Writing Lives: Writers need time: here’s how to beg, borrow or steal it

Writers need time: here’s how to beg, borrow or steal it

Mia Gallagher

This article first appeared in The Irish Times on Friday 19 December 2016.

Mia Gallagher

After health, the greatest resource for any writer is time. It takes time not just to make work, but to chase up publication opportunities and promote your books once they’re out. Then you need more time to recover so you can start the process afresh. Where does this time come from? Like any resource, you can beg, borrow or steal it. Or, if you’re lucky, you can buy it.

Most writers are familiar with begging time, through social welfare, career-breaks, or material/emotional support from family. They often steal it, by working long hours into periods Other People reserve for eating, sleeping and playing. Borrowing time is also a familiar activity: if, the logic goes, I work x hours at y euro per hour doing Another Job – eg, teaching/ journalism/stacking shelves – I can borrow x to the power of n hours at 0 euro per hour to write.

In my own case, I work freelance. This allows me to juggle my borrowing. When I need to focus on my writing, I turn down Other Jobs. But turn too many down and things get tight. Turn down more and I invite the loss of clients, livelihood, even the roof over my head.

My preferred route, like most writers, is to buy time. The most obvious way to do this is through commercial success: advance royalties, royalties from sales and subsidiary rights (translation, movie, TV, audio, etc.) and paid readings. But you can also buy writing time through patronage: a grant of money and/or space by a state or private body. Like commercial success, patronage is earned on the basis of a writer’s writing – their track record or potential – not “lent” to you against your ability to do Other Jobs.

I started to think of myself as a professional practising artist in 1996. 20 years on, I haven’t yet reached commercial tipping point. My advances have been modest, and though I do public readings regularly, the fees range from €90-€300, so I’d need to be doing at least eight a month to make a salary. Most of the writing time I’ve bought has therefore been through patronage, and that mainly from the State. And let me say here, even with the caveat that our arts funding is tight, tighter still since the recession, how fortunate I am to live in a State that places at least some fiscal value on artistic practice. Since 1999, when I first applied for funding, I’ve been awarded numerous residencies, three playwriting commissions, four Arts Council bursaries for literature and many small grants.

It’s important to remember that the level of patronage can vary widely. Most of my writing residencies have been with communities (schools, prison, festivals). Here I conduct workshops and/or curate events; in return I’m paid a fee. The hourly rate is usually higher than college rates – implying some patronage in acknowledging my expertise – but the emphasis is never on writing my own work. It’s always about facilitating other people’s creativity. Through the beg/borrow/steal lens, it’s more like a loan at a sympathetic interest rate than an outright purchase.

In contrast, with university writing residencies, doing your own work is a built-in part of the contract. On top of that, you teach at least one weekly class and curate events. In return, over a six- or 12-month period, you’re paid a fee, usually in the low five-figures.

Mike McCormack, author of the award-winning Solar Bones, had a residency at NUI Galway from 2002-2005. During this period he wrote his second novel Notes from a Coma which, with its experimental footnotes and dark undertones, flagged him as an artist to look out for. Paid €20,000 a year (almost a Normal Person’s salary), his NUIG residency came with four hours’ teaching a week.

For Mike, the residency gave him a much-needed boost. “It came with an office which was a brilliant workspace. I enjoyed taking my work out of the bedroom, having a workplace outside my home, working with the students. I enjoyed the company of academics and found that conversations with them freshened up my own ideas. As for the money – it was such a relief to be able to look three years into the future and know that I would have an income. That took a really debilitating anxiety out of my life.”

With university residencies, it’s important to know exactly what’s expected of you. I did a joint residency with IADT and dlr Arts Office in 2009-10, and arts officer Kenneth Redmond was invaluable in helping me define my workload. We agreed a set of manageable goals on top of my writing: a weekly two-hour class, two days of one-to-one mentoring per semester, and five public events which I curated, organised and hosted. This was patronage with very light strings attached: call it an excellent hire-purchase deal. By the end of the residency, a draft of my second novel was ready to send to publishers.

Like Mike, I can’t underplay the financial benefits. I was paid €16,000 in the first year (courtesy of the recession, a 20 per cent drop from the €20,000 available to Mike), followed by €5,000 for a semester-long extension. I still had to take on Other Jobs but – even as sole earner with my husband doing a full-time degree – it had been nearly 15 years since I’d felt so financially secure.

Another type of patronage-residency is the funded retreat. Here you’re offered space away from home for a limited period. If the retreat is funded (and not all are, so do your research), accommodation and (sometimes) food is provided free. Sometimes you’re paid a stipend on top; sometimes travel is included. I’ve been on two retreats like this – one in 2015, at the Centre Culturel Irlandais in Paris, the other in 2008, at Blue Mountain Center in upstate New York. There’s something about the limited timeframe of a retreat that makes it very precious; it focuses your attention, leading to often surprising breakthroughs. At BMC, I cracked a stubborn strand of my second novel; in Paris, I completed a very rough draft of what might be my third book.

During her 2009 residency at the CCI, Lia Mills had a similar experience with her novel Fallen (2016’s Two Cities One Book). “The residency was hugely important. It turned my thinking about the novel inside out. [\When] I arrived in Paris, there were signs of commemoration of the liberation of Paris in 1944 everywhere. It made me conscious of our lack of engagement with 20th century wars in Ireland – for the first time I began to ask questions about the war that had been the backdrop to the Rising. I had never intended to write about it, but now I found myself obsessed. Maybe I needed to get out of Ireland to be able to change my perspective on the story I thought I knew.”

