Essay

Why Being Forced To Get A Day Job At 40 Was The Best Thing That Could Have Happened

Co-author of The Nanny Diaries, Nicola Kraus was one of the lucky ones—a person who could afford to live off her art. Until one day when she realized the ride was ending.

Photo: Scott Webb

In my early twenties I was an actress. But I wasn’t a “real” actress because, for the first three years after graduation, I paid the bills working as a nanny. I was just someone who got up at 6 every morning to work out and be at my first audition by 9, followed by hours of rehearsal, then a dash uptown to pick up my charge from school, then a sprint at 7 to make it to some tiny theater by the 8 o’clock curtain, then home at midnight to do it all again.

In my last year acting I got some voiceover gigs, plus a miniscule recurring role on a soap and was able to stop being a nanny. In the eyes of friends and family I was finally a “real” actress. Not because I had been in umpteen Chekov plays, garnered great reviews, or had a loyal following among downtown directors, but because once a month I said, “Stop, you can’t go in there!” on a daytime drama and was the voice of a Bartlett pear for a regional supermarket chain.

The pleasure I got from my vocation or the hours I devoted to it were never factored into my “success.” What everyone cared about was that my art was finally paying my bills.

Which gave me exactly enough breathing room to realize I was over getting feedback about my weight, over feeling like my appearance was hampering my job prospects, and over getting groped. I wanted a thinking job.

That’s when something freakish happened. In my mid-twenties I co-wrote a novel and it became a bestseller. I was suddenly getting paid to write fiction! It was extraordinary. I was a real artist.

But time went on and September 11th, corporate mergers, and the Great Recession all reshaped the publishing industry. We had a loyal readership we deeply appreciated, but at the end of the day we were splitting one person’s income in two. Rare is the author who can support one person, let alone a pair.

Turning 40 was a spiritual reckoning for us both. Emma no longer wanted to invest a workweek away from her children in something that seemed so vulnerable to the vagaries of social media. I didn’t either, but then what was I going to do? If you read Brené Brown, you can probably recognize this was a face-down in the mud moment for me. I was 40 years old and the only thing I knew how to do was write novels. What would anyone pay me to do? And just as importantly—who was I? If I wasn’t being paid to write novels was I novelist anymore? My whole identity was shaken.

Randi Zinn, founder of BeyondMom.com, finds that is very common among women, especially the ones looking to start something after having children. “They worry first and foremost about making money right out of the gate and, if they can’t, they think their endeavor has no value. Men don’t think this way. Heck, Amazon hasn’t turned a profit yet.”

For the previous ten years I’d been helping other authors with their novels so I decided to formalize that into a coaching business. I built a website, but with my father’s words ringing in my ears the whole time, “Those who can’t do—teach.” Maybe he was right. I was no longer a “real” writer—maybe this was what I was relegated to—the price of my failure.

But then I discovered something—I loved it. I was happier helping other people than I had been writing my own work for years. Every day was new and exciting. I met smart, creative people, many of whom have become my friends.

And, for the first time since my daughter was born, I was making enough to cover my half of the household expenses, without having to pull from savings to cover the shortfall. That made me proud and I wanted my daughter to know me as someone running a thriving business.

But when I told people what I was doing now they were stumped. I had “made” it as a writer—how was I back here? They didn’t see an evolution—they saw a disintegration. It was, frankly, embarrassing.

Then two things happened: first, Emma gave me Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic and she believes that asking your art to pay your bills is an unfair pressure to put on it. It might for awhile, but that pursuit shouldn’t be the point.

Wow!

That flies in the face of our entire culture, which says anything creative we do is only valuable if we monetize it. Paint? Macramé? Whittle? Etsy. Write? Get a blog and sponsors. Sing? YouTube with advertising enabled.

I don’t begrudge anyone remuneration for their art. Ever. But the pressure to make money can kill the joy and creativity that was the entire point.

The second thing that happened was my husband revealed to me that Spike Lee directs commercials. As do the Cohen Brothers and Martin Scorsese—NHL, Chef Boyardee, nothing arty. They do it to make money. To pay the bills. Just like Oscar winning serious actors hock merchandise in Japan. They make the money so they can free up their art to be artistic.

Which reminded me that artists going back to the Renaissance have taken commissions from people they detested, because they liked food and shelter and that was the price to make the other works that were their passion projects.

So I decided to be my own benefactor. I finally started making enough money running my company that I’m writing a novel. And I am enjoying it like nothing I have done in years. Because I’m not asking anything of it. And if it sells five copies I won’t lose my house.

So maybe I’m not a “real” writer anymore, but I’m a calm, happy, fulfilled writer. And, having been both, I tell you that beats everything.

Nicola Kraus is the co-author of numerous bestsellers, including The Nanny Dairies which was made into a film with Scarlett Johanson and Alicia Keys. She is also the co-founder of the consulting firm TheFinishedThought.com, which helps aspiring authors of all stripes build their books and brands.