Monday, 15 June 2009

Pen Money

Last week I saw the Richard Long exhibition at Tate Britain. I love his rhythmic, organic abstracts that suggest simultaneously a cornfield, blood patterns when sun shines through closed eyelids, heavy rain on a window as seen by a child driven by boredom to observe. But the photographs of his walks-as-art got me laughing aloud. Not at him, but at his audacity. How does he find the guts to live precisely as he chooses – walking then photographing his tracks, spooning up tidal mud and stroking it onto walls with his fingers - and make a robust living from doing just that? Suppose we all followed our desires without doubt, guilt or compromise, would we experience the success and joy Long has found? Or do we need that anchor in the ordinary that we think we resent?

I’ve promised my agent a draft of the WIP by August. But June and July are filled with workshops and weddings. I teach and waitress to survive. So when does the book get written? Should I, like Long, jack all but the writing?

No, because this tension feels healthy. The book would come no quicker if I had millions and minions, despite fantasies that it would. Working and writing are essential companions. Years ago I got to know the writer Magnus Mills, who frequented a bookshop where I worked. He came to fame as the bus driver who earned £100k advance for his first, Booker and Whitbread nominated, novel. (Divide that by ten and you’re nearer the mark, since writing and earning is the crux here.) He was, of course, a writer all along, who drove buses to earn a crust, but his urge to write was inextricable from his urge to work. He called full-time writing, ‘being unemployed,’ and said it left him not only with nothing to say but no means of expression. The rhythm of the working day informs the rhythm of his prose. Think of Khaled Hosseini rising at five to write literary bestsellers before his shift as a hospital doctor. Could Eliot have written the ‘unreal city’ stanza of The Wasteland if he hadn’t commuted daily? Who but Larkin the librarian could articulate so movingly that the unlived life is worth examining?

It’s invigorating to recognise that our writing isn’t crippled by having to share its time with waged work. Every time I resent my waitressing uniform I remember a long shift in a tiny cooking galley last Christmas, so hot that we opened the skylight and took turns to stand under the shaft of snow falling into the kitchen, as steam rose from simmering vats of sixty lamb shanks. We drove home in the small hours, leaving the guests snowed in at an endless party. The A3 had become a thick meadow and the windscreen was white, filling our vision. We drove into oblivion. It felt like space flight. This is now the spine of a new story. Work feeds writing; writing elevates work. They’re a brilliant team if we let them nurture each other.

30 comments:

dan powell said...

An interesting and liberating way to look at the work/writing conflict. I often complain I don't have enough time to write due to other, more mundane, duties. I think I'll try your more positive approach this week and see if that improves my mood and my writing.

Julie P said...

Some of us are unable to work outside the home for whatever reason: children, illness, disability etc and so have little choice in the matter. I don't find it difficult to find things to wrote about and would argue that yes, although working in a paid job can fuel the imagination you can get along fine without it.

There's voluntary work of course, but just sitting in the garden ear wigging on the neighbours provides good fodder I find!

In this age of modern technology you have the Internet to browse for info. Then there are the old faithfuls like magazines to read, TV,DVD, Cinema, going to the supermarket. Thinking back to events that have happened in your life is useful too. So I would say whether you work or not there is plenty to be written about and enjoyed.

Julie xx

Susannah Rickards said...

Julie

I'm not suggesting without work people have nothing to say (I strongly believe the opposite) just that if you have to work anyway, to earn a living, then it can be, as Dan says, liberating to use it as inspiration and a source of energy rather than a drain.

Samantha Tonge said...

I admire anyone who works and tries to fit in writing at the same time, and this is certainly an inspiring take on it.

Susie Nott-Bower said...

What an uplifting post, Susannah - thank you! I really agree with the 'tension' you talk about. And I also think it's really good for us as writers to have some engagement with the so-called 'real' world. As someone who has lived and worked alone for many years, I can't tell you how grateful I've been for a small part-time job in a gallery. Not just for the money, but because it gives my life balance and perspective which I can easily lose otherwise.

CarolineG said...

Great post, Susannah. I think writing is such a solitary endeavour that engaging with the outside world can not only keep you sane, but be a rich source of material.

Gillian McDade said...

I have exactly this problem. My day job, in which I have to deal with the hard facts, including murders and people being killed on the roads, does impact upon writing time (and thinking time!) It's hard to suddenly switch from writing nineteen to the dozen, to a more laid back approach in the evening. However, on a positive note, journalism provides plenty of material ;)

Fionnuala Kearney said...

Great post Susannah. I loved the earlier point about the freedom of the artist to do whatever the hell he wanted - and get away with it. Sometimes we're all too confined by rules.
I admire anyone who writes and holds down a job. I know when I worked full time, writing was only ever a dream for me whilst work, homelife kids etc were all being balanced in the background. In fact I left a career position about ten years ago telling people I was going to write a novel. It took eight more years for the first one to materialise!

