Hey there, you in the bifocal Ray-Bans, with the copy of Getting Past Your Breakup in what may be the last nice handbag you’ll ever own; you in the throes of PTOSD (Post-Traumatic OKCupid Stress Disorder), with your face frozen in a slightly nauseated fake smile from reassuring your children that you’re really happy for their dad and his new friend—I’ve got some career advice for you!
It’s actually not very original. It’s rather tired, in fact; search for career manuals with the word “passion” in the title and you’ll come up with dozens. But here we go, nonetheless: figure out what you’re passionate about and then do it. Do it hard. Do it relentlessly. Do it after everyone else gives up and your friends tell you you’re nuts. Do it if you have to take a day job to fill the gap or if you’ve only got a couple of pre-dawn hours before the kids wake up every morning.
I know you’ve got a lot on your plate right now, what with figuring out how to survive on the meager fruits of your mediation agreement while asking your twenty-something niece to help you understand how exactly those job search sites work, since the last resume you made was stored on a floppy disk.
But here’s the thing: doing what you love to do beats the crap out of doing what you have to do, even if you have to do some of the latter to support the former.
In my case, I wanted passionately to support myself as a writer. And that dream was underway when I got divorced a few years ago, though I wasn’t making nearly enough to live on. I sold my first book for about what you’d pay for a moderately priced sofa. Books two through 17 earned progressively more, thanks to my agent Barbara “The Shark” Poelle, until I could count myself among the top 5 percent of authors in terms of earnings. (Don’t get too excited: more than half of traditionally published authors—and nearly 80 percent of self-published authors—earn less than $1,000 a year. I was doing better, but still earning less than half the median salary in Oakland, California, where I live.)
So why keep hammering away at my dream, when I could have made more by applying for a job at pretty much any store at the local mall?
I’ll tell you why: because I wasn’t ready to give up that dream, and because divorce makes you tough. (Unless it breaks you, but I’m not interested in victim stories and if you’re planning to thrive during the next stage of your life, you shouldn’t be either.) Divorce takes a mild-mannered housewife and forges her on the anvil of hardship and humiliation into a ferocious, magnificent beast who doesn’t settle for anything less than what she knows she deserves. Yes, I know there will be some dark nights of the soul along the way, but that’s what the Grocery Outlet wine section is for, my friend.
Look, I know you’re not perfect, especially after the whole divorce thing. But before you drunk-dialed your ex at 3 a.m. or watched two seasons of Hoarders over the course of a single bleary Saturday or slept with the kids’ guitar teacher, you were a pretty remarkable woman, were you not? You loved … something. Maybe it was painting, maybe it was day trading, maybe it was redesigning the Safeway parking lot in your head while you were stuck behind an old dude in a Buick. Point is, whatever your interest, it made you happy.
So now I’m suggesting that you can and should figure out how to monetize it.
In my case, I knew I had the tools. I wrote well. I worked hard. I played nice with publishers. I was also responsible for half of the tuition and medical bills for my children, both in their twenties, and I wasn’t about to let my ex see me sweat.
So I sweated in private. I worked harder. I gave up evenings and weekends. I said “yes” to every opportunity to submit proposals, even when they kept getting turned down. I did favors for other industry professionals when asked—and sometimes before I was asked. I ground up rejections with my gnashing, pointy teeth and spat them out (and yes, I still get rejected plenty, even after publishing 19 books). I scoffed at bad reviews and didn’t take my laurels too seriously.
Barbara worked hard for me, too. I’d like to say she was inspired by my determination, but the truth is that she kicks ass for all her clients, which leads me to another important point: choose your team with care. You probably won’t be able to pull this off alone, so examine your professional relationships with a clear eye and a steady hand and then ruthlessly cut the deadwood (underperformers, overpromisers, and—most importantly—assholes) and then humbly remind everyone who’s left that you’re ready to go to work. Act like a professional, whatever that means in your chosen field—and then dial it up and act like a hungry—no, ravenous—professional.
It’s not easy to survive, in a publishing environment where between 60 and 80 percent of books don’t earn out, and 96 percent of agent submissions are rejected. Some (including my ex, who called my dream my “hobby,” and suggested I learn to be a paralegal) said I was crazy to try.
But I will soon be entering my fourth post-divorce year in the black. Yeah, I’ve cut back; yeah, I’m typing this while wearing a four-year-old bra; yeah, I took my kids to Taco Bell recently to celebrate a major milestone. But I’m making it, while doing what I love.
So, you there, wobbling around as stunned and unprepared as a newborn chick, with the ink barely dry on your divorce settlement—I truly do understand why you might be thinking that your best options are multi-level marketing or hooking up with some rich old guy and marrying your way out of your circumstances. But I’m waving my flag along with Joseph Campbell, source of the “Follow Your Bliss” movement—get out there, you righteous brave divorcee, and make it happen.
Sophie Littlefield is the author of The Guilty One (Simon & Schuster/Gallery Books) and The Missing Place (2014), which is a finalist for the Macavity Book of the Year award. Her novels have won Anthony and RT Book Awards and been shortlisted for Edgar, Barry, Crimespree, and Goodreads Choice Awards.