A message from Scrooge By Jan Needle

One of the strangest things about being a published, or accepted, or arrived author is the possibility of earning a living. I guess most of us discovered early on in our 'careers' that there is often more money to be got from talking about it than actually doing it, and lots of schools (for instance) would far rather spend a fews tens, or even hundreds, of pounds on getting an author in than they would in buying his or her books. I have actually visited educational establishments (God spare the mark) that happily admitted they didn't have any of my books on the premises, and didn't know if any of their victims had ever read one. I've mentioned before how many of them don't even bother to check my gender.

What's the idea, then? Usually the answer is something on the lines of 'encouraging the children to write.' I did go to a school in Sheffield once where an extremely chippy (on the shouldery) young teacher told me that it was an easy way of making a living, so the kids should be set on the path as soon as possible. When I said mildly that I didn't think it was that easy, especially in the 'making a living' sense, he got really indignant. I was getting thirty odd quid for an afternoon's burbling (it was a long time ago), while he had to actually work for a living - and teaching was bloody hard work, too.

Fairly obviously, he wanted to be a writer himself, and had so far found it impossible for anyone to recognise his genius. He wasn't even mollified when I agreed with him about the hardness of a teacher's lot, and really got quite offensive. He told me finally that if I was as 'socialist' as my books appeared to suggest, I ought to give my fee to the school funds. I tried to humour him. My first book got an advance of £200, I said, and I bought myself a bar billiards table with the money - except that it cost me £350. Wrong answer. He dreamed of having a bar billiards table, he said, but on his wage, etc, etc. I just hope to God he didn't become a careers adviser. He might actually have told the children it was a route they ought to follow.

More recently, I've been asked quite frequently to help older people with their writing, rather than going into schools and talking about my own. I did an Arvon week once, which is a deep-end experience in more ways than one, I found. One of the things that most fascinates me about this blogspot is the robusticity (there can't be such a word, but it sounds better than robustness) of spirit and of niceness that everybody shows. People talk about helping others to become writers as if this is not only a duty and a service, which I probably agree with, but also a good thing. For whom, a good thing? For why? Let's break it down a bit.

In classes I have been running recently, the participants were all extremely high on natural talent. It was honestly a pleasure and a privilege to listen to their work, to talk it through with them, to offer ways I thought they might like to think about to move it on. I had been dubious about taking the gig, and did so only on a trial basis, but it worked. Except, except. One day there was a new arrival, young, dyslexic, troubled, directed to the group by a well meaning person who thought, like my Sheffield teacher maybe, that...that what? I and all my regulars were completely thrown. Had he turned up for his second session, disruption would have been complete. Fortunately, he was extremely bright. He joined a music group instead. That was his good thing. Why writing, though? Why had that been suggested? To make a living? To enhance his self-esteem? Because it helps to pass the time?

Back to Arvon. There were perhaps a dozen of us. This time they had paid, and I guess quite a lot of money. For the majority, excellent. A week in a lovely place, like-minded people, feedback, fun. For a couple, it was torture. For the tutors, that was torture also. One woman asked me, halfway into it, if I would tell her, honestly, if she was wasting her time. Her eyes were deep and frighteningly vulnerable. Was she challenging me to tell the truth? Did she know the truth? Did I know the truth? I talked it over with other Arvon tutors later. It worried me for years. I took comfort from one of my favourite Brecht tropes: 'Truth is a black cat in a windowless room at midnight.' It was not that great a comfort.

Let's break it down a bit more. Here we all are, taking people's money to teach them how to write. Or to tell them what we know about the subject, or what we think we know. And what's the end result? A billiard table they can't afford to buy, a life as a writer who has to scratch a few quid helping other people to not be able to afford to buy a billiard table. Or - for the favoured few - an even worse fate. To be Jeffrey Archer, maybe, or to write The Da Vinci Code, to end up ridiculously rich. The Brecht quote ends: 'And justice a blind bat.'

But now I'm being silly. There have been times in my writing life when the money's come rolling in, and others when I've fought the mice for the cheese off the trap (not literally, you understand) - and to me it was all exactly equal. Because the fact is I write because I have to, not because I want to, I write because it's embedded in my genes (or something), I can't just give it up. I told the Arvon lady that she was doing fine, to keep on going, that Scott Fitzgerald papered his bedroom wall with rejection slips before he sold a word, and he would have gone on writing even if the knock-backs hadn't stopped. My mum always used to ask me if I was ever going to give up writing and get a proper job, but I don't think she meant it, much. She certainly knew the answer, anyway. If you're going to write you write, period.

