Thursday, 24 October 2013

Work-write balance: the grass is always greener...

Surely I'd write more if I lived here?

Every week day, being of a naturally cantankerous disposition, I grizzle to myself on the way to work, counting through the writing projects I will not be able to pursue for the next eight hours while I earn money. I can easily extend the torture beyond the immediate need to be getting on with stories and research for my creative writing PhD. There are so many other things! That bird-cult novel I never finished, the second papercut book I want to make, the cycle of stories inspired by Lorca poems that isn’t even a cycle yet, consisting only of two...

I berate myself for choosing to work at a full time non-creative job, rather than compromising more for my art, and think of the writers I know who have found better ways, envying their courage, integrity, sheer creative productivity.

Except that we are all doing this. Here are some descriptions of real writers I know.

Writer number one has written novels around her day job, and so successful have they been, she has been able to stop working and write full time to complete novel number three. To me this sounds like heaven – all day to write! To her, the reduced pressure to just get on with it has meant she has struggled to write, spending many months revising plot and structure. She has productive days but gets angry with herself on days when she does not write anything. Writing full time is also lonely. She craves interaction, and suffers from that sense that her struggle is invisible.

Writer number two had novels published some years ago, and is now writing again, choosing to work part time to have just enough money for what he needs. To me this is brave and demonstrates integrity and self-belief as a writer; here is someone getting the time versus money balance right, sacrificing a bit but not too much in order to do what really matters. This writer doubts himself, thinks he should grow up and get a proper job, that this is no way to live as a grown-up in London. I suppose the risk weighs heavy on him – what if this does not pay off? The pressure to write a lot and well is immense.

Writer number three lives in the countryside and works from home as a freelance copywriter, spending as much of her spare time as possible writing short stories, and in literary conversation with her daughter who is applying to study English at university. To me this sounds both wonderful and sensible. Working from home cuts out all that travel time, you can stay in the creative zone, talk to someone who lives there about books. Furthermore, you get to practice writing even when you are doing your paid job! To her, writing all day for her work means it is very hard to then write again – and differently – in the evening. She would like more time to write but with freelance work it is risky to say no. Literature events in London are a journey away, and teenage daughters, however well-read and interesting, are time-consuming.

To a writer with a different set up, then, I may look lucky: I have pressure on me to write, including real deadlines, and quiet evenings in which to do so. My job is not creative so uses up none of the requisite juice, and provides enough to spend on writing courses, literary events, books. I have more ideas than I can use, rather than more time that I have to try to fill with ideas, which in a way is a nice problem to have.

It is one thing to figure out that a living cannot be made from writing literary fiction alone, but another to remain content with whatever compromise you reach in order to be able to keep writing. I’m aiming to teach, one day, to support my creative habit. In the meantime it is useful to remind myself as I clomp to the office that, whatever the writer’s situation, there are struggles involved, and the only thing to do is to keep at it. I won’t give up work, but neither will I give up the daydream of a hut in the forest, a bottomless jar of coffee and never-ending supply of coloured pens...

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