Lia also stresses the importance of artistic exchange. In CCI, she met Belfast artist Gail Ritchie and shared “many long conversations about military conflict and historical amnesia. These chance encounters with other writers and artists from other disciplines can be incredibly stretching, enriching and inspirational.”

Among the most direct sources of patronage are money grants, like the Arts Council literature bursary awards. The stated purpose of these grants is to buy an artist time and space to work. No teaching, no curating, no admin. Just writing. It’s not a glamorous award. Most writers use it for rent, food, bills, transport – basic human needs. Nuala O’Connor, whose novel Miss Emily is longlisted for the 2016 International Dublin Literary Award, allocated one Arts Council bursary to childcare: “I put my youngest in a creche for a few hours each day so I could have time to write.”

Although there are no explicit strings attached, receiving a bursary is still entering into a contract. The public, through its hard-earned taxation, has invested, albeit indirectly, in your writing; you must now write. This is easy to do if the work is flowing; much trickier if you’re at the difficult stages of a project, already hating what you wrote in your application.

I’ve been in that place and it’s stressful. Questions come up. Do I deserve this award? Will I make any work in the time I’ve just bought? It’s taken me over a decade to realise that doubt is a constant companion for most writers, that no matter how experienced I am, there will be still be times where I’m struggling creatively. But I’ve also learnt that the point of any artistic practice is to keep going. Good patrons understand this; good patronage supports it. Ultimately, the bursaries I received arrived when I most needed them, not just financially, but morally and psychologically. They boosted my confidence while kicking me in the butt, challenging me to both try and fail better.

There are lots of issues with patronage. Crucially, there isn’t enough. In 2016, the total figure for English language literature bursaries was €218,350; Irish language writers were awarded a further €44,470. 187 writers in total applied; 36 were funded. Award every applicant and they’d have received €1,500 a head. Demand also exceeds supply for university residencies and funded retreats. And with some residencies, so many strings are attached they become just Another Job to juggle.

Being rejected for any patronage award is awful; it can feel personal and demoralising. I know, I’ve been there. Even when you’re successful, there are limitations. With a funded retreat, you still have to cover rent, bills, etc. back home. An individual grant will rarely approach salary level – the maximum Arts Council bursary is €15,000. Even more rarely will patronage fund you through the two-plus years required to make a book. You can’t receive more than one bursary in two calendar years; multi-annual bursaries, introduced during the Boom, were abolished in 2014. In a laudable move, UCD recently offered two three-year part-time teaching fellowships for practising writers. The yearly salary offered was €18,500 (€1,500 lower than Mike’s NUIG salary). In return the writers would work 18-19 hours a week, including admin, prep, meetings and ten teaching hours (over twice Mike’s 2002-05 weekly teaching load).

So what can you do? On an individual level, apply for what’s available. Research what’s offered and what’s expected. Read the guidelines, submit your best work. Acknowledge the award, with gratitude, if it happens. Lick your wounds and try again if it doesn’t. And it is worth retrying. It took me three applications to be offered a place in the CCI, while the bursary I received in 2011 was awarded only after I’d been rejected first time round. If you can, try to find out why you were unsuccessful; you won’t always get a clear answer, but sometimes you will – and that can make all the difference.

On a collective level, we can start arguing, through organisations like the Writers Union, the Writers Centre and Words Ireland, for the types of patronage we want. We want more, of course – but let’s get specific about what kind of more. Nuala O’Connor’s list includes: “More affordable retreats. More short retreats for parents who are writers. Better pay for the uni ones. For county council type residencies: more time for writing, less time driving around enormous counties to give workshops.”

Poet, novelist and Aosdána member Mary O’Donnell argues that patronage is essential for a healthy society. “The enrichment of a culture is assisted by an active artistic field of work. The general public will not and often cannot pay artists directly, so they don’t support this enrichment in a practical sense. If the majority do not support this enrichment, while enjoying the ‘product’, then we must as a society/community respect the role of patronage and not see it as an opting out from ‘real work’ on the part of artists.”

Yet we can only ask for what we want when we value ourselves. Great writing doesn’t come out of a vacuum. Like all cultural activity, it comes out of physical, emotional and imaginative energy, energy which is housed in our bodies. These bodies need feeding, rest and play as well as work. Begging, borrowing and stealing time short-change us of these vital activities and drain our bodies of our precious creative energy – yet even writers of great skill and experience are told they need to do this, to an extent that would be ludicrous in any other profession. Maybe it’s fair to expect a period of unpaid apprenticeship. Plenty of people can – and have – written one novel on begged, borrowed or stolen time. But writing the next, and the next, and the next? I’m not a fan of Winston Churchill but during the second World War he spoke fervently against cutting arts funding. What are we fighting for, he said, if not this?

Mia Gallagher is the author of two acclaimed novels: HellFire (Penguin Ireland, 2006), awarded the Irish Tatler Literature Award 2007; and Beautiful Pictures of the Lost Homeland (New Island, 2016), recently long-listed for the inaugural 2016 Republic of Consciousness Prize. Her prize-winning short fiction has been published internationally. She guest-edited the Stinging Fly’s special Fear & Fantasy issue (Winter 2016-17)

In conjunction with the Words Ireland Writers Series, The Irish Times have printed a series of articles entitled Writing Lives. The Writing Lives series is an initiative of Words Ireland and coincides with the Words Ireland Writers Series of nationwide meetings for creative writers and illustrators.




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