Which means money is irrelevant, as is fame and acceptance - and probably 'being taught.' So when people ask me now if I can help them, I think of Bertolt Brecht, and tell them that I probably can't, but I'm prepared to have a look and chat about it. At the very least it seems to make them feel better about their affliction.

So I do it out of altruism.

And for money, naturally. Merry Christmas!


http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/86960 (Albeson) (Both under a quid)


Linda Newbery said…
What a fascinating post, Jan. There is so much writing being taught now, in MA courses and the like, and they all treat writing as if it's a career. Well, it can be a career, but it doesn't follow any kind of predictable career path. And there is always that tension between writing to make a living and going where your instincts take you. It would be possible to be in the position of having written something commercially successful that didn't give you the slightest satisfaction.

But I should be working, not blogging ...
Susan Price said…
Jan, I've met that teacher! More than once, and he's not always teaching... Brilliant post.
Linda Gillard said…
Wonderful post, Jan. And brave, I thought.

I feel very uncomfortable "teaching" in workshops. (I have to put it in quotes because I'm not convinced you can teach writing. I think you can teach editing.) So at the beginning of each workshop I announce that I can only teach people to write as I write. It feels like a horrible admission of failure, but at least it's honest.

I once had a rather thrusting young woman in a workshop who kicked off by asking how much money she could make as a writer. (She was clearly expecting me to pronounce a number with a lot of noughts.) I'm afraid I laughed and said that unless she was extremely lucky, she'd earn more pursuing a career cleaning toilets.

Fortunately I've come to terms with the fact that
a) I write because I have to, not because I want to
b) writing is its own reward (which, given the remuneration, is just as well.)
Dan Holloway said…
coming at things as a non career writer, or perhaps as a poet or performer, or perhaps just as an ornery old bugger, I see teaching writing as a vital, political act. It may also be to do with having studied theology at a time when Liberation Theology was still a vibrant new force, bringing with it a practical (blimey, how rarely do you here the word praxis bandied around in daily conversation now - a decade or so ago you'd use it every day) agenda of conscientization, empowerment through practical articulacy.

That, to me, is what it means to teach writing - enabling the voiceless to give voice to their inner lives and hopes and angers and aspirations. And being part, any part, of something so empowering is spine-tinglingly exciting. I think that's why I'm drawn so much to performance - because of the way it can inspire those who see literature as "not for them" - and get so excited by the workshopping projects run by slam groups. It also reflects my (idiosyncratic and decidedly "these views are those of the author only") opinions on what writing is - taking what is at the heart of what's inside us and externalising it, and is not - producing marketable books. Writing is the personal political personified, and that makes teaching another person to write a spinetinglingly exciting, important thing to do. and it can take many forms - even bringing your work to those who are unfamiliar with literature can be teaching - showing them "this can be for me".

In which spirit I'll leave you this link to Kate Tempest, the best poet writing today, performing Renegade. I was lucky enough to hear her headlining Hammer and Tongue earlier this week and she finished her set with this. I can't remember the last time a performance made me cry so much with inspiration and joy.

Linda Newbery said…
PS and yes, I expect most of us who do school visits have come across that sort of attitude from teachers. In my case, because I used to teach English myself, there's sometimes an implication that I've somehow cheated the system by escaping.

But that teacher you met was unusually rude and arrogant. Luckily, there are plenty of good and appreciative ones, to compensate.