Jeannette said...

This post really strikes home.... I complain about the crust-earning sometimes but I know that I like the boundary it creates, and the stimulation it provides. I'd like to be paid a wee bit more and work a wee bit less, but OK, I'm working on it. Whenever I have to list performance goals at work, I list *that* in the back of my mind.

Susannah Rickards said...

Fionnuala,
I have to confess to being deeply envious of Richard Long, not for his success, but for his wholehearted attitude to his work, which seems, to me, to stem from the kind of confidence most of us can't even dream of possessing.

If I had a desire to walk and then take photos of the tracks my feet made, I'd stamp it down with thoughts like 'how self-indulgent,' and 'people will think that's pretentious'. He didn't. He strikes me as a very very happy man.

Caroline R said...

Great post, and very timely for me as I'll be going back to work part time soon and have been wondering how I'll fit everything in. I think, however, that the job will force me to appreciate my writing time a bit more and to use it more productively.

Olivia Ryan said...

I've been on both sides of the fence here - a working writer, and now a full-time writer, and to be honest I think you have all got it right. Why? Because as long as you see the positives in your situation, whether you've got a day job or not, your writing won't suffer as a consequence. It's only when people give in to feelings of negativity and make excuses to themselves(either: 'I'm so busy/so tired, I can't do any writing', or 'I'm so bored/ so lonely, I can't get motivated') that they'll have problems . If you're a 'Real' writer, with or without a day job, you just get on with it and write!

Geraldine Ryan said...

Lovely literary post, Susannah! I don't work outside the home now, but I am a - *gasp *- housewife. In that I do all the cleaning and cooking myself and don't have a cleaner or a husband who is a new man.

I often moan about my lot. If I didn't have to do the shopping/make dinner/unload the washer etc then I'd have far more time to write. But actually, it's doing the daily chores that help make my brain tick over and I often manage to untie a knotty plot problem when I'm ironing, or hone a dialogue while I'm running the hoover round. I often wonder how you can write about the domestic - which I do - if you don't actually involve yourself in it.

sarah fox said...

A beautifully written and thought provoking article. Thanks for that Susannah - really enjoyed it and loved the image of the snow at the end.

Lydia said...

I think it's just really important to see the positive in whatever your situation is. What works for one person, doesn't work for another. I used to have a stressful part time job, but still managed to write, although not as much as I'd have liked. I now have more time and less stressful part time work, but for me, involvement in the "real world" feeds my writing. Completely agree with the idea of not being able to write about domesticity if you're not involved in it, Geri.

Roderic Vincent said...

Susannah,

Why can't I be you? Not only do you write beautifully, you are incredibly thoughtful to others, and you have a wonderfully positive attitude to the dull routine.

Personally, I constantly recite, why should I let the toad work squat on my life?

Susannah Rickards said...

Lol. You are welcome to be me Rod. Let's do a swap. Please turn up at my house at 5.30 am and entertain my twin boys for three hours before school and I'll sneak to the empty office you mentioned and write in it. Heh heh.

The toad work inspired Larkin - and Eliot - however much they whined about it. Toady bits of life are the stuff of literature. You don't want to go making yerself too happy and comfortable. It kills the urge, mate!

Geraldine Ryan said...

I think it's because writers of drama and novels often "only" write that there are rarely any exciting novels/dramas about the workplace. Thus we have a plethora of novels on the family and relationships within the home and loads of dramas about the police and hospitals and schools, which everyone can imagine, but very little drama/novels set in, say, manufacturing engineering.

Rosy T said...

Fascinating post!

I'm sure I could write o faster if I didn't have a day job. As it is, I do an hour and a half a day, before 7am. I can write anything between 500 words and maybe 1200 on a good day. But by then I have usually got to the end of the part my imagination was hatching. Then I go out and do job stuff, which stimulates the intellectual part of my brain, keeps it limber - as well as mm stuff to keep me human. All that time, the story is brewing - so by the next morning when I get up, there's another bit formed in my subconscious and ready to write.

If I had to sit down at a screen all day and write, I just couldn't do it.

Rosy T said...

Can't type though! That was meant to say 'no faster'.

Roderic Vincent said...

Geri, you make a good point there. As well as the things you mention, writers write incessantly about writers. It narks me that so many novels are set in an insular literary world, and that the writerly life is all they know about. Even when McEwan was feted for researching a "real job" for Saturday, when he made the protagonist a brain surgeon (typical ordinary job), the guy's father-in-law was a poet.

But having done my time in the corporate prison, I want to write about it now, all the time. Wouldn't you be faster, Rosy, if you had more time at the revision stage?

And why do I always find myself commenting on dead threads, long after everyone else has moved on? A Strictly Writing post is like a mayfly.

