Saturday, August 26, 2006

The Writer's Life

I went to an Edinburgh Book Festival event yesterday evening about work. The panel featured four writers who talked about the tension between being a writer and holding a full-time job, having a family etc, and also about making the break to writing full-time.

The writers were Chris Dolan (novelist, TV scriptwriter, radio playwright, and several other things), Colette Bryce (poet), Linda Cracknell (short story writer), and Debbie Taylor (editor of Mslexia magazine and novelist). Their stories were interesting and varied.

Chris Dolan gave up his well-paid job one week and the next week discovered his wife was pregnant. That, in a sense, made it vital that he got paid writing work and also explains why he is involved in such a varied range of writing projects, but he sees himself as primarily a novelist – the novels don’t pay the bills though.

Debbie Taylor is about to give up editing Mslexia and become a full-time novelist. It’s what she wants to do and she doesn’t mind “being poor.” She was very positive about doing what gives you fulfilment, and at the same time was realistic and impressively articulate.

Colette Bryce said a similar thing – clearly poetry in itself doesn’t make much money, but fellowships, writing workshops, residencies etc help her to survive on a modest wage. She said to me afterwards that it was only after her first collection was published (on Picador) that commissions, fellowships etc really became an option for her. Before that, she just slogged away on a shoestring. She also felt that being able to say "I am a writer" was energising and confidence-building, rather than writing being a hobby or an activity slipped into the shadow hours.

Linda Cracknell chaired the meeting but spoke a little about her own experience. Basically being “a writer” doesn’t mean spending the majority of your time writing what you want. It’s all the other things – publicity, workshops, readings, paid commissions etc that help you to survive while you write what you want in between times.

So they all presented an unromantic view of the writer’s life. But none of them appeared to have any desire to return to their former day jobs.


Student said...

A life conducive to poetry. I've been haunted by this passage from a profile of Kay Ryan ever since I read it:

"Ryan has fashioned a life conducive to poetry, one in which the essential elements of that bike trip - repetition, expansiveness, and large intellectual leaps - shape both her daily routine and her voice as a writer.

Practically speaking, that means a lifestyle with few obligations. Thus, she has taught the same subject - remedial English - at College of Marin in Kentfield, Calif., for the past 33 years. She limits her classes to Tuesday and Thursday afternoons.

"I've tried to live very quietly, so I could be happy," she says, explaining that the simpler her routine, the more complex her thinking can be.

Tons of power to anyone who even comes close to succeeding.

Cailleach said...

The Writer's Life - don't talk to me. If I ever get these kids raised and this degree finished I might be able to go back to doing what I did before!

I've long wondered if the writing life is related to a high degree of perseverance - you just have to keep at it and believe that what you are doing is right for long enough, and it starts to feel like you've got there.

An interesting insight into others' points of view on this subject, though.

Anonymous said...

"four writers who talked about the tension between being a writer and holding a full-time job, having a family etc,"


I think I read once that Mary Oliver deliberately set out to take the most boring day jobs she could find in order not to divert her creative energies and enthusiasm away from her writing.

Not so easy though if you actually like your "day job" almost as much as writing ...

Too little time too many choices!


apprentice said...

Rob I was going to go to this, but decided that I'd already made the leap, albeit from an unusual take-off point. But I find other things still get in the way, in part because I feel guilty about bringing home less bacon than before, so I tend to over-compensate by cooking good meals etc. And I've taken on new things, like some voluntary work and I'm trying to earn a bit as photographer. So the space just gets filled up. I think C is right you need to be fairly ruthless /comitted to succeed.

Rob Mackenzie said...

Thanks for these interesting responses. Making time for people and activities is so difficult. I think a touch of ruthlessness is needed (not an attractive quality, but necessary), a pig-headed perseverance, talent, a few big risks, a few breaks, and a lot of luck.

Crafty Green Poet said...

I've found the ideal compromise for now - part time job with decent salary (really difficult to find, I know, I'm lucky) and extra time for the writing (which as yet pays nothing).

Rob Mackenzie said...

CGP - the "with decent salary" amazes me. I work full time and at the end of every month we are always broke. We live quite frugally too, so I don't know what we do wrong.

By the way, I saw you at the Poetry Library at that "lunchtime reading" event, but you slipped away before I managed to say hello.