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Only one letter separates writer and waiter

… and the salaries are about the same.

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BANGOR, Maine- I had an epiphany of sorts the other day:

Maybe I don’t have to write.

I was looking out the window at a dreary, frigid Maine landscape that fully belied the fact that it’s technically spring, and I got the odd notion that maybe, just maybe, I could get a different type of job — something where I could go to work, work, come home, and not work.

The idea seemed novel, new, and kind of exciting. What, so you mean there are people out there who have … free time? There are people who don’t have to think about working when they’re not at work? There are jobs where other people are responsible for keeping the company afloat? Where I could just be an anonymous cog in the machine?

Ever since I hung up my trowel over a decade ago I haven’t even thought about doing anything other than writing. As the years went by I added in video — it’s all just storytelling — and became more and more removed from any other type of work. The more money I made the more encased I became in the writer’s life: I traveled, I asked a lot of questions, I wrote. That’s what I did and that’s what I was — writing evolved from a passion to a job to an identity.

But then I entangled myself in a web of too many big projects, had to take a step back to collect myself, quit some good jobs, and in doing so I was inadvertently provided with a look at how flimsy my position in my profession really is.

You go into the writer’s life thinking that all you need to do is publish enough, get your name associated with the topics that you cover, write for big publications, get books in print, get featured in big media documentary films, make documentary films yourself and you can get so high up on a pedestal that you can never be knocked off — that the work will just keep coming, that you can just sit back and say,  “I made it.”

But this isn’t the reality. The moment you stop moving forward is the moment you vanish. It’s kind of like how people once thought that sharks needed to keep moving forward in order to survive or that bus in that Bruce Willis movie that had to keep going or it would explode. You can never get a point in this profession where you can be comfortable. You can always be knocked down, laid off, rendered irrelevant.

“Only one letter separates writer and waiter, after all, and the salaries are about the same.”

I read a story on Deadspin the other day about this journalist who made it to the height of his profession, who spent decades working for the biggest sports media outlets, personally knew the biggest names in sports. who won two Emmys, and did everything that would make one think that he etched out an indelible place for himself in his profession. Then he got laid off. Boom. Done.

He’s now working as a waiter.

You can never arrive.

But you can keep going.


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Filed under: Journalism, Work

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3720 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

15 comments… add one

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  • Trevor April 30, 2019, 8:17 am

    I wake up dreaming of letters and parcels.. as a waiter i would dream of taking orders and setting up the breakfast buffet. and one can always be laid off, as long as you work for someone else.

    So you will be soon serving coffee with unlimited re fills in the morning and writing about how rude customers are in the afternoon and interviewing ‘characters’ in the evening ?

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    • Wade Shepard April 30, 2019, 4:03 pm

      Haha probably not. I’m pretty useless. I really can’t do anything else. Getting another job is just kind of a fantasy.

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  • julie April 30, 2019, 12:38 pm

    In the ’70’s I worked for General Electric assembling hot water heaters for railroad cars. I so envied the people who had their work bench set up with family photos and sports memorabilia. They sat in the same chair for 20 years assembling the same parts day in and day out. They were really happy people. Full medical with dental and great retirement packages.
    But I couldn’t do it. The repetition was fun at first, sort of beginners meditation. But, after a year or so, I quit and built a long cabin on 5 acres in the mountains to see what that’s like. No regrets at all.

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    • Wade Shepard April 30, 2019, 4:04 pm

      Whoah, do you still live in the log cabin?

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  • Rob April 30, 2019, 4:29 pm

    My life has been made up of “chunks” of time doing things. I call them “chunks” because they are not clearly defined segments… Some of the “chunks” overlap, some of them stand alone. This is more than just “work” or a “job” to my “chunks”… Student, parent, mechanic, a Fuller Brush Man….

    You tell stories well! I enjoy reading your writing here but I suspect that this doesn’t go far towards paying the power bill to keep the light on…

    I hope you find with you’re looking for.

    The “chunk” I’m in right now is being retired and cruising around in an RV. Seeing things and visiting friends & family. That could change if we find a job we’d like to do for awhile…

    FWIW, we parked the RV in a storage place down the road & are staying with a friend (in the south) while my wife does some medial stuff, this will be about 6 weeks. Then we start moseying north & west, heading for Washington state.

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    • Wade Shepard April 30, 2019, 8:39 pm

      Wow, a Fuller Brush man? I had to look that up. Yes, chunks is a good way to put it. I was an archaeologist, a blogger, a journalist. I feel like I’m approaching the start of a different chunk but I’m not sure what it’s going to be. For the past year I’ve felt like I’ve been waiting for some door to open. I guess I will just keep doing what I do. I just need to get some of these projects done. Chunks seem to only really manifest themselves in retrospect anyway.

