Two weeks ago I sent in my notice of resignation.
This morning I sent in my last timesheet.
With that, I have quit my day job to pursue self-employment, financial freedom, and the art of writing.
A Decade of Dead Ends
For 10 years I’ve held a number of dead-end jobs. Speech trainer. Copywriter. Staff writer. Freelance journalist. Resume writer. And my personal albatross, document drafting.
Document drafting is an easy job. It is a combination of data entry, updating old documentation, and creating new documents according to a template. It requires meticulousness, concentration, and patience. Any monkey with a keyboard could do it.
I am not a monkey.
I grew up watching my mother work as a drafter. My days and nights echoed with the sound of hammering keys and double-clicking mice. Nonconformities, standard operating procedure, ISO standards, these were the litanies of my youth. After I came of age, after my mother moved on to other work, she introduced me to this work.
At that time it was a perfect fit. I was fresh from the Army, waiting for the academic year to start, looking for something to do. I couldn’t write and read all day. Working as a drafter was a way to make money and prepare for the working world. During my post-secondary education period, this job helped me pay my way through the program, while still freeing up time to tackle assignments, exams, and my own artistic pursuits.
Just one problem: the degree was aimed at working professionals who wanted higher qualifications to earn a promotion. Not a jobseeker.
In the weeks and months and years that followed, I sent out countless job applications. Dozens, hundreds, thousands, so many I lost count. Every day I would identify a bunch of jobs, then send out my CV and cover letter in batches of ten and twenty and more at once. I applied for every field my degree allegedly qualified me for: copywriting, advertising, journalism, administration.
I was invited for only a handful of interviews.
Only a tiny handful played out.
The regular work I found didn’t last. I had to ply my trade as a freelancer. My income was just barely above subsistence level, and only because I was still living with my parents.
To prove your worth as a white collar worker in Singapore, you need paper qualification. To land a job, you need experience. If you don’t have any experience, no one will hire you. But if no one hires you, you can’t gain experience. So long as you don’t have experience, you’ll always be shut out of the working world, never mind what society likes to call ‘proper jobs’.
In the end, I went back to document drafting. This time because they offered regular work and an increment from the last time I worked as a drafter.
Then I learned that the rates they offered was the same market rate from the 1990s.
What else could I do? A man had to make money. A man had to work. My chosen career path wasn’t working out, and I was still honing my writing skills. I took the opportunity that presented itself and went right back to data entry.
For 5 straight years, my life was an aria of clacking keys and clicking mice, a parade of copy and paste, find and replace, highlight and type. It was simple work, as I said, and any monkey with a keyboard could do it. But the more you do it, the more you become a monkey, because it is not ‘relevant work experience’ for better-paid jobs and employers would rather hire people with the latest qualifications. And yet I couldn’t not do it, not with bills and other hassles on the horizon.
At 45.6 hours, Singapore clocks the second-longest official working week in the world. The reality is that people go to work early, come home late, and continue their work at home at night at over the weekends. The true number for many white collars might be closer to 50, even 60. My case was a little different.
Instead of drawing a regular salary, I was paid by the hour. Jobs came in late or night or in the wee hours of the morning, attached with tight deadlines. Clients came in thick and fast in the weeks leading up to vacations. The company occasionally required me to burn weekends and holidays for regular pay with no notice. And when there were no clients, there was no pay.
As for the pay, well, as I said, any monkey with a keyboard could do it, so they paid peanuts.
For the better part of my life, I burnt my life for peanuts. Costs went up but not my rates, so all I could do was work even more and even harder. My income did increase, but it only barely floated above subsistence level. When the jobs stopped, I had to scramble for other sources of income. I was suppose I was lucky: I had few needs and even fewer wants, and I saved every single cent I could.
It was the only thing I could do. Even so, it left a permanent scar. Spending money was anathema to me—even if it meant investing in the gear and skills that could pull me out of the rut. I used to experience massive anxiety before making major purchases, even if they were necessary. There was always the fear that some major bill or expense would crop up in the future, and without the ability to earn more, all I could do was spend less, and less, and even less.
