Don’t Quit Your Day Job by Michael Fedo

don't quit.jpg

At one point in his latest book, Don’t Quit Your Day Job: Adventures of a Midlist Author, Michael Fedo mentions an interview he did while he was an up-and-coming writer hoping to be a full-time freelancer. He talks with Wisconsin writer Michael Schumacher about “his efforts to sustain a reasonable lifestyle as a full-time writer.” Thinking back on that interview, Fedo remembers Schumacher saying “he refused almost no assignments, including creating advertising copy for matchbook covers, and filing book reviews for several regional weekly newspapers for five or ten dollars a pop.” Even though Schumacher at the time was earning about $30,000 a year from his writing, it wasn’t an easy life. “Michael said he’d pay off credit cards and the significant accrued interest when flush, and endured home foreclosure threats several times when his bank account hit bottom.”

It’s one of the most sobering moments in a book filled with such moments. Fedo, who’s written hundreds of articles for outlets like The Christian Science Monitor, the New York Times, and Runner’s World and authored ten books you’ve never heard of, has been a working freelance writer for five decades, and in Don’t Quit Your Day Job, he shares with his readers some of his favorite stories from that long history of bashing out words for money at a host of venues and on a host of subjects. He works as a stringer; he writes up society events; he secures contributing editor gigs for magazines that take all his piece-ideas and allow him to make a fairly steady living. He marries, he travels, and he keeps his wits about him.

For all readers interested in the workaday writing life, it’s fascinating to follow Fedo through his many adventures, from writing an authorized biography of Garrison Keillor vehemently opposed by its subject to interviewing Cloris Leachman about starring in a play about Grandma Moses (which flopped).

Fascinating, but also cautionary. Freelance writing is a game of slow accumulations that can be wiped out at any time by circumstances entirely beyond the writer’s control. Fedo writes of a time in 1985, for example, when his publishing landscape abruptly changed - and the stark real-world consequences:

There were also editorial changes at other publications in which I was at least occasionally publishing, and within a few months my contacts disappeared. At this state in my career, I just did not want to go through the laborious process of becoming re-established with new editors who didn’t know me.

During that first year my freelance income dropped from nearly $6,000 to $761. The next year, it plummeted even lower: $394, as my slump continued.

Throughout the book, Fedo pays his readers the unspoken and refreshing compliment of never instructing them (indeed, one of the book’s only explicit pieces of advice is its title). This is a writing life - very much the rule rather than the exception - laid out in detail: the high points, the thrill of publication (even in little weeklies that promptly go out of business), the frustration of having editors simply stop responding, and the uncertainties of breaking into the book-writing world on any level. Smart, determined would-be writers will learn a great deal from this veteran’s favorite stories. And - writers being hopeless quixotic types - many of them will persist regardless.

Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, The Spectator, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.