Friday, 16 January 2015

The Writing Life by Anne Stormont

It's hard work, often poorly paid, but what's not to like?

Like many professions, the job of writer is prone to stereotyping by those who don't do it.

From the notion of the starving, suffering artist in the garret wringing out cerebral literary novels to the sensitive delicate soul on the chaise longue spinning poetic ethereal romances; from the hard-drinking, drug-taking brute who produces perfect incisive prose to the multi-millionaire genre bestseller and possessor of blockbuster film rights––all have contributed to readers' perceptions of what it is to be a writer.

As with many stereotypical ideas, there are elements of truth in them. But they're not the whole story. The writing life is more real, rigorous and rewarding than the above would suggest. And it's way more prosaic than such poetic clich├ęs.

It's true that many (most?) writers whilst not starving, are certainly not rich. According to an article in The Bookseller, the annual average earned by authors in 2013 was just £11,000. The majority of writers need other sources of income besides their writing. Some will do writing-related jobs such as writer-in-residence, or teaching on writing courses. They may write for newspapers, magazines and websites or work as editors, proofreaders, or book designers. However, they may do jobs that are unrelated to writing. Especially, but not exclusively, in the early stages of a writing career, authors are likely to be earning their living as doctors, academics, lawyers, teachers, gardeners or office workers (These are just ones I know of, the possibilities are endless).

Writers with day jobs are not just a modern phenomenon either. Some of the best-known authors in history maintained another career alongside their writing. They include: Sir Walter Scott who worked as an advocate (equivalent to an English barrister) and judge, Robert Burns who was a farmer then tax collector, T.S. Eliot who worked as a banker, Trollope who worked in the Post Office and Dickens who was a journalist. Working at other things certainly didn't harm their writing.

Level of earnings aside, it could be argued that having another job is a good thing for a writer. It keeps the author engaged with the real world. It provides experiences––good and bad–– that can fill up the creative well. Having the mind focus on other things also allows the sub-conscious to work away on ideas in the background.

But the writing life for any author––with or without a day job–– is not just a case of sitting at a desk typing or scribbling in a garret, shed or study, or indeed lying on a chaise longue musing. An eight hour (or more) working day is possible, but it's unlikely the time will be spent exclusively on writing creatively. Even if it were possible, it's probably unrealistic and undesirable as the writerly brain would most likely explode. No, there are other tasks apart from making new books that the writer must attend to. Just as in most jobs, there is of course paperwork to attend to––accounts to be done and lecture/public-speaking notes to be written. There could also be websites and promotions to develop, book-signings to be carried out, research to be conducted, interviews to give and magazine and newspaper features to write or contribute to.

However, having said all of the above, the writing life––and I'm speaking personally now––is a good life. Until recently I had a day job, working full time as a primary school teacher, which I combined with doing my writing. Then, in August last year, I took early retirement. One of the main reasons I did so was to give myself more time and energy to write. Ironically, I do have to be more disciplined about turning up for work. Not having to go to school lulls me into feeling I've plenty of time and procrastination is easy. Having only limited time to write pre-retirement definitely helped me focus.

But I'm getting into a productive rhythm and I think I have a good writing life/retirement life balance.

The act of writing creatively––and by extension––the writing life–– is a process not an event. It has its own rhythms and cycles, it requires planning and evaluation, and these are characteristics I enjoy. It's also a life that requires constant learning and inquiry. It needs a willingness to take risks, to make intuitive leaps, to push boundaries––again these are all things I thrive on.

It's a process that, when it's working well, is magical, thrilling and rewarding. Hours can pass unnoticed, the room go dark and the husband go hungry as the words flow. It's that wonderful, therapeutic thing of being taken out of yourself. Indeed, sometimes if interrupted mid-process, it can take me some moments to come out of character and back into the real world.

When it's working, my writing life is just great. I earn practically nothing, certainly less than it costs to make a book, but to create something real is its own reward. Even if nobody read what I wrote, I'd still do it. Because I have to do it. It keeps me sane and it feeds my soul.

But to hear someone has enjoyed and connected with my stories is the metaphorical icing. To have a book group discuss my characters as if they actually exist is goose-pimplingly surreal, and to have a reader approach me in the supermarket to tell me how much they enjoyed my book is sublime.

When it comes to my writing life at least––what's not to like?


Anne Stormont is an author-publisher. She can be a subversive old bat but maintains a kind heart. As well as writing for this fine organ, she writes fiction for adults – mainly of the female-of-a-certain-age persuasion – and for children. She blogs at http://putitinwriting.me  – where you can find out lots more about her.  

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