The Honest Truth About Being a Writer
Especially when you are an unwell person
With the arrival of spring, I am facing some uncomfortable truths —
my copywriting work is not going anywhere. And I have no desire to resuscitate this aspect of my career. I am getting better at trusting my instinct, or hearing what my body is trying to tell me. It seems that writing something that isn’t in my own voice makes me unwell. The effort of thinking in a brain that is outside of my own, overwhelms me with fatigue. I realise that it sounds ridiculous, but it is tightly bound up with who I am, and why I made the choices I did in my life.
I have left Facebook and Instagram, but am tentatively lingering on in the Twittersphere, because it is supposed to be good for writers. Despite this, I am weary of the mob-mentality, the humble-bragging, the relentless self-promotion. I am not criticising the people who do it, as I do it too. I feel uneasy about that fraction of society that says we are only worthy if fancy names and publications are sprinkled through our bios and mentions. I despair that people on the margins are only given platforms if they create work that focuses solely on their identity. It appears to be the privileged few who are encouraged to write about niche subjects. I have noticed that my personal, memoir-based writing is more likely to get attention than when I write about my special interests.
I have become obsessed with looking at the biographies of famous and deceased writers. I want to know how rich they were, or how they were able to keep afloat in this incredibly precarious existence. I want to know how they died, and I keep a kind of strange morbid tally in my head of how it happened, and proportionately how much it was influenced by their quality of life. I realise that this is an odd pastime, but well, I am a writer. I have a low tolerance for normal, everyday interactions, and spend hours observing and researching the ways of humans. Why we do what we do. Why we end how we end.
It took me a long time to become a writer. I am thirty-three years old. I was privileged in that I went to university, and I had some financial support from the state and some family members. I had a leg-up. Nonetheless, my twenties were spent doing all kinds of tiring, unstable types of jobs whilst trying to break into the theatre world. All the while, I suffered from a chronic illness with debilitating intermittent bouts of depression — which I put down to laziness, or unworthiness.
I never imagined I could be a writer because I thought you had to live in a nice house by the sea. I moved home almost every year from the age of eighteen onwards, and with multiple jobs on the go, sitting down to write with a clear head seemed a faraway dream. It is only now, living in a place with a cheaper standard of living, and having a partner who earns regular sums of money, that I am able to commit to it. And I still struggle. The neural pathways of my brain haven’t quite caught up. They think we’re ready to move again imminently. They are bracing against the bodily impact of doing a job that makes us ill.
I only write now because I have these privileges
I say this to be transparent. There is very little money in my bank account and one of my articles just went viral(ish), earning me about €2 so far. Yet I have a room to write in and food on the table. It’s a nice room too. I can see trees lining the street outside. Whilst going through one of my depressions recently, my dad reminded me of where I am today. Just a few years ago I was living in a former psychiatric ward.
(It was a guardianship scheme, you can read more about it here).
The rooms in that building had windows that could only be partially opened, since they were suicide-proof. The state of the place was far worse than any anarchist squats I’ve visited (which have mostly been very nice), and I was paying rent. However, I wrote a lot of angst-ridden poems there. It was good to get those out of my system so that I could begin honing my craft.
So why am I telling you this? Partly because I am sick of reading newsletters and Medium articles roaring at people to write clickbait (or “what the people want”) because they’ll never make money if they don’t. Whilst I agree that writing (with integrity) is unlikely to make you much money, I question why the expectation is there. People who have incomes of $41,000 USD (£31,390 or €37,919) per annum are in the top 3% of richest people in the world. Whilst the price of living gets higher and higher, the expectation that we should be aiming for six-figure sums (as some clickbait articles suggest) is absurd. Let’s be real — making a living as a writer is unlikely to get you in the top 3% of earners, let alone reaching those six-figures.
