Don't give up the day job! Sherry Ashworth

My favourite university tutor was a very talented poet, and passionate about writing both as a practitioner and a critic.  She taught me a great deal about the power of the written word.  She also once said to me – never write for a living.  Never sell your work.  And she remained true to her word.  Her poems were published, but only by a group of her friends and admirers, who paid for a subscription run.  Writing poetry was always something she did for love, not for money.

Of course poets in the main don’t make a lot of money, even when their work does well.  I’m not a poet, though I consort with many, and therefore I know this to be true.  Poets are very likely to have a day job and finance their love of writing through working nine till five.  Some writers like days jobs closely connected with writing, such as teaching writing; others appreciate the creative freedom of having a job entirely unconnected with literature, composing haikus while shelf-stacking.

But it’s different for novelists.  We do seem to have the expectation of making some money from doing what we love.  Hell, why shouldn’t we?  A novel takes a very long time to write – it’s not like knitting a scarf, more like building a house.  Or rather, building a house, discovering halfway through the staircase is in the wrong place, destroying half of it, then rebuilding, having some surveyors in to look around, and they point out all sorts of extra work that needs doing, and then when it’s ready to go on the market, no one’s interested because times are hard etcetera etcetera.

Writing a novel is wonderful but also VERY hard work.  Don’t we deserve a fair wage?  Besides, what we produce is enjoyed by our consumers.  I am VERY happy to pay to read a novel because I get so much pleasure from it.  A really good novel – one I read over and over again – is truly priceless.  If a person is prepared to pay for a meal out in a swish restaurant, for a holiday, for a night at the theatre, then a person ought to pay for reading a novel, either on paper or on a Kindle.  And then surely the writer who provides the words should reap some profit?

And yet.  Part of me does understand what my tutor really meant about not selling your work.  The moment you make that decision – to approach the marketplace – you are asking the world to place a value on something that to you is beyond price.  And if your sense of self is not secure, you will begin to see your work reflected back at you by others who don’t care about you.  You will begin to think less of yourself as a writer.  We’ve all had novels which are loved by enterprising editors but then are turned down by the suits who really don’t see how they can turn in a profit with them.  You are a failure because your work won’t sell.  Or rather, you are a failure because a notional number of readers won’t be tempted to read your book.  But you don’t see that – you just think – my book’s been rejected – again!

There’s also a danger for the writer who gets preoccupied with sales.  That constant checking of figures, reading the trade press for trends, getting eaten up with envy over the six figure advances of inferior writers, feeling there’s some sort of trick you’ve missed – all of this is toxic to the creative process.  It eats in to the safe space we all need if we are to do our best work.  We need money in order to write, but a preoccupation with money can destroy a writer.

It’s another of those paradoxes, isn’t it?  To be a writer, you’ve got to be porously sensitive, but have skin as tough as a rhinoceros when those reviews come in.  To be a writer, you’ve got to forget about your audience while remembering them.  To write a good novel, you’ve got to stay close to the truth while taking liberties with it.  To make a living as a writer, you’ve got not to care about making a living.


Dan Holloway said…
Very perceptive about the porous sensitivity - the moment we stop being sensitive to every part of the world our writing will die. The moment we start, we become completely vulnerable.

I have to say, I'm with your tutor almost all the way. Of course I'd like a wage from writing, but the moment I start thinking about what will sell I lose sight of my artistic goals, and they must always come first, even if that means not ever having a paying, or even a non-paying, reader.

As for novelists and poets...
With a foot in both camps, starting out as mainly a novelist and ending up as mainly a poet though always retaining a bit of both, I would concur that poets don't tend to expect to make any money whilst novelists do. I would also say that I have come far closer to a steady trickle as a poet than as a novelist - the opportunities for paid performances seem to be greater if that's the kind of poetry you write. I do think that any expectation on behalf of others that one be paid more than the other is something I'm uncomfortable with and I would campaign vigorously to overcome. Likewise (and from experience as I try to put together my first ever solo poetry show) the idea that writing a novel is somehow harder or requiring of more effort/research than writing a collection of poetry.
Absolutely spot on post. And I think it's a dilemma for all of us. There's been a lot of talk up here about various literary writers in particular not making enough to live on. Mind you, £15000 was the figure quoted, and I reckon that's not a bad income from literary novels! I've found that whenever I've taught creative writing, I have written hardly anything of my own. I think it just uses up so much creative energy. And I also spent a long time being distracted by plays, from which I earned a decent living for a number of years, especially radio plays - but again, the creative energy that takes meant that I didn't do much else. Certainly not long fiction, which seems to demand a kind of total immersion. My best ever 'day job' was probably an RLF Fellowship - working with students but NOT on creative writing - and leaving a good half the week free to concentrate on fiction, knowing that some money was coming in on time. The trouble with other CW residencies is that they tend to expand to fill the time available and you finish up working all week for half a week's salary. The RLF, by contrast, were always telling their writers that they must only do what they were contracted to do, because they had to get on with their own writing. This was not only refreshing, but it was unusual! From this end of things, I think I would advise any younger writer to go for a day job or even a part time day job, (preferably with a pension) but definitely not one that involved teaching. Preferably one that encouraged some knowledge of business. (Something that writers seem to lack.) Possibly self employment, but in another line of business altogether.
Kathleen Jones said…
This is just so true Sherry! Thank you for saying it. I could never manage to write while tutoring creative writing, but - like Catherine - found the RLF posts wonderfully nurturing. Unfortunately they're rationed.

I love the house analogy!

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