There’s nothing new under the sun, the cliché goes, and this is rarely more evident than when someone publishes a think-piece on trying to earn a living as some sort of creative. This Guardian article from last Thursday prompted much discussion on Writer Twitter, but what was interesting and frankly disappointing was the amount of successful authors who took a rather sniffy ‘if you want it badly enough, you’ll find a way’ tone in their reactions to it. A number of people whose work has graced bestseller lists could be found saying things like: ‘I wrote my first three books while working two day-jobs’ and ‘I’ve been lucky, yes, but so can anyone else’ and honestly, that the optics of those comments didn’t seem to dawn on any of these clever, well-read, imaginative people is fairly astonishing.
The message of this piece is not the ‘reveal’ in the headline – of course it’s not a secret that it’s difficult to make a living in the creative industries, it’s a blue-in-the-face fact. The message is: established, ‘successful’ writers should be more transparent about what they earn and how they earn it. It’s the single biggest thing they could do to help less established writers. For now at least, the onus should be on authors who at least appear to be doing well financially, and who have a platform, to open up about money. To talk about the dull copywriting gigs that ensure the rent/mortgage gets paid, the non-writing work that has kept them afloat. The overdraft, the loans, the debt. The partner with the steady, well-remunerated job. The inheritance, perhaps, or the family support.
If you know it looks like your writing is earning you a comfortable living, and you’re serious about supporting other writers, I think you have a duty to be honest about what it takes. I’m no idiot, but I’ve been caught out – following writers I admire on social media, I’ve found myself marvelling at lifestyles that look luxurious, only to notice a tweet or blog post weeks later mentioning credit card debt, or parental help, or permanent residence in an overdraft. I can’t say I relish the idea of forcing people to talk about money, and when it comes to female writers in particular, wanting them to spill even more of their private lives feels a bit prurient, to be honest. But we either want to address inequality in the creative industries or we don’t. And staying silent about the bitter practicalities of trying to make writing pay simply makes those who are not yet established in their careers wonder what they’re doing wrong.
I appreciate that it’s easy to forget, once you reach a reasonably comfortable place in your career, how it felt to struggle, how it was to count every pound and fight for every half-hour of peace and quiet. As human beings, we’re good at acclimatising to new situations quickly. And of course, success should be celebrated – in the writing world, it’s hard-won! Revel in it! But it’s so easy to say, once you yourself don’t have to do it anymore, things like: ‘write in your lunch break. Write on your commute. Write at weekends’. And it’s not bad advice, not at all, it’s just a bit patronising. Because anyone who wants to ‘make it’ as a writer is already doing that. But it’s not enough; there is never enough time if you’re trying to do it alongside a full-time job and your other commitments.
I don’t think it’s a stretch to say it’s often harder for women to find this time – we still do more of the domestic work, the care work, the work of ‘making things nice’. Even our friendships require more work – actual research has borne this out. Women generally have more demands on their time and mental energy, and are judged more harshly when they don’t meet those demands. The male artist who forsakes family responsibilities and social obligations is an image carved deep into our collective psyche; when we stop looking askance at female artists who do the same, it’ll be progress of some sort.
I write this from a position of relative privilege, but the point is: if I, a single middle-class white woman with a steady income and her own space to write in, still find it hard, then there are thousands of writers with far more obstacles in their way than I have. And in a way, it’s hard because I’m a single woman with a full-time job. Money is only half the story; the main issue is time. And money can buy you time.
So to see well-known writers say things like ‘if you really want to tell your story, you find a way’ makes one do a bit of a double-take. Because it completely ignores some very pertinent questions. How do you tell that story that’s burning a hole in your brain if you have caring responsibilities you simply cannot outsource? How do you tell that story if you have a chronic health condition? If you’re a single parent? If you’re supporting yourself on a God-awful wage and have no back-up? Sure, you might get it done, but it will take longer, and it will be harder, and you are more likely to feel discouraged and give up because people can only do so much. And you’ll look to your heroes for inspiration, and what you’ll see is simply ‘have you tried sacrificing more?’
What do you give up when you don’t have money and most of your hours are already accounted for? Sleep, I guess. And lots of writers do stay up late or get up an hour earlier to write before work. But that can have an impact on your health, and very few people do their best work when they’re exhausted. And to write well, you also have to read, take in culture, live a little. To ask a tired, frazzled mind to knock out a few hundred words every day is a big ask; ‘write on your commute’ works in theory but rarely in practice.
If you’re succeeding in an oversubscribed, strangely undervalued and deeply unequal space like the arts, you deserve to enjoy that success. Embrace it; it’s your talent that got you there. But it wasn’t just your talent; nobody thinks the creative industries are purely meritocratic. So pay it forward: start talking about money, and what it costs to make it.