When at age 33 I quit corporate law to become a writer, most people I knew, including my very own self, thought I was nuts. I’d dreamed of being a writer since I was four, but when I graduated college decided I should be practical, applied to law school, and for the next decade forgot all about writing. I had never published a word in my life.
But my plan was not as rash as it seemed – and if you dream of a literary life, neither is yours. Here are five counter-intuitive pieces of advice, drawn from my own experience.
1. Don’t Set Out To Be A Writer. Set out, instead, to write. When I first started, I knew that the odds of getting published were slim. So I told myself that I probably wouldn’t publish anything until I was 75. That took the pressure off.
2. You Need a Safety Net. People are always celebrating the courage of those who chuck A in order to do B, but I am not a brave person and maybe you aren’t either. You probably need an alternative source of income. When I first quit law, I made writing the beloved hobby – but not the career — around which I centered my life. In the meantime, I set up a small consultancy, training people in negotiation skills. This gave me the chance to do meaningful work, pay the bills — and still have plenty of time for my “hobby”. That took the pressure off. (Taking the pressure off is a recurrent theme with me. )
3. In the Age of Social Media, Resist the Urge to Share: For many people, the things most worth writing about are also, inconveniently, too painful or embarrassing to talk about. The only solution to this tension is to write in your diary – to write as if no one will ever read it. Write exactly what you think and feel, with no fear of judgment. Eventually you’ll produce something so important that you’ll feel compelled to share it, despite your trepidations.
4. Writing is Not Supposed to Be Hard. You have probably heard that you’re supposed to leave drops of blood on every page. This is not true. Well, it’s sort of true. Writing does require tons of discipline and perseverance and concentration. But it should not be unpleasant. It should be the thing you itch to do every day. You can train yourself, in Pavlovian fashion, to feel this way, by making sure that you always write in conditions of pleasure. For me, that means writing in sunny café windows, with a latte and chocolate on hand. For you, it might be something completely different. But sunny windows and chocolate are a great place to start.
5. Enjoy. Whether you publish or not, the greatest thing about writing is that it gives meaning to everything you do in the world. Everywhere you go, every conversation you have, everything you observe – it is all grist for your writerly mill. This heightens all experience – whether you publish before age 75 or not.
I hope you find these thoughts helpful ! I’d love to hear about your dreams of writing, and your strategies for getting there.
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Thank you for this Susan. It is probably the most useful piece of advice I have read about being a writer, something I aspire to be. Another point I might add, if I may, is don’t beat yourself up if one day you have nothing to write. But equally, don’t let quiet days become the norm. Better to write anything than nothing.
Hi! I’m currently a student and working a part time job in the legal industry. I’d love to finish my first novel before 2015 arrives. Some things I’m doing to keep myself motivated and on task are keeping a calendar (I’ll brainstorm, research, and write for at least 15 minutes a day before I’ll put an ‘X’ on that day. The idea is to ‘not break the chain’.), participating in a local writers’ group, reading admired authors’ works to evolve my writing style, and just taking inspiration from others’ stories and personalities for my characters.
Y’know point no 3 is so right, sometimes there’s this strong urge to use FB as my diary but it doesn’t come out all honest like the way i write in other more secretive mediums. Thanks for the reminder. I loved point number one too: don’t set out to be a writer. I’ve had plenty of lofty writer dreams and sometimes i feel they’re so far away. the pressure cooks me, and i end up feeling less than i ought to. Just writing, being content in doing that, and being true to oneself is what we all need to learn in this open-concept age, huh?
Thanks for being such an inspiration and role model. I love you for ur guts and courage and for being you.
Very good stuff here. I would add that someone interested in writing must also study writing just like you would any other hobby or job. Read books on writing and read the great writers, fiction and non-fiction. Writing is a craft that can be learned but in this age with instant blog posting, text, Twitter, etc., it’s easy to think that whatever you put in the page is ready for publication. One more point: I’ve learned in my 17 years as a writer: Your first/second/third drafts are only the beginning.
Excellent post, Susan, and a wonderful encouragement to a fledgling writer like me. I think your advice is sound. While my pet project is a book I hope to publish one day, I find it helpful to write about everything. One of my passions is sports so I have a separate blog for that. I write about travel on another blog. On a third blog I publish book reviews. And I have my personal journal for private thoughts.
As a small business owner I do have another income source, and I agree that is very helpful in taking the pressure off in working on my writing projects. I also find helpful taking writing workshops and talking to published authors like yourself (who I find experienced the same insecurities and challenges I am dealing with when they first started out).
Will I ever be a published author one day? Who knows, but I do enjoy the writing process.
[...] How I Quit My Job & Became a Writer – By Susan Cain. [...]
Point number three is so true, and it’s essentially how I became a writer.
I wanted to understand why I had so much drama and emotional turmoil in my life. So I wrote about it every day, privately, for years. I started learning how to choose healthier relationships, handle difficult conversations with grace, and move on from disappointment. And I wrote about it every step of the way – although no one saw it but me.
One day I woke up and realized I had a pretty well defined message that needed to be shared with the world. And I’m off and running.
There are still some people who feel I shouldn’t share any personal details of how I learned my lessons. It’s still something that feels a little uncomfortable for me. But far more people thank me and say that my stories really bring the lessons home for them.
Thanks for showing once again how well you understand an introvert’s thought process. It’s great to know I’m not alone.
