Sometimes it seems like I spend more time listening to people talking about writing than doing any writing. OK, full disclosure, over the past two months, I definitely have spent more time listening to people talking about writing than doing any writing.
One of the podcasts I’ve found along the way is The Petal to the Metal. Two writers who have left their day jobs to follow their dream job (being a writer) discuss the challenges and ramifications of what they’ve given up and what they achieve as a result.
It’s a great insight into the life of a ‘working writer’ – their term. They make a reasonable income from a strong following in their respective genres, and supplement that with editing, teaching, podcasting and Patreon. They call that the ‘side hustle’. It’s the reality most writers surely aspire to if they have to accept that their first manuscript isn’t after all going to make them a fortune as a bestseller.
The universally accepted truth as I listen is that if a writer decides they can make the leap from day job to dream job, then they have to plan for that side hustle first, to keep the rent paid and the food on the table.
And there I was, earlier this year, learning loads from the podcast, but at the same time a little disconnected, because I had taken on a day job I didn’t need, and which was making life much more complicated, because I had wanted to scratch an itch about missing teaching.
At that time I was encountering something of a paradox in the expectations of those around me. On the podcast, in the writing world in general, quitting the day job was something to celebrate, a moment of liberation.
Meanwhile, in the expat spouse world, some friends who hadn’t been aware I was working were congratulating me that I had a day job, some even jealous that I had the opportunity to do so. This was the dream of the expat spouse, apparently.* Did my working life have more value with an externally defined role, and a salary – even though I didn’t need it?
No – more unique and more valuable for me was this not-indefinite opportunity to have no job. So the part-time job was short-lived.
So no job = I can dream job, no side hustle!
I also tend to read a lot more about writing sometimes than actually doing the writing. Most weeks I read the ‘My Working Day’ column in the Saturday Guardian, in which writers (or sometimes illustrators or artists) give an account of the process of their typical day. Most of the writers describe a pattern of several hours of procrastination followed by a burst of writing. They potter about their study or their shed, berating themselves for not working, until the urgency of the day’s impending end forces them to create. These are the writers you have heard of, so very few of them have any sort of ‘day job’ to contend with.
Every week I turn to this column and hope that I will be reading the words of a female parent. It never seems to happen. My favourite rueful moment was reading Hilary Mantel’s words:
‘…I go back to bed about six, hoping to sleep for another two hours and to wake slowly and in silence. Random noises, voices in other rooms, get me off to a savage, disorderly start…’
I’m glad she doesn’t have to contend with my sort of savage, disorderly start. We might not have Beyond Black or Wolf Hall in this world if she did.
I did a straw poll of the last 20 weeks’ columns, thinking I knew what I would be complaining about. Of the 20, 6 were women, 14 were men. Of those men, 4 made reference to childcare. (A couple of others mentioned grown-up children.)
Of the women, only two mentioned children: Shirley Hughes described collaborating with her grown-up daughter, and Sarah Hall, as it turns out, had written the piece I’ve been waiting for all this time, and I’d missed it till now.
She describes the challenge of fitting writing around single parenting, and says that amongst the familiar chaos there may be (whisper it):
‘…some writing, often no writing…’
And she raises the issue that,
‘… mothers who are writers often have very different experiences, work limitations and financial penalties, to fathers who are writers.’
Which reminded me of a passage in On Writing by Stephen King, which I’ve been slowly working my way through, savouring indeed, because it’s an encouraging, friendly companion that I’m sure I will forever have on the shelf beside my desk for reference. But this one passage did rankle, just a little:
‘The biggest aide to regular…production is working in a serene atmosphere. It’s difficult for even the most naturally productive writer to work in an environment where alarms and excursions are the rule rather than the exception. When I’m asked for ‘the secret of my success’…there are two: I stayed physically healthy…and I stayed married…The combination of a healthy body and a stable relationship with a self-reliant woman who takes zero shit from me or anyone else has made the continuity of my working life possible.’
Which makes me wonder whether Tabitha wouldn’t have quite liked to have had a serene atmosphere herself, the opportunity to close the door on her first drafts, if she only had a wife to be the gate-keeper of the alarms and excursions.
(Pause here for the school run.)
Having said all that I was very encouraged by Nick Laird (who I hadn’t heard of) and Hari Kunzru. Both are married to writers (Laird to Zadie Smith!) and mentioned that their working day involves taking turns with school runs or getting ready for a childminder while their partner writes.
(However the fact remains that of the 20 writers, only one was in the throes of motherhood, and indeed was previously established in her career. I’ll just leave that observation here.)
The most encouraging words for me though came from Raymond Tallis, whose writing career began while he was practising medicine, and who is now retired. He usually writes in public, because:
‘…The chastening presence of humanity beyond the computer screen is a constant reminder that the luxury of ‘the examined life’ is possible only for those who are not being examined too rigorously by life, or relentlessly interrupted by the needs of others …[for example] the parent whose consciousness is divided into 10-second epochs by a demanding toddler.’
It’s encouraging because someone understands the struggle, and also because it hammered home to me that I am in just that luxurious position. Thanks to a hard-working partner our family is not much challenged by life, not in the ways that matter anyway. And although domestic demands intrude regularly, my children are no longer toddlers, so I have countable hours when my consciousness is my own.
So I thought I was going to complain that for male parents it’s all very well to quit the day job when the dream job is still a day of undisturbed desk time because the other parent’s day job is still the parenting. It remains a truism, but I’m not going to dwell on it today.
Instead I’m going to dwell on the knowledge that I am living in relative creative luxury (for now, until the next school holidays) and do myself the favour of making the most of it.
But I’ll still need help with prioritising the writing in my day. Which is why I am beyond chuffed to say that I’ve been accepted onto the online version of Faber Academy’s Writing a Novel course. (Unless they come across the preceding incoherent rambling and change their mind.) Which not only offers top-notch teaching and access to the iconic publisher, but will also give me fortnightly deadlines and the expectation that I will produce many words over the next six months. I can allow myself to feel entitled to block out the other stuff when there’s a (rather expensive) deadline looming.
I won’t stop listening to people talking about writing though!
Including the following, if you’re interested:
The Petal to the Metal – on making the transition from day job to dream job.
How Do You Write? – interviews with writers about their process.
Rachael Stephen – youtuber who generously shares methodology
The Mom Writes Podcast – in timely fashion, I just came across this one – should be interesting!