I’d have thought I’d have found the answer to that by the time I was thirty, but here I am just a few years away from forty and I still don’t know.
In college, I assumed I’d be a published author by thirty. I was, in small press markets, but by then I was already suspecting I didn’t have the drive necessary to be a novelist. A short story writer, yes, although I can’t think of any people in recent decades who’ve made a living solely on short stories. An essayist? Maybe. I’ve written here before of my thoughts of being a travel writer, which I’m going to have to do more research on.
Of course, I’ve enjoyed typography and design for years, and I enjoy being an editor. I don’t know if I’m really good at it (although I’d like to think I am). I haven’t, historically, been a very good publisher, a problem I’ve been working fairly
desperately diligently not to repeat with Claw & Quill.
But, that’s still going to be a hobby, not a vocation. I’ll be lucky if I can get C&Q to sustain itself—I’m certainly not expecting to get it to sustain me. I’m hoping I’ll be able to use the web site as a showcase piece for the kind of web development I’m capable of, and there’s certainly a chance I could use the webzine as a way to get an editorial position somewhere else, although a small chance.
Then there’s the truly left-field ideas I entertain every so often. Running a coffee shop café somewhere. I like the idea in theory, but in practice, it’d be a few steps beyond full-time work—a commitment to be at the shop every hour it’s open and many hours it isn’t, at least until it’s established enough that it could be left in the hands of employees occasionally. And for practical purposes, that means going to work first as a barista somewhere and learning the business. I’m not up for a year of making $8 an hour. (At that pay rate I’d need to work 55 hours a week to stay afloat.)
So. Probably, no coffee shops for me. Technical writing, pretty likely. Creative writing on the side, trying to push it into something that gets a side income, possibly. Editing, definitely something to think about.
I suppose the trip to Portland has made me think about these things again through the light of where I want to be when I grow up.
I’m coming up on my second anniversary in San José. I can call the move a qualified success: I’ve been employed enough to, well, stay here so far. For having moved to Silicon Valley without a job after the boom was over, I recognize that as something of a hat trip. I’ve worked at dotcom startups with pretty grand plans, I’ve discovered that being an Excel guru is actually a marketable skill, and I’ve gotten confidence that I can sell myself as a technical writer. And, at least on an hourly basis, I’ve made 40% more here than I have before.
Of course, one doesn’t live on an hourly basis. I put more than that 40% into savings, which is the only reason I’m not rolling over and dying now. But that’s partially illusory. Last year I didn’t save enough for taxes—I’d have caught up if I’d worked through to the end of 2003, but I didn’t, and in fact had to live on a good chunk of what I’d managed to save. So a substantial part of what I should have saved this year went to last year’s IRS bill. And, as things are playing out, despite a much greater hourly rate the time I’ve worked this year, I’m again living off savings. I can do this for a few more months, at the expense of worrying about, well, next year’s taxes, which I can already project to be about—oh—what I’ll have on hand provided my last, now overdue paycheck arrives. (Yes, I’m aware of the incongruity of worrying about savings right after a short vacation, but I really didn’t spend enough for it to take a measurable chunk off my coasting distance. And, I think of it as a last hurrah before the ramen noodle diet starts.)
This is an expensive place to live—but objectively, I’m staying here about as cheaply as possible; it’d be hard to match the price I’m paying in rent and utilities anywhere else. (Even a move back to Tampa, to a cheaper apartment than the one I’d been in, wouldn’t be likely to shave much off the living cost unless I took on roommates. And, yes, I did check: Portland’s rents are comparable to Tampa’s.) The question isn’t about money, strictly, but about whether I can do what I want to do (or even what I’m qualified to do) here and make a living at it.
And it’s uncomfortable that after nearly two years, I still don’t have a good answer.