However, I should be writing, not blogging.
Thanks for getting my day off to the right start, by making me smile and making me think! It always amazes me how many people who should know better think that all writers are on JKR's rates of pay. And it worries me that so many undergraduate creative writing courses (the postgrad Masters courses are better) seem to be sold to young people on the promise that they can 'make a living from writing.' But I love Dan's point that the really exciting bit is helping people to find a voice for what's inside them, even if it's never going to be marketable in the conventional sense.
I remember going to a wonderful event here in Ayrshire - poet Sheila Templeton had been working on a one-to-one basis, with a group of parents, and grandparents as a sort of writer in residence to a toddler group - the resulting poems about the children, mostly from people who had never written before, were moving, heartfelt, beautiful. One of the best set of readings I had ever experienced, and that includes professional poets and writers!
Once I get into it, I always find that I love interacting with people - especially on a one-to-one basis - and essentially trying to free them to play with words and ideas - I find myself saying that all the time -'just play about with it.' Sadly, and especially in a university setting, the rejoinder is often 'but we're not supposed to play. We have to get it right.' And that's sad.
Dan Holloway said…
So true, Catherine. Funnily enough I'm currently writing my usual year-end blog post and it's just caleld "play". I don't think anyone's writing ever got worse by playing more. Not playing closes off the possibilitythat you may find something you enjoy even more, or are even better at. Like when the police stop looking for suspects because they have one that fits the bill. Only when the police do that they get strung up in the appeals court, but like you say too often when writers behave like it, it gets called "being professional". Funny old world.
Jan Needle said…
thanks everyone for your thoughts. it was hard to write and still a tad confused. dan's obviously a more optimistic person than i am, and probably a nicer one. but excitement's never lighted on my shoulders in a writer group. i've been pleased and delighted sometimes, but it's usually been offset by the worrying necessity of constructive comment, which can take the gilt off the gingerbread. occasionally one is able to say 'that's fantastic, unimproveable,'but it remains a hard job and my worry still lurks. i was writer in residence at a school in yorkshire for two years once, and had a terrific time. productive too, i thought. most of the teachers absolutely hated me.

note to dennis (in case he doesn't go back to read added comments on his piece.) dennis, go back to your piece. i've added a comment! RLS rules OK.
Linda Gillard said…
One of the reasons I feel uncomfortable "teaching" writing is, I sometimes think the complexity and originality of what I read could be a hindrance to publication. The narrative predictability and stereotypical characterisation that I would attempt to weed out of a manuscript in workshop conditions is the very bread & butter of commercial adult fiction. I find myself instructing students to find their own voice, knowing that editors are actively looking for the next Dan Brown, Lee Child or Katie Fforde.

Call me cynical/jaded/disppointed/negative if you will, but I see teaching writing as something wholly divorced from publishing. (And maybe it should be!) When presented with an excellent but much-rejected ms and a student's request to explain where s/he's gone wrong, I've been known to say (and it's meant to be encouraging), "Do bear in mind, your novel might be too good to find a publisher."
Dan Holloway said…
Jan, people have suggested I change my name to Pollyanna or Pangloss :D I think my ridiculous optimism comes from a mix of kicking off against the Protestant parts of a theology degree, a hopeless desire for some kind of communist-anarchist worldview to be right, and the kind of bipolar that means when I'm up I want to hug everyone and when I'm down I need to hug everyone because otherwise I'd be too terrified to leave the house. All mixed in with too much Derrida at college that has left me seeing a Rationalist progress of the spirit as some kind of inherent counterweight to entropy.

To see the full weight of my bonkersly idealistic mindset at work, here's a piece I wrote as part of Guy Gonzalez' (of Digital Book World) #digitaldivide series two and a half years ago http://agnieszkasshoes.blogspot.com/2009/08/from-pitch-to-perpetuationof-privilege.html

I should add that I spent 6 years teaching, albeit at a retake college not a regular school, and ended up more not less optmistic. Call me Polly :)
Jan Needle said…
i've got nothing against pollyannas, dan, altho i never drove a derrida - a lambretta 125 was the height of my post modernism. (and boy, was the lambretta 125 post modern. not far post stone age, actually) similarly, re pangloss, i never was much interested in gardening, and i never had to struggle with the belief thing, as both my parents were passionate atheists.

that there are happy experiences to be had as a writing 'teacher' i have no problem with at all, though. an ex CID man who was in one of my 'classes' has just put his first novel up on kindle, and it's an eye-opener. it's completely unlike any detective book i've ever read (i'm a constant reader of them) and it absolutely reeks authenticity. i couldn't persuade him to slow down and try the usual weary publication channels, however, so even enthusiasm can be dangerous - i fear the ebook technicals may be a bit ragged. do try it though (only about £1). it's called No Place for Dinosaurs, by John Morrison.
Dan Holloway said…
Wow, love the look of that! I'd be happy to push him the way of some of the more visible places in the online crime fiction world in the New Year.
Jan Needle said…
that would be really useful, dan, thanks. i'll get back to you.
Peter Willis said…
God what a fast-moving thread. Thanbks to Julia for facebooking it, and Jan, how wise and realistic. I only know one way of making a living from writing, which is what I do - get paid for turning up and writing what's needed. Remarkably satisfying and pleasurable to the compulsive wordsmith, and always a privilege, greater or lesser depending on your level of interest in what's needed. Though I have to admit it stifles the creative wellsprings, if any. Discuss...

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