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.