Turning a Hobby into a Profession

by M. Scott Douglass

As a young man in the 1960s and 70s, my whole world was wrapped around sports, especially baseball. That kind of youthful infatuation could be considered as a hobby, but it was something I took seriously, especially since those who are good enough became professionals and got paid to play the game.

That was my goal, to be a professional baseball player. I got as far as a workout with the Pittsburgh Pirates, but injuries and other extenuating circumstances ended my baseball career early.

I also developed a love for writing at an early age, mostly poetry, and my love of sports and those who played the game made its way into my writing. After all, every writing instructor says: Write what you know. Sports was what I knew and poetry was what I wrote.

By the late 70s, poetry had become my primary hobby. Why a hobby? Until and unless a person monetizes his or her interests the way a professional baseball player earns a contract and is paid to play, a particular interest is a hobby. In fact, I believe the actual definition of being a professional includes being paid. If you’re not being paid, you’re either a hobbyist or a volunteer.

I suppose by some stretch of the imagination, winning prize money for writing a story or a poem qualifies as being paid, but does it make a person a professional writer? I don’t know. Poker players and gamblers consider themselves professionals and their entire income is based on winning a prize of sorts.

That said, I don’t see any offices set up in metropolitan areas where poets report to work and the boss says, “I want to see five poems out of you by the end of the day and at least three accepted for publication somewhere.” It’s just not that kind of business model. The great majority of us writers are freelancers, writing out of our home offices, then looking for someone to buy our work or, in the case of poets, seeking praise and maybe some page space to share it with others.

Step back to the 1980s with me for a minute. I worked a job I didn’t enjoy, coached baseball and basketball, and owned an alternative book and collectible store. I incorporated my hobbies into my lifestyle but allowed them to eat up all of my time without a proportional amount of revenue to justify the time invested. I was a decidedly busy, but unhappy camper.

Jump ahead to the 1990s. My hobbies included writing poetry for small literary magazines and traveling. I was making a good living in a profession I still hated, but it funded my hobbies to some degree, while stifling them in other ways. It’s hard to have travel on your hobby resume when you only get two weeks off every year to enjoy the hobby. I either had to compromise one of my favorite hobbies or find a way to monetize it and ditch the profession that had been paying the bills for over twenty years.

At about that time, I started a literary magazine, again, as a hobby. It was more successful than expected and soon became the primary focus of my energies and my personal finances. So much so, that I needed to set it up as a business and deal with the paperwork and legal matters that accompanied being in business. At some point, like a baserunner, I saw an opportunity to steal a base and move closer to scoring.

Do you see what I did there? I took my love of one hobby, baseball, and made it part of the story in the form of a metaphor.

Anyway, discovering a way to monetize one of my hobbies, poetry, led to other things. Soon people were asking me to publish books. Okay, how do I do that and have the business pay for itself? That led to re-educating myself, then came investments and escalating cashflow, and ultimately a good reason (excuse) to quit my day job and do the literary/publishing thing full time.

But my hobbies had also broadened since the 1980s. Aside from being a frequently published poet, I was an avid motorcyclist and a budding photographer. I’d never equate my photographic skills with those whom I consider professionals, but every so often something magical would happen. I owned a publishing company. Books and magazines needed cover art. My magazine needed internal art. Hello tax write off. Even though I wasn’t getting paid to travel or take photos, because the product of my hobby was being used for business purposes, I could use my travel expenses as tax deductions.

That’s part of the benefit of being self-employed. I set my own work hours, vacation times, and destinations. And because I ALWAYS take at least one camera with me wherever I go and at least one of those photos would be used in a publication or promotion, I had monetized the hobby. I don’t get paid for the photos themselves but could travel as much as I wanted and deduct the bulk of the trip’s expenses by using my photos for business.

At this point I’d bundled three things that used to come under the heading of hobbies into a livelihood: poetry, photography, and travel.

So, what about motorcycling? I’ve had a love of motorcycles my entire life but wasn’t able to purchase my first bike until 1983. My first motorcycle was my daily commuter vehicle for a while when I lived in Erie, Pennsylvania. My trips were short, but rode it to work even with snow on the road. I wore snowmobile gloves on my hands and a bandanna over my face. The steam from exhaling would sometimes fog the plastic shield of my helmet and become frost by the time I arrived at work. I’d have to wear the shield on an angle to see the tire ruts through accumulated snow, which is where I needed to keep my wheels to maintain traction. I loved every minute of it.

Photo by M. Scott Douglass

Several motorcycles down the road, I found myself as a rising publisher. I’d found a way to include most of my hobbies into my professional life. What about motorcycling? How could I include it?

I knew a lady who wore a red beret to every poetry event she attended. It was her self-image and how she wanted others to see her. Another poet used to change her voice and speak in a Winston Churchill voice when she read her work. When asked about it she said, “That’s my poetic voice.”