Olivia Ryan said...

As this debate is still going on, and probably always will (!), can I be very cheeky and mention that I've written a feature about it ('Giving Up the Day Job') for the July issue of 'Writers' Forum' (out later this month) - with comments from Katie Fforde, Judy Astley, Christina Jones and Fenella Jane Miller - examining the pros and cons of being a part-time writer who goes out to work, or a full-time writer, together with some tips for those contemplating ditching the day job.

Of course, nobody actually writes full-time - do they??? All that happens is, if for whatever reason (rarely because writing has provided us with a decent income) we decide to give up the day job, we replace it with other activities. The fact that these may be things like looking after babies, looking after a disabled or elderly relative or partner, or indeed looking after oneself, if health issues have forced an early retirement - is the reason why there should be some caution when criticising writers who are working from home. The decision to do so has often been forced on us.

But quite apart from health/family/age issues, writers who no longer go out to work also spend time doing voluntary work, engaging in sports and hobbies, meeting people in all sorts of other situations - perhaps giving talks or lecturing (if they're successful enough writers!) - so the idea of somebody sitting at a desk all day every day, seeing nobody and having no inspiration outside their four walls is really very erroneous. Believe me, I was a full-time worker/writer for many years, and I know the disadvantages of both situations very well - I do miss my day job in lots of ways, not least financial - but I love the freedom and flexibility of my current situation and would not swap it for the world! It's not necessary to have a 'Real Job' to be a real writer. But I suspect a lot of those who need to go out to work feel a mixture of envy and resentment towards those who don't - I know I used to!

As someone else has said, we're all different and we don't need to live in any particular way to validate ourselves as writers. We just need to write.

Susannah Rickards said...

Olivia your last post has puzzled me. Nowhere did I criticise people who stay home to write. Where do you get that from? Nor am I saying this is the only way. I'm just pointing out that it is possible to do both, and trying to expel the myth that if you have a job you don't have time to write. If you stay home all day and do other stuff, of course that feeds writing (as well as having two jobs, I have several voluntary jobs and two small kids and housework - I know that the voluntary work is often more challenging physically and intellectually than the paid work.)

No where did my post criticise people who give up their work to write - so please don't read that into it. I am not, never have been and never will be interested in judging others for the choices they make in how they live.

Olivia Ryan said...

Susannah - I'm SO sorry! I really didn't mean to imply that YOU criticised anyone at all. I absolutely apologise for the fact that my post must have read like that. I only meant that I've often heard the suggestion made (elsewhere) that it's not easy to be a good writer if you work from home, not having any external stimulus from a job - and was trying to make the point that people leave their jobs for lots of different reasons and might have to find their own ways of getting that stimulus. 'Criticism' was a bad choice of word, and I really, really didn't mean to imply that you, or anyone else who has commented here, has been judging anyone. I was trying to look at things from both sides, and obviously not making a very good job of it! - so once again, I can only hold up my hands and apologise for sounding so crass. I'll shut up now .....

Susannah Rickards said...

Oh blimey, sorry! I felt super-charged to justify myself because I've had heated debates before about the worthiness of writing about domestic life (I think there is little more worthy to explore - what better to get to know well than the lives we live? And I really didn't want to come over as one of those people who think you have nothing to say unless you write about war or some similarly sombre topic, when I very passionately feel the opposite.

My apologies Olivia. I'm a bit jumpy at the moment, waiting to hear back from a publisher and starting to think what looked promising some time ago is going pear shaped. Sorry if I stropped.

Olivia Ryan said...

Not at all, I deserved the rebuke. xx We all get heated about stuff we feel passionately about, don't we, and I sympathise with you 100% about your wait to hear back from the publisher. It's such a nerve-wracking process - I really, really hope you have some good news soon. :)

Samantha Tonge said...

That sounds like a fascinating article, Olivia - and how did you get comments from Katie Fforde!

Writers are just as individual as any other type of person and we all have different desires and needs and make the best of our situation, prioritising the important things in our life accordingly.

That's the wonderful thing about writing - it is so flexible.

Olivia Ryan said...

Ah - Samantha, yes, I should have said! All the writers who kindly contributed to my article are members, like me, of the Romantic Novelists Association - a fantastically supportive organisation! They all agreed to give some quotes and will get a nice plug for their own books in return.

Samantha Tonge said...

Ah yes - i joined briefly under the New Writers's scheme so that i could get a report done on a manuscript.

Derek Thompson said...

An interesting perspective. I checked out a review of the Tate exhibiton online and what struck me is how the visual arts (including modern art) are seen as more freeform than writing. And, it appears, more successful at receiving patronage. We may well want to liberate ourselves on the page but I think publishing is much more corporate, constrained and driven by market forces than the art world. Maybe we need a version of the Turner prize?! Great comments throughout, everyone.