Your Writing Life: Home & Abroad

by Nicole Flattery

Paul McVeigh, Mark O’Connell and Selina Tusitala Marsh gathered together to discuss the trajectory of their writing careers, with the chair Ruth Hegarty, in an event titled ‘Your Writing Life-Home & Abroad.’ All three writers began with a general introduction to their work. What interested me, and what could be considered as a theme of the event, was the concept of ‘luck.’  ‘Luck’ is almost a dangerous admission for writers—as if suggesting your progress is based on anything but hard work or talent is almost undermining yourself—but it was, freely and refreshingly, discussed here.

Paul McVeigh (author of The Good Son) spoke about how, early in his career, he often made his own luck by approaching writers he admired, or in writers’ groups, forging close personal friendships with those he truly felt could help him deepen his work. Selina (a poet) talked about how a small poetry gig, with a tiny audience, led to a much larger platform. Finally, Mark (author of How to be A Machine and winner of the Wellcome Book Prize) talked about how writing small, reported pieces for international websites such as The Millions led to more opportunities. The online success of his writing resulted in the publication of his first e-book, an ironic appreciation of bad art entitled ‘Epic Fail.’ These weren’t direct routes by any means, but all three writers stressed the importance of honouring your own work and pursuing your interests above all else. With a bit of luck, publication will follow.

They also, much to my delight, discussed the difficulties of being freelance. I’ve been working as a full-time writer for a while now and, in isolation, it’s easy to convince yourself that it’s a state that comes naturally to others. Mark spoke about how the birth of his child, despite the old adage of the ‘pram in the hall’, was a spur to his writing. Then they faced the eternal freelancer question—to work at home or in cafes? Mark told an amusing anecdote about listening to an ambient cafe noise soundtrack even while working in an actual cafe. Paul stressed the importance of connections, finding writers you can contact in times of need.

Paul also talked about how difficult he finds it to turn down opportunities, to say ‘no.’ This, I think, is a huge problem for freelancers. It’s impossible to say no, to ignore opportunities—even if you’re already dealing with a heavy workload—in case the opportunities don’t present themselves again. I understand this to be a growing issue in our current gig economy with side-effects including burnout and anxiety. If you’re your own boss, who decides the breaks? This was where I would have liked the discussion to deepen, or I feel it’s a subject that is worthy of a panel in the future.

Finally, there was a conversation about money, how to fund a career in writing. Mark talked about his reciprocal relationship, the ‘contract’ he established with his wife where she worked full-time as he tried to establish himself. It’s a model that’s becoming increasingly popular. Selina spoke about her experience with philanthropists, wealthy patrons and admirers of her writing, who are rare, but can be found. Paul talked about bursaries and artist residencies, a large number of which he has gathered and put on his website as a resource for other writers. All three agreed that it’s important to keep your overheads low.

Interestingly, an audience member asked about the new models of patronage—people being paid for their writing online by their fans, of which the artist Amanda Palmer would be a successful example. The three writers expressed doubt about this new model. Mark, in particular, said the idea made him anxious. He admitted he didn’t want people to be invested in his writing in that way, to feel any sense of ownership over his output. McVeigh repeated that grants and arts organisations are integral to the development of working-class voices or else publishing is at risk of staying predominantly middle-class. What happens if you don’t see your own life represented in literature? If publishing remains such a difficult industry to break into how will working-class writers ever get visibility?

I found the conversation to be absorbing but would have liked a little bit more focus on the practicalities of being a freelancer—how to structure a day etc. Apart from that minor point, I thought the discussion was enlightening and the three participants were humorous and engaging.