I became a writer 1959 because I couldn’t find a permanent job in the first place that made enough money to pay rent and be financially independent at even a middle class level. And in the last 50 years I have written 91 paperback books and more than 6,000 articles, including stories, novels and plays as well as nonfiction. But any temp job that I found to survive only required that 7th grade typing course I took at age 11 1/2, and any freelance writing made use of what I learned in graduate school, namely writing professionally and creatively. So I can say, I never found my first permanent ‘real’ job, at least a job that paid much more than minimum wage, and usually a lot less, and I’m in my mid seventies. Thank goodness. As an introvert I love being able to work at home online writing what brings much enormous joy with flexible hours. I’m so happy at having my dream occupation.
Great advice! Make it the hobby, not the career and set out to write instead of being a writer. Big points for me. I’m a fellow introvert. Thank you for taking that big step, it’s inspiring!
It’s great to know that introverts CAN make significant life changes. Sometimes I feel guilty when I heed the urge to just watch life go by for a few hours (by myself). Thanks,you are an inspiration.
When I started my life I thought I was to be a poet. I was distracted by a combination of arrogance and insecurity, i.e. I thought my insight was sufficient to extract worthwhile gems from life and my style was unique, but I never liked anything I wrote enough to try to publish it and I did not feel like I had lived enough to offer anything to anyone. The result was that I abandoned writing and became an engineer. For 20+ years I have left fallow my writing field and now feel like I have abandoned my true nature and killed my creative self. I want to begin writing again, not necessarily poetry but something to give life to the creative mind that is so burdened, even smothered, with the order and constriction of mathematics and physical reality. Thank you for writing this, it has given me some great suggestions to help me start to write again if I can break through my routines and discipline myself to feed that part of my self that is withered and dying in the stark darkness of order. I may not succeed, but leave this post more hopeful than yesterday, and with a more realistic and informed perspective.
I know I posted earlier but wanted to add this. Reading this and seeing your TED talk is having a very marked effect on me. To start with I now feel I have permission to be who I am. It explains a lot about me I hadn’t considered before. You have also helped me discover something I am going to be researching and working on over the next few weeks and yes, writing too.
[...] How I Quit My Job & Became A Writer–Susan Cain, The Power of Introverts [...]
I absolutely understand what you mean about taking the pressure off. I approached writing in a similar way. When I finally decided that I was going to plan my life around my desire to write, I also made sure that I wouldn’t need to make any money off of it for a few years at least. And then I started working on a second, less time-consuming career that would continue to support me while I continued to work on getting my work out there. The approach really worked. I have enjoyed each step of the way, and now things are finally taking off, when the work is nice and ripe, not prematurely pushed into the world.
Thanks to your TED talk I am now approaching writing from a different angle. I used to think, “ok, what can I write about” and try to write fiction. Not very successfully though. However, being an introvert there are some issues I think a lot about and have a great interest in and am going to incorporate writing as a means to deepen my knowledge. Therefore approaching writing as the means not the outcome.
This is an incredibly inspiring post. I love the part about writing heightening the experience of everything in life! I want to read more about this…any chance you would consider writing a book on this topic?
Thank you, Susan!
I just started exploring my writing life last year. I attended wonderful workshops in Guatemala, and Maine led by author Joyce Maynard. I have really enjoyed the process, and all I’ve learned about others, and myself on this journey.
Taking the pressure off is also a recurrent theme with me as well, so I found this very helpful!
I considered your experience, Susan, someone who decided to write and then with their very first book wrote an international bestseller. Incredible, really. I looked at you, and looked at your book, and asked myself the question; How does one write a best seller. It boiled down to being able to answer a resounding “yes” to 4 questions:
1. Does this book really need to be written? This pertains to the market for it, the need for it, whether one’s topic is sufficiently different and unique. For Quiet, the answer in my mind is so beyond yes.
2. Am I the person who needs to write it. This pertains to one’s background, level of knowlege of the subject, etc. Again with Quiet, (in my opinion), this book was meant to be written by you, it is you. Another resounding yes.
3. Can I write it well? relates to one’s ability to write in a clear and captivating style. Another yes for you!
4. Do I have the necessary network of connections to see it published? I am unaware of what your own network was at the start of this project, but I have included this because I suspect there are in various houses around the country a first draft of a book that I would love to read, but never will see it because a needed connection was lacking. Of course I am not a writer, nor in publishing, but these make sense to me. So here it is, my recipe for a best seller! (course some of the yeses are hard to come by) Good luck to all of you writers out there!
If only there had been books like Quiet, not to mention articles like this one, when I was starting out as a professional but permanently introverted nonfiction writer back in the 1980s. I would’ve saved myself a good deal of frustration.
It’s funny how society tell us we need to find a regular job, and stick to it.
It’s great you had the courage to quit and do what you loved.
Hopefully, I’ll do the same next year. For now, I’m building my journey to freedom.
I started my blog and I’m sure I’l make a living from my writing, so I can quit my job.
Hi Susan. I’ve just been introduced to your wisdom and your writing (I caught your piece with Marie F.). As an introvert (and writer) who is often in positions where I need to be less-so I am relieved to know that you and your work are in the world. I’m so happy that you left the field of law and that your courage to write has exposed the message and teaching that you’re bringing to us. I’m inspired and certainly less anxious about my own work as a result. Thank you.
If you like what you’ve seen of Susan so far I do recommend you read her book. I have nearly finished it and I never knew there had been so much work done on introversion and extroversion let alone personality traits in general