Don’t Quit Your Day Job (Or Get Too Big For Your Britches)


Photograph taken by Napoleon Sarony (1882)

I’m a few weeks behind in literary news, but I just read this article in The Telegraph about a recently-discovered Oscar Wilde letter that admonishes an aspiring writer, basically, not to quit his day job. 

“The best work in literature is always done by those who do not depend on it for their daily bread and the highest form of literature, Poetry, brings no wealth to the singer.”

I haven’t read the full 13-page letter, so I’m not entirely clear whether he’s saying you’ll be a better writer if you wait tables to fund your epic novel, or that your epic novel has a snowball’s chance in hell of enabling you to buy your daily bread. Both interpretations make sense to me, because real experiences can only enhance your writing, and being realistic can only enhance your food budget.

I would argue, though, that in today’s content obsessed world, you can make a living as a writer if you are willing to engage in unliterary pursuits to support the epic novel, or screenplay or short story collection or feature article or erotic chick lit graphic novel of your dreams. As long as you adhere to the same principles, and strive for the same level of quality and professionalism you would if given your dream assignment, there is no shame in taking on work that the writerly snob in you would like to deem unworthy.

There’s no shame in putting food on the table, either. So write the web copy, the press releases, the speeches, the grant proposals. Write them and learn! Write them and be proud! Write them and eat! Who knows, all this profitable laboring may contribute to you being the next Oscar Wilde. (Maybe, but not likely. Which is one more reason to work.)