According to a recent poll, being an author is seen as the most desirable job in Britain. This surprises me a little and pleases me a lot. 60% of people in this country want to create art–or at least entertainment–with words. How wonderfully affirming this is. A nation of aspiring storytellers is an awful lot nicer than a nation of aspiring city traders, for example, or…shudder…government ministers. Then, trawling the cluttered waters of Twitter this afternoon, I came across this article, http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/feb/20/tim-lott-life-as-an-author, comparing writing to a horror film and proceeding to lay out the difficulties of the profession in the most cynical and angst-ridden terms. The article is by an established author, who concludes (sarcastically, I hope) by suggesting he’d rather become a taxi driver. I’ve known a few taxi drivers in my time and…no…I wouldn’t rather do that.
What a disappointing response. Okay, maybe on a factual level, it is true enough: writing can be a lonely occupation, it’s painfully hard to make any money at it, you often fret over the possibility that you might actually be pretty crap at it, and, well, you spend a lot of time having conversations with people who don’t exist. Or I do, anyway, but maybe that’s just me.
But setting all this aside, what really depresses me about this article–especially given that it’s published in The Guardian–is the way it pulls up the proverbial ladder. Man makes a living doing something he professes to love, then says, ‘Don’t follow me up here, kids, you couldn’t hack it.’ When I was a postgraduate I met a lot of academics who said the same thing, and it well and truly soured me. To my upstart and slightly rebellious eyes, this ladder pulling is one of the reasons why the great British class divide continues to be as strong as it ever was. Whatever the financial rewards, writing, like academia, is a job that brings a certain level of respect. It gives you a voice. It gives you an outlet for your intellectual energy. Being a writer allows me to say whatever the hell I want to, and I couldn’t do that when I was a local government wage slave. I tried it once or twice and the outcome was unpleasant, to say the least.
Saying to people who want to write, trust me, you’re better off not bothering is essentially the same as saying keep quiet and know your place. Or so it seems to me. Say it to someone who works for peanuts on a zero hours contract. Or someone whose boss humiliates and threatens him everyday. Or someone who breaks her back to produce the goods that others take the credit for. It sounds just plain smug. Instead, turn the argument on its head. You hate your job? Go home and spend a couple of hours writing at the end of each day. It will make you feel more human. It will help you survive.
Maybe I’m being naive. I’ve just published my first novel and am still gathering pats on the back from friends and relations. I have yet to make any money from it beyond a small advance, with which I bought a new jumper and took my other half out for a nice meal. The other day in the car, my son and I tried to figure out how many copies of the book I’d have to sell before it even became a minimum wage job, but I couldn’t do the maths (one of the reasons I’m a writer). I have no plans to give up my office job anytime soon. To make time to write, I have chosen to work part time- knowingly sacrificing my prospects for higher pay and promotion. I may never recoup that lost income. Or I might. At this point, it’s impossible to know.
But that’s not the point. You have to love it. That’s the only good reason to do it. I love the craft of writing, I love bringing characters to life, I love exploring the possibilities of lives that are not my own. I am one of the very few people I know who loves Monday mornings. I get a little thrill of joy when I switch on the laptop. Today I bumped into a woman I hardly know at the supermarket, and she congratulated me on my book. She told me she’s always sort of fancied writing, and so to her, and to the 60% of folk who said it sounded like a pretty decent gig, I say give it a try. Don’t give up the day job for it, but don’t give up your voice either.