For these poets, their apparel, the way they spoke, were their signature; the image they conveyed to their audience.

And there it was. Among motorcycle riders there’s a phrase: Live to Ride, Ride to Live. I was never that hardcore, but I liked the image and it fit my persona. Now, how do I incorporate this hobby into my professional life?

I started by riding the motorcycle to readings and, when possible, to deliver local book orders. It got me out of the office, gave me time to ride, and my business a reason to put gas in my tank.

Then one day my lovely wife suggested I join the local HOG group (Harley Owner’s Group). She thought the group would give us more places to go and introduce us to people with whom we could socialize. We did that for a few years, until politics and public health circumstances made it uncomfortable.

But it instilled in me a hunger for longer rides. I began riding my motorcycle to more events and conferences. One thing the HOG group had taught me was that my informal motorcycle education was more in depth than many of those in the group. As a hobbyist, I was a better rider than many even though I didn’t Live to Ride.

Photo by M. Scott Douglass

I took longer rides and encountered interesting people and circumstances which fed the poet in me. The poems got published and some ended up in my books. Two of those books were focused on seeing the world from the seat of a motorcycle, Balancing on Two Wheels and Just Passing Through. But all of my books—every one of them—included at least one motorcycle poem. My hobby as a motorcyclist had finally meshed with my profession as a poet/publisher.

But was poetry the right format for my motorcycle travels? Some accepted it, many just couldn’t find my motorcycle through the garden or the trees, my road trips or interactions with other travelers as poetry worthy.

In 2018 I bought a brand-new motorcycle and started hatching a plan for a long ride, a really long ride, a solo ride from my home near Charlotte to California and back. Because I owned the publishing business, I could schedule around other things to plan for time off. How much time would it take? Was I strong enough as a 65-year-old man with bad knees and arthritic hands to travel the estimated 6500 miles the trip would cover? And how do I pay for the trip?

The last part was easiest. I’d traveled all over the country since becoming a publisher and every flight, every hotel, every rental car or tank of gas, and almost every meal was paid for by my business. I’d let my accountant decide what was legal and what was not. As it turned out, about 80% of my expenses could be written off as the cost of doing business.

Then came the knee surgery and recovery followed shortly thereafter by a global pandemic. This did not dissuade my dream. It was postponed until June of 2021. Then I was off on an adventure that covered 24 states in 35 days and totaled 8001 miles. Boy, did I have some stories to tell, and people seemed to enjoy hearing them.

These were not stories I could tell through poetry. I wrestled for a year and a half writing scraps of images of this trip that just weren’t satisfying. This adventure needed a larger format and—frankly—I wasn’t sure I was up to the task. I’d never written anything as long as a novel and that was how long this would be. I tell people I write poetry because I have a short attention span—which is true. Could I stay focused? How would I structure an entire book? Would anyone bother to read it?

I thought of former NC Poet Laureate Joseph Bathanti’s book East Liberty. It’s a great book that is centered in a section of Pittsburgh where my family also has roots. Joseph had jumped the moat into another genre. Maybe I could as well.

That was part of the incentive for my upcoming book, 8000 Mile Roll, A Motorcycle Memoir. Another part was genealogy. I belong to both 23 & Me and Ancestry.com. I’ve watched family members and distant relatives fill in the gaps with names on my family tree. But knowing the names didn’t tell me who they were. A lot of that history had been lost. I have grandkids who I hope will one day have grandkids of their own. What will those descendants know about my name on their tree? My books are breadcrumbs. All they have to do is look me up in the Library of Congress. My story will be there.

I took 35 days off work and traveled solo for over 8000 miles, taking photographs along the way. My hotel, gas, and food receipts totaled over $6000. Whether 8000 Mile Roll sells well or not is not my major concern. Yes, I will work hard to make it successful and, hopefully, some movie producer will find it and say, “This would make an interesting movie.”

The point is, I bundled travel, motorcycle riding, and photography—things I would do anyway—and converted them into book format. Even if the world doesn’t discover it or treasure it the same way I treasure the trip that inspired 8000 Mile Roll or the photographs included in it, I managed to fold hobbies I love into my writing career. What could be better than that?

8000 Mile Roll, A Motorcycle Memoir is Available for Preorder Here

M. Scott Douglass

M. Scott Douglass grew up in Pittsburgh and lives near Charlotte, NC. He’s Publisher/Managing Editor at Main Street Rag Publishing Company, a Pushcart Prize nominee, and North Carolina ASC Grant recipient. His poetry has most recently appeared in North American Review, Kakalak 23, Twelve Mile Review, Salvation South, among others. His graphic design work has earned two PICA Awards and an Eric Hoffer Award nomination. Previous books include Living in a Red State Blues, Just Passing Through, Hard to Love, Steel Womb Revisited, Balancing on Two Wheels, and Auditioning for Heaven.