That Time I Thought I Could Make a Living Writing

I accepted a position serving coffee in a bookstore today. Not just any position -- the very same one at the very same store I held from the ages of 18 to 22.

I'm 28 years old now, with a college education, a marriage and divorce, residencies in four U.S. cities, three published books and an online business behind me since leaving that bookstore cafe over seven years ago.

It's Not Easy to Go Back

Three and a half years ago, I left my college town of Madison, Wisconsin to seek greener pastures and a writing life in San Francisco. Recently divorced, I left school, dumped my job, ended my lease and headed West to see what life had to offer.

I wasn't sure what it meant to "be a writer," but I was ready to find out.

My internship with a startup soon blossomed into a paid, freelance, blogging position, which helped me land another, and a few months later I hit my personal jackpot: I was given a column for SF Weekly's arts and entertainment blog.

I self-published two collections of short stories, each of which deservedly sold the dreaded less-than-100 copies of amateur self-publishing. But they gave me an excuse to make valuable connections in the blogosphere and entice readers to my own blog.

I published another book, A Writer's Bucket List, this one succeeding both at making some money and growing my audience, and with it, I embarked on a new challenge in my career: growing a brand.

Before Bucket List, I was a freelancer, writing on whatever topics in whatever voice clients needed. After the book came out, I had something to anchor my own brand as a writer, with an audience who wanted to see what else I could offer. I wanted to see what I could offer -- and I was starting to burn out on the hustle of freelancing.

Now I manage this award-winning blog. I'm the author of this bestselling book. I teach e-courses and coach writers in digital publishing, and I still do some freelancing.

But it's never gotten any easier.

As good as all of this feels, my bottom line is still lacking.

I'm broke, and paying the bills means being too busy to enjoy the life in the lifestyle business I've created. While finding blog readers, gaining subscribers and connecting with influencers has become much easier than when I started blogging three years ago, actually promoting and selling anything to turn a profit remains a constant hustle.

What's worse: I haven't been writing.

I looked up about three months ago to realize all my time was being spent on blog editing, social media management, networking calls, coaching, affiliate marketing... anything but committing real words to the page. And I wasn't enjoying any of it.

I Had to Stop the Hustle

Slowing the self-promotion hustle, however, means sales and income come to a screeching halt. And none of the hours I spend writing my next book or managing my blog earn me any money.

Making a living writing, I learned the hard and naïve way, has nothing to do with creating and everything to do with selling.

Some people are cut out for freelance writing -- apparently, I am not. I don't like writing in a voice that isn't mine for goals that don't support my own.

Some people are incredible at online business -- apparently, I am not. I despise terms like analytics, SEO and conversion with a passion.

My greatest failure was listening to every bit of advice I heard about "being a writer". Advice that wasn't right for the kind of writing I want to do.

There's No One Right Way to Be a Writer

I thought I was supposed to want to make money freelancing, grow an online business, have a huge blog audience, become a star on social media, kill the bestseller lists.

The truth? I just want to write. The rest is a nice bonus, but not the main goal.

Your path as a writer is bound to wind to and fro, hit some dead ends and land you in the occasional dark pit.

Don't be afraid to change your route when it doesn't feel right -- step off the path into something smoother for a while, stay put when you find a comfortable spot or turn around and start right back at the beginning.

One thing in this business I know I do well is publish books. But it takes time to build a backlist strong enough to make a living. And to publish books, I have to write. And because self-publishing doesn't come with an advance to keep rent paid while I work through drafts, I have to find money elsewhere.

So I returned to the other thing I know I do well: serve coffee.

Struggling to keep my chin up, tail between my legs, I'm returning to the counter from whence I came. Seeking in my apparent failure the support for my writing it couldn't provide itself. Rent paid, food on the table and, finally, time to write something I love.