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      • Rob May 1, 2019, 5:58 pm

        You look back & you can (I) see that ‘chunk’ of time. It needs a beginning and an end to define it.

      • Wade Shepard May 1, 2019, 7:09 pm

        Very true.

  • Trav May 5, 2019, 3:55 pm

    I don’t understand why people kill themselves trying to work dream jobs. Yeah, you’re doing what you want to do — sort of — but if you don’t have a life beyond working what’s to enjoy?

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    • Wade Shepard May 5, 2019, 3:57 pm

      I guess it’s the feeling of success … to be able to say “I’m a writer” rather than “I’m a waiter who writes fun stuff as a hobby.”

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  • Lawrence May 6, 2019, 7:46 am

    Interesting piece. We are just getting to that age (turning 38 in a couple of weeks) where the worm has turned. People today look at the 80s like we used to look at the 50s, just something from the deep past. I used to suffer from all the anxiety but having to work all the time to get anywhere and all the hours you had to put it in, but I could just never get there. I just like life to much…whale watching, bush walking, staring out into space. But then I got injured, took a few drives on lake shore drive and now I am just at peace and still creating (actually creating more, anxiety is terrible for creating) and having a lot of fun and no stress. I have somehow morphed into a professional wrestling commentator and still go overseas a few times a year, it’s still a journey bro.

    I think you will figure it out…but I don’t see you in a day job…lol. Like I have said before, I do worry about doing this in the States, we tried and failed. Wages were too low and the insurance was killing us….but again, I think you will figure it out.

    I used to read Deadspin until it came populated with writers who hates sports. Or that is how I feel

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    • Wade Shepard May 6, 2019, 8:52 am

      Whoah, I’m turning 38 in a couple of weeks too. We were babies together! haha.

      “People today look at the 80s like we used to look at the 50s, just something from the deep past.”

      Wow. I’m floored here. I never thought about it like this. But you’re right.

      However, isn’t it strange that the pop culture of the 80s is still kind of hip today? David Bowie, Nirvana, Guns and Roses, Michael Jackson, grunge, punk. When I was a kid the stuff from the fifties seemed old fashioned and definitely not very cool. We’d never go to a youth-oriented establishment and listen to Elvis. That stuff was old, we were new. It’s interesting to me that young generations now don’t have their own defining art and music or even a real identity. Even most of the pop stars of today came out when we were in high school. They should be old news by now but they’re not. Whatever new pop stars that arise just seem to be regurgitating the same type of music as the ones from decades ago. I mean, think about it, the music from the 60s was very different from the 50s, the 70s different than the 60s, the 80s pushed all kinds of boundaries — newness was everywhere, the 90s had it’s own identity. The 2000s? The 2010s? What music defines these decades? I have no idea. Mass culture doesn’t really exist anymore.

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      • Wade Shepard May 6, 2019, 8:53 am

        No way! You’re a wrestling commentator!?!?! That’s cool.

  • Des May 10, 2019, 3:59 am

    It’s comforting to know that other writers share the same conundrum. I’ve been travel writing/blogging for the past 15 years and often yearn for the security and “free-time” that a “9 to 5” job affords corporate employees.

    During the short 4-year tenure of my last salaried job as the marketing director for an insurance brokerage, I worked longer than average hours but could actually log out every evening, had weekends and public holidays off, and even had 2-weeks paid leave each year. Not to mention a whopping salary in my bank account on the 25th of each month, annual bonuses and dividends, and the reassurance of medical aid, life insurance, and other perks.

    These “norms” of corporate life soon became nostalgic memories when I resigned to pursue the nomadic life of a travel writer and content publisher. On hearing what I do for a passion (it can’t be termed as a living), most people comment that it must be nice to be hosted while travelling to review exotic destinations, travel trade events, restaurants, adventure activities, and the like. And it is, except they don’t see the hours of being glued to a keyboard and worrying about how to monetise the content gleaned to pay for living essentials.

    But, I’d have it no other way. Once the travel bug bites you’re infected for good (or worse), hoping that what you’ve written will inspire others to travel, enjoy and respect the diversity of tourism and all that it entails.

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    • Wade Shepard May 11, 2019, 7:48 pm

      15 years? Wow, you’ve been doing this nearly as long as I have! Amazing that I don’t believe we’ve crossed paths before. Funny that we got connected in such an odd way.

      “These “norms” of corporate life soon became nostalgic memories…”

      Very well put. Most don’t get that nostalgia for a life one lived — or the imagined renderings of a different way of life — impacts travelers to. While I wouldn’t give up this lifestyle for anything, it does come at the expense of many elements of life that most seem to take for granted. Just being able to shut off work at the end of the day is such a novel concept for me. Whey you live the writing life you’re always on the clock. The work day never ends. Sometimes I fantasize about having nothing to do or even of having a boss that tells me what to do haha.

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