Nonetheless, I persevered.
I accepted these conditions only because I did not wish to live like this forever. For the past decade I’ve been sharpening my skills, building my brand, writing as hard and fast as I could. I dreamt of being a full-time fiction writer when I was 12 years old, and every single day I worked towards that dream.
And now, here I am.
The Liminal Moment
Last month I received an offer for a long-term contract, one that would make full use of the fiction skills I’ve picked up and demonstrated over the years.
The terms were simple: one and a half times of my monthly average income in exchange for half the workload.
Only a monkey would turn it down. And I’m not a monkey.
This job could only have been possible with the 10 years I spent honing my fiction skills in between drafting documents and crafting resumes.
It ain’t financial freedom. It’s not my ultimate goal. But it is a massive step forward.
Money does not bring happiness. Money brings freedom, and that includes freedom to pursue happiness.
Sitting at my table now, I sense vast vistas opening before me. So many options, once blocked off by want of money, are now available to me. Things that have been on my wish list for years. Experiences I’ve dreamt about but never had a chance to pursue. Most importantly: investment opportunities that, if realized, would bring even more money.
For the first time, I don’t have to worry about bills or surprise fees. Should any of these emerge, I have savings, and within a week I can expert to earn enough money to cover most of these expenses.
I don’t have to worry about balancing writing and work. Now they are one and the same, and the paid work takes up even less time than document drafting. I can comfortably maintain Pulp Speed every day while still turning in a full day’s work, leaving my writing and publishing schedule untouched.
It feels like I’ve dislodged a massive stone from my soul, one that’s been there for years, leaving behind a sudden void.
For ten years, I’ve struggled to get by. Now, after a single conversation and a contract, I am on the verge of thriving. The world has remained the same, but how I view it has changed so dramatically that even now my mind is still reeling at the nigh-infinite possibilities before me. With so so much more time and money at my hands, there’s temptation to cut loose, to finally have a taste of the good life, to celebrate.
This new gig is only in its early days. There’s still an adjustment period ahead. Not only that, with a house on the way, and a family to support, I expect expenses to pile up dramatically as well.
A fairer assessment is that my income has raised proportionate to the bills I expect to face—in the future. The prudent thing to do—the only thing to do—is to prepare for the days ahead, to make full use of the newfound time and freedom I’ve clawed back to grow even further.
After all, I’m not where I want to be. Just closer.
A lifetime of savings and simple tastes, of developing skills and steady work, have led to this moment. Looking back now, I see a bright line tracing through the winding roads of my youth, showing how every minor and major decision conspired to put me here, in this liminal moment, in the space between a dreadful present and an idealised future.
The future is unimaginably vast. Without markers, without signboards, without a routine to determine your life, it is so easy to get lost. To live properly, you have to take responsibility for your actions, to exercise wisdom and discrimination even as you try to live the best life you can.
With the promise of steady income, I can pursue fiction writing with renewed confidence and freedom. Already I sense many ideas bubbling in my head, and I hear of even more opportunities in the wind. My plan now is to close out all my existing series, to end this epoch in my writing career, and to pave the way for the next evolution of my writing. And I may also be able to take time out to share the secrets of the craft of writing with you.
Fiction writing isn’t my only passion. I’ve been a blogger almost as long as I’ve been a fiction writer. While I am known for my politics and fiction, truth be told, a significant part of my daily routine involves exploration of meditations, metaphysics, philosophy and other ideas. Without having to worry about where the next meal will come from, I can spend my time and energy further refining my thoughts on these concepts and bring them to you.
I am now also able to pursue other streams of income. Investments, education, other opportunities that would create more revenue, and with it, financial freedom.
Today begins a new chapter in my life. I have no intention of going back. I have graduated from being a keyboard monkey, and am now ready to pursue a different path, one that is true to my temperament and my skills. I have built a bridge between my old life and this one, and burnt it down behind me. Before me is a vast uncharted plain.
And in that vastness lies freedom.
My years as a keyboard monkey weren’t spent in vain. You can check out the lessons I’ve learned here!