Open any newspaper with a culture section these days, and you’ll find an article laying out stark statistics on author incomes. For instance, we’ve been told that the median income of authors dropped from £6,000 in 2001 to £4,000 per annum in 2014. After 2014, it kept dropping. It was never healthy, but then it got terminal.
For the vast majority of writers, even those who were actually managing to sell books in respectable numbers were only making a fraction of the money they need to make in order to make a living.
Apart from the obviously negative associations with that, one has to wonder, what else are they doing? Either they must be in receipt of dole or bursaries, or they have another job.
In the Irish Times last week, author Claire Hennessy did a survey of what else well-known writers were doing for a living: and they were doing everything from teaching to cleaning to farming dyslexic goldfish (not really, I made the last one up… or DID I??)
The Creative Tightrope
It would make you think. Sure, writing might not pay the bills, but there just might be a proper formula for balancing life as a writer with what else we must do (and often, it must be said, what we can also be very good at) in order to live.
Imagine the satisfaction of the following conversation. You’re at a snooty cocktail party, holding a diamond-encrusted glass of Cristal. A nasal whine arrives in your ear.
The Critic: “Well, helllleeeeugh. Ay am T.W. Pompington-Spendthrift. One hears yew are a write-air. Have ay heard of yew?”
The Writer: “Possibly not. I’m really only starting out.”
The Critic: “Oh reall-air? End whot do yew write? Whot publication would ay have seen yew in?”
The Writer: “I self-published a novel last year. Contemporary fiction. You might not have seen it in the shops, but I managed to sell a few.”
The Critic: “Ah. But whot do yew do for mon-air?”
The Writer: “I have a full-time job as well. I write in my spare time.”
The Critic: “A full-time job? Reall-air? How awe-ful. End whot is that, precisely?”
The Writer: “I’m your bank manager, actually. And I have to tell you, you really should do something about that overdraft. It’s costing you a fortune, and your ongoing capital erosion is something shocking. At the rate you’re going, you’ll be selling off three-quarters of your assets at fire-sale prices by the end of the year.”
I’m only one opinion, but I couldn’t imagine anything worse, or more destructive to creativity, than having to rely on my writing output in order to put food on the table.
Writers often wonder whether having a full-time day job is conducive or obstructive when it comes to the writing life. At this point I’ve seen both extremes: the day job which dwindled in impending closure to nothing more than free office space in order to write whatever I wanted, and the day job which took up every waking brain cell to the extent that even squeezing out a measly blog post resulted in full-scale stress eating.
Neither of these scenarios are conducive to good writing.
Sitting on the Fence = Quite Comfortable Really
I do believe that the structure and routine which accompanies a day job means that more writing gets done, because procrastination is less of an option. But too much of a day job means that no writing will get done, because there’s nothing left.
Of course even a routine day job may not work with tight writing deadlines. But I can’t imagine anything of value coming out of this writer’s brain, if I were also struggling with the financial realities of being a full-time writer.
I’m sure there are other people who might view my situation with horror, trying to keep up what essentially amounts to 2 jobs. They are probably the people who work best when concentrating on the one thing. Having said that, many writers do some form of teaching, so that accounts for something.
I also wonder, however, what it’s like to sell your work in those circumstances. For instance, job interviews are easier when you have a job, because people can smell desperation a mile off.
The more relaxed you are, the more engaging you are, for the most part. The tone of my blogs might be very different if I were under pressure to build up a following in order to sell books. And the tone of my novels might be very different if I were under pressure to sell them quickly.
Either way, creativity requires balance, and balance requires stability. It’s all easier said than done – but anything worth doing takes some doing.
And in the meantime, something will always need to keep us under a roof, over the breadline, and in shoes. That’s the reality of the fantasy writing life.