Sunday, January 06, 2013

Work and Writing

Back in November, Robert McCrum's Observer column talked about "writers with other careers." I didn't blog about it at the time as I was far too busy, yes, with my working life. Its an interesting subject and I wanted to go back to it, in part because, he conflates several different things here: the writer (a psychologist for instance) whose work gives them an additional insight; the poet who is glad to have a day-job as something to do; and the writer (Beryl Bainbridge) who also paints. Almost all of his examples are from the distant past, yet in an age when "work" has become a totem, and any interesting jobs are apparently being test-driven by unpaid interns, it's an important subject.

Most writers I know work. They certainly don't make much from their writing but more often than not, their writing, the thing they are best at, is - at least peripherally - at the centre of their work: whether its teaching, training, copywriting or journalism. But again, I don't think this is what McCrum is talking about. He's talking about "other jobs." I've been surprised how many poets I know seem to be based in the academy, either as creative writing tutors or teaching poetry. Three friends have recently started PhDs in contemporary poetry, and its this conflation of writer-researcher-teacher which seems to have become the default model. An obituary for the Irish poet Dennis O'Driscoll, makes much of his working life as a civil servant: "in the civil service you are assigned a grade. You know your status." It's kind of pleasing to read; since as someone who's always combined a non-literary job (currently in local government) with writing I have to say that it's often got puzzled looks from both sides. Within work, its seen as a quirk, a hobby, but not without its benefits (I once got asked to write a poem for an article), though its not something I'd tend to mention if I was going for a promotion. (Local government doesn't really go for quirks.) Its actually outside of work that I've had the most problem: where I've sometimes got the impression that I'm not really a writer, because I've got a day job.

What a day job does give is some other experience - though whether I write any more about offices than say someone who works from home every day is a moot point. In my case the travel I've undertaken over the last few years has fed into poems, and into the fiction I've recently started, as I've combined work meetings all over Europe with a bit of location scouting. What of course it doesn't give you is time. Nick Laird, also in yesterday's Guardian, talks about missing work - paid, non-literary work, that is - "it was lovely to work on a team and feel that the work you are doing is important" he says of his lawyer's life, but the contemporary professional has to do such long hours that it precludes anything else it seems. That, I think, is the rub. No wonder (young) writers work for minimum wage in bus shops and bars, the temporary hours allowing them time to write; the mundane work often allowing them to dream and even read. Yet, Laird's poetry - unlike O'Driscoll's it seems - is not overly concerned with the world of work: but with what he saw from his window growing up in Northern Ireland. Work, it seems, even exciting work, doesn't always have an easy translation into poetry or fiction; but then again why should it?

Yet, writers need more than Virginia Woolf's "room of one's own", they need money, they need publication, they need something other than splendid isolation. Like Laird, I've always done a professional job, as I've figured if I'm going to work at non-literary stuff then I should at least get a decent salary with it; yet there's also been compromise there: I'm certainly one of the lowest paid of my university group, as I've changed careers several times, and moved from the private to the public sector. For myself, its less the level of renumeration that matters; but the demands that the job has on you. There seems little room for the liberal arts in the coalition's grand plan for UK PLC, and though free university, or living off the dole, inevitably aren't going to come back any time shortly, we have to find some ways - as individuals, as society - for creative people to work AND live. I wasn't the only one shocked to hear that Factory musician Vini Reilly had got into financial difficulties struggling to pay "food, rent and electricity". This is in Manchester, where politicians and civil servants can't open their mouths without mentioning Factory records' legacy. Musicians, it turns out, and probably writers as well, aren't necessarily the best business people.

I guess in a time of austerity, it may seem ridiculous to wonder how we should fund artists, but at the same time, each of us who is creative makes our own deal. For some, like Laird, its an opportunity cost, I guess - for even if his literary life isn't massively lucrative, it's at least got profile and publication; and he understands too well the "deal" in terms of time and achievement. A literary figure with legal experience might be just what the age requires after all. For others, its about "buying" time - and for all the talk of more flexible work places, we don't seem to have moved on much from the seventies. (I couldn't easily take a sabbatical, for instance, and expect my job to be still there when I returned.) And for others, its about the wider culture, that will pay for teaching and for appearing on Radio 4, even if it's reluctant to pay for writers to just write. Yet, these routes are often closed off or (from what friends tell me) seeing a reduction in hours or hourly rate; or, equally as damaging, mostly open to those with certain profiles or talents. (A talent for writing doesn't mean that you're necessarily going to be articulate on Front Row or the Late Review.)

None of this is a case for special pleading; but one way or another writers need to find what suits them and allows them to both write and live; and perhaps a little more understanding how difficult that can sometimes be.

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