Writing Lives: Most writers don’t actually have what you could call careers

Siobhán Parkinson

This article first appeared in The Irish Times on Tuesday 17 January 2017.

Siobhan Parkinson
My brief for this article was to discuss ‘what supports and resources a writer needs at the beginning of their career versus the support and resource needs of the established, professional writer’. I suspect that maybe there’s a little elephant in the room here. It’s not your average elephant: it is not some obvious but embarrassing fact that people are choosing to ignore; I think it’s more a case of a very big room and a smallish elephant that is not visible to many of the room’s occupants. So I’m just going to describe the elephant.This elephant consists in the unacknowledged fact that most writers don’t actually have what you could call careers. We may publish more as we get older, and after a certain number of books and maybe a certain amount of critical acclaim or a few awards, we start to look more professional. The term ‘established writer’ hovers around us. What I am getting at is that even if a certain recognition comes one’s way as a writer, one’s income as a writer does not generally improve a whole lot, except in the case of that quite small percentage of writers who have enjoyed commercial success and/or won lucrative awards. But most of us don’t really progress from young writers with one set of support needs along some kind of arc that leads to our being professional writers with a noticeably different set of support needs. Most writers live a fairly hand-to-mouth sort of existence, and most of us need sources of income additional to our writing-generated income, and this need does not vary all that much through our writing lives.Which, by the way, is not a complaint: there is a lot to be said for supporting one’s writing habit by engaging in extra-literary work. Living by writing alone can seem like a desirable dream, but not many writers do achieve this, and needing to find other sources of income not only requires a writer to engage with society in ways that can enrich their writing but can also bring a writer a perhaps unexpected freedom. A friend of mine who has published several novels over the years continues to work in the mainstream workforce. This means that his writing eats up most of his spare time, but it also gives him the freedom to write what he likes: having a secure income means he doesn’t have to take on writing commissions with tight deadlines and demanding schedules. This model clearly has its advantages, and is probably the only way that most writers can hope to bring up a family, for example.One might imagine that a writer’s main income comes from advances and royalties. Some writers undoubtedly are able to earn a living directly from such sources, although not if they are published only or primarily by small publishers – which, by the way, is one reason that our most successful fiction writers are almost certainly published in London rather than in Dublin, but that’s a whole other elephant. Advances vary enormously. A new young writer may be lucky enough to snag a really good advance for a first novel; on the other hand, even an experienced writer with a solid reputation, who may seem pretty established, may never in their lifetime achieve more than a modest advance.The thing about direct income from writing is that it is driven by market forces: writers whose work is popular (or whose first book is expected to be popular), and writers who are published by large publishing houses with deep pockets and powerful marketing budgets, earn more than writers who are less well known and are published by smaller and less risk-enabled publishers. (There’s that other elephant again: Irish publishers would need much more generous support to enable them to pay the kinds of advances that could open up real options for their authors.)

We live in a market economy, which rewards certain kinds of success, but the rewards for writers may bear very little relation either to a writer’s talent or to their contribution to the literary life of the culture. Poets, for example, hardly ever make any direct income from publishing their work. Awards and bursaries are a good corrective here. Writers who may be struggling in the literary marketplace but who are identified as worth supporting can be provided with a welcome source of income. Supports of this kind are immensely valuable to writers at various stages of their writing lives, providing space for a writer to pursue a particular, defined project, and it would be great if most writers could hope to have access to such spaces from time to time. An excellent complement to such supports would be an entitlement for writers to a short writing sojourn in a recognised artists’ retreat every few years. But supports of this kind, though very welcome, are by definition occasional and cannot be considered as anything more than a bonus.

Most writers who do not have a day-job rely on income generated from giving talks and readings, teaching creative writing and occasional residencies to supplement their income. Poetry Ireland’s excellent Writers-in-Schools scheme, for example, provides established writers with work that can be immensely rewarding as well as bringing in some reasonable if erratic income. In theory, residencies in colleges or other institutions provide a writer with a secure if usually modest income for a certain period, which buys the writer time to write, undisturbed by the need to work to live; but residencies are generally fairly short-term and usually also come with a requirement to teach or provide other kinds of writing-related services, which may be stimulating and enlivening for the writer, or could be demanding and even draining.

And in the end, that is probably the greatest challenge of the writing life. Not only is income erratic, but the sources of income and the opportunities to earn it are unreliable and hugely varied in the demands they make of the writer. Participation in literary events can be stimulating, sometimes even thrilling for writers, as long as they can choose to participate; but over time it can become emotionally draining never to know what the next gig is going to be and what kinds of demands of time and energy it is going to make of the writer.

That’s why it’s important that writers have other options and do not need to rely too heavily on invitations to speak, read, teach or give workshops. But the fact is that they often don’t have these options and they do need to rely on such invitations. I don’t have an easy solution, and probably a whole suite of measures would need to be undertaken to ensure that writers who are serious about writing can have some security of income. Short-term supports in the form of residencies, bursaries and so on can certainly be a life-saver for a struggling writer, but you can’t build a career on life-savers.

Siobhán Parkinson’s most recent novel (for children aged 9+) is Miraculous Miranda. She was Ireland’s first Laureate na nÓg and is publisher of Little Island Books.

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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