The Bare Necessities
Every single person on this earth deserves necessities, and a large proportion don’t have access to them. I recognise that it is a huge privilege to have a roof over my head, decent food, coffees out with friends, and if one is really lucky (or has a campervan) trips out of the place that you live in. I am grateful that I am able to do the majority of these things. I am currently saving up for driving lessons, and my future dream is a campervan to travel in.
My intention here is not to reprimand the rich, but to put some things into perspective. It has almost been a year since I started this newsletter and I have done quite a bit of research on the way. I have read many different types of newsletters, attending workshops and short courses. On this eye-opening journey, I have heard some pretty whacky conjectures about the reality of being a writer.
So here I am — a small, tinny voice adding to the chorus of many. I want to get closer to what the reality of what being a writer actually entails. It is, as many say, hard work, but I disagree that there is a sure-fire algorithm. I believe that formula to be in the realm of business, or marketing. Nowadays, these elements are a “necessary evil” in the life of a writer. But if marketing makes up 80% of one’s writing practice, I have to question whether that is truly, writing. Or at least, writing that has the ability to transform and change.
Of course, those who want an excess of money are entitled to it (if they are lucky enough to be in the position to achieve it) but it is only one, faintly demarcated route. It is also a path lined with thorny issues, such as the difficulty of the life-work balance, and ethics of practice.
Anyway, that’s my disapproving, school marm-y section out the way. I promise.
The poet, Mary Oliver, wrote whilst walking in nature. She was unable to write inside a building. Having had a terrible childhood, she associated being inside with danger. Whilst interviewed by Krista Tippett for the On Being podcast, Oliver spoke about the beginning of her writing career. She was living in a forest, and was accused of being privileged. They saw her as a modern-day William Wordsworth, wandering lonely as a cloud, writing poetry whilst everyone else slogged away. In fact at that time Oliver was so poor she foraged for mushrooms and shellfish by the shore to survive.
George Orwell battled chronic health problems whilst fighting with the Socialists during the Spanish Civil War, or living rough in the streets of Paris and London. Admittedly, he came from a wealthy family, but struggled to keep a consistent job. Throughout his life he was supported by his aunt and the various friends who believed in his mission.
These are two extraordinary examples of writers. Yet I draw strength from them, amongst countless others, such as Jean Rhys and Richard Wright. Dispiritingly, if we troll through the histories of writers and artists, it becomes apparent that many of them are from wealthy families. It makes sense. As a career path writing is so punishing, few will choose it. Endless leisure time and financial backing lightens the load. Those without these privileges will write because it is the only activity that makes sense to them. For figures such as Oliver and Orwell, it was most probably a mixture of luck and paradoxically, misfortune that gave them the conditions they needed to write. Ultimately it is those ingredients that made their work so appealing to readers.
So, this is my cue to snap out of it. I will stop dreaming that I will ever be fully compensated for the effort and work that I put in. And I’m not cut from the cloth of a chameleon copywriter whose work puts them in the wealthiest 3%.
I will always stick out like a sore thumb. I will stay at home to write whilst my peers go to the beach or the park to drink beer on sunny days. I will continue to morbidly google the deaths of artists late into the night. But that’s how it is. Perhaps one day, writing in my van, looking at a stunning sunrise in a quiet spot, it will make it ever-so-slightly more worth it.
More Things I have Written Recently:
The article that went “viral”(ish) is my article Delirious Dancing: the Diabolical Discipline of Flamenco Bulerías. It’s about why I gave up my life in London to go and live in a small, traditional town in Andalusia.
I also wrote an article about disability, hierarchies and leadership, published on Disability Arts Online: Reinventing Leadership and Hierarchies Through Singing
Any fans of the newsletter might remember the wonderful theatre director from Glasgow, Laura, who I interviewed last year. She is doing a fundraiser with artists and theatre-makers that have learning disabilities. Sponsor and support them!
P.s. Can you help top up the €2 I earned from my “viral” article? I’d love some more coffees this month as I have a Spanish language exam coming up :-D