I was in danger of becoming an expert in castrato singers and early opera without generating even one chapter of a mystery.

Making my own schedule came to my rescue. Instead of following my nose anywhere and for as long as I wanted, I set limits and goals and stuck to them religiously. I had to enforce my writing time with other people, too. I suppose it’s natural that working at home seems somehow less of a serious job than driving into town every morning. Friends didn’t understand that I couldn’t drop everything to have lunch. Family thought it was great that I’d be able to provide rides to doctor’s appointments or perform other errands. I learned to defend my working time like a mother lion protecting her cubs. Barring emergencies, my writing time was off limits. Which brings me to another issue: career identity.

What was I, anyway? I’d graduated from medical school and completed a residency in psychiatry. Though the profession and I were not a good mix, I’d been involved in medicine for twenty years, and it was a big part of my career identity that was hard to give up. I also had to contend with those helpful souls who assured me I was making a terrible mistake, as well as depriving the community of a badly needed physician. So, how to answer that perennial question: What do you do? A writer writes, they say, but I hesitated to call myself a writer—or … gasp … an author—since I was not yet published. The actual moment of money changing hands had a profound effect on my sense of career. Though I received only ten dollars for my first publication, a mystery short story that appeared in an ezine, that was the day I began calling myself a writer rather than a retired psychiatrist.

From there, I proceeded in a way I’d encourage for anyone who’s fed up with her day job and wants to move her writing to another level. I learned as much about the current state of the publishing business as possible. Ditto the mechanics of operating a home business and the basics of marketing and promotion. Joining Sisters in Crime, and later, Mystery Writers of America helped me acquire this information and also provided a very welcome sense of community. Compared to the busy mental health clinic, writing was a solitary business.

One thing I did pack along from my former profession: strong work habits that would spell success in any field. I persisted in writing and submitting despite many rejections. With short stories, I gave myself twenty-four hours to polish and submit a rejected story to another editor. When I discovered that some of my writing skills were a little rusty, I sought out writing conferences and workshops. I wrote for approximately a year and half before that first short story was accepted. It was another couple of years before INTERRUPTED ARIA was released by Poisoned Pen Press.

I’ll be checking back here all day, so if you have any questions about my midlife career switch or comments on escaping the day job, fire away. I love to chat with other writers.

Beverle Graves Myers enjoys melding music, history and intrigue in her Baroque Mystery series set in the waning days of the Venetian Empire. INTERRUPTED ARIA introduces castrato singer Tito Amato whose cruel mutilation impels him to pursue justice in a corrupt society. In PAINTED VEIL, Tito matches wits with a masked killer who terrorizes the Jewish ghetto; CRUEL MUSIC plunges Tito into the political intrigue swirling around a papal election in Rome; and THE IRON TONGUE OF MIDNIGHT sends the singer-sleuth to a country villa where corpses start turning up at the stroke of midnight. Bev’s short stories have appeared in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine and numerous anthologies and have been nominated for the Derringer and Macavity awards. Check out Bev’s website for more information, reader’s guides and other goodies: http://www.beverlegravesmyers.com
Bev also blogs on traveling to Venice, 18th-century films and a number of other topics at http://CruelMusic.blogspot.com

8 comments:

Joyce said...

Beverle, thanks so much for joining Working Stiffs today!

I've found myself in a similar situation, although I didn't choose to quit my job--I was fired. It is a HUGE adjustment! I'm trying to get myself on a schedule that works and it's tough. I'm making some progress, though--I have a new book planned and begun.

Beverle Graves Myers said...

Thanks for having me! I was delighted when Martha Reed asked me to take part and had a great time rehashing my career switch. Good luck with your book, Joyce. The hardest part is making that start.

JennieB said...

Great post, Beverle! Thanks so much for being here and for sharing.

Yeah, I can definitely relate to that whole business about not feeling like I could call myself a writer when I hadn't sold anything. I was lucky, in a sense; when my first child was born nine years ago, we decided I'd stay home with him. I was able to squeeze in a few hours of writing time during his naps and play-times. A few years later we had another kid. The last little guy is starting kindergarten in a couple of weeks (gulp), and so I could technically go back to work now, but since then I've got my real estate license and a book contract. So now I'm a realtor/renovator/writer, and proud of all of it!

Beverle Graves Myers said...

Hi Jennie--Sounds like you've become an expert at juggling roles. Good luck with all your activities.

Barbra Annino said...

Great post! I quit a lucrative job to freelance full-time, then I switched to novel writing and I couldn't be happier!

Life is far too short to waste away at something you hate doing.

Beverle Graves Myers said...

You got that right, Barbara. When I began to actively hate going to work everyday, I knew changes had to be made.

Cheers,
Bev

Martha Reed said...

Beverle, welcome to The Working Stiffs and sharing such an insightful post with us. I'm still trying to juggle working full time and writing - but thinking lately I just might have the courage to downsize and go full time...

I love the Tito Amato series and enjoyed meeting you at Malice and again at the Festival of Mystery this year. Great having you here, thanks again for sharing.

Beverle Graves Myers said...

Hi Martha--

I think there are a lot of us who are contemplating changing course or have lately taken the plunge. Maybe it's a baby boomer syndrome? The main point I always make is that it can be done. Everybody's circumstances are different, but there are always changes and compromises that can be made to get closer to your goal. I'm being a cheerleader because I like to see people happy in their work!

Hope to see you again soon,
Bev