Writing in retirement by John Desjarlais

Many writers fantasize about a leap from writing-on-the-side to full time. An old rule of thumb was that when you were earning 50% of your day-job salary by writing, you could consider making the move, especially if you were comfortable with – and skilled about — the business.

Or you can retire, like I’m doing, and not really depend on the income.

Like any long-term endeavor, one must determine the ultimate goal. If the aim is to supplement retirement income — and it will be for some — then an earnest freelance effort is needed: cultivating clients, querying actively, searching Flexjobs.com, or seeking gigs on other such venues. Income can also be generated by savvy blogging, editing services, speaking, and landing continuing ed opportunities in community colleges. Oh, and selling fiction – which is hard and rarely profitable.

For those not driven by the need to supplement income, writing for non-profits without pay is a noble option.

For the fiction writer like me, for whom writing income is not an issue (thank goodness), it means having full discretion of my time. At the moment I have no agent and I am not under contract (darn!), so I have no deadlines and no external pressure. I must set goals for myself and discipline my own time as I would when I was “working,” determined to not allow “leisure” to make me lazy about the craft. Because I’ll be “working,” of course, in a new way. I expect to set time goals or page-count goals to stay on a schedule to produce excellent work by a reasonable deadline.

One danger of no-deadlines and no-pressure, it seems, is to neglect the work or to keep revising over and over. But can’t this be an issue for the weekend writer and the 5-am-before-work-writer, too?

As a teacher, I realize I’ve been ‘rehearsing’ retirement during summer breaks. And the thing is, I never wrote “full-time” in summer, although I had more time for it. As a practicing Catholic, I believe a retirement – like my summers — must be balanced, like the Benedictine monastic life, by prayer, study, work, and leisure for renewal.  So I expect my schedule to be governed by a four-fold rotation:  (1) recollection (a monastic term for prayer and contemplation) and (2) reading, (3) leisure (the fourth item in that list) which includes time with family and friends, travel and enrichment, and (4) working in voluntary service to others and – here it comes – in writing.

Let’s face it:  no one who writes “full time” does it all the time. I certainly won’t. Writers must live life, too – or they’ll have little to write about. For me, writing in retirement will be part of the balanced Benedictine mix.

Come to think of it, taken another way, writing in retirement will embody all four:  work (because it just is, right?) – requiring study (gotta do research) — and leisure (because it’s fun) –and an act of prayer. The author of Psalm 19 – a poem about how visual art and the written word communicate truth — concludes with a couplet that offers the poem as a literary “sacrifice” to the Creator in saying, “May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable to you, my Rock and my Redeemer” (Psalm 19:14).


John Desjarlais teaches English at Kishwaukee College in northern Illinois – well, until June. His first novel, The Throne of Tara (Crossway 1990), was a Christianity Today Readers Choice Award nominee, and his medieval thriller, Relics (Thomas Nelson 1993) was a Doubleday Book Club Selection. Bleeder, Viper (a Catholic Arts and Letters Award nominee), and Specter (Chesterton Press, 2009, 2011 and 2015 respectively) constitute the ‘Higher Mysteries’ series. johndesjarlais.com


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