Writing: you have to love it

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.

Quiet complicity

I stirred up some hornets at work today.

My employer, like so many now in the public sector, is bringing in a new system for assessing the performance of staff. For better or worse, annual incremental pay rises will now be linked to performance. This morning I had my first look at the bit of paper which will form the basis of employees’ annual appraisal, and there in hard black print, are the following words:

If no increment is being awarded please select the reason below: Minimum time not met – Maternity  leave 

I sat there blinking at this for a moment, then popped my head up above the computer screen and said, “Hey guys, have you read this?  This can’t be right.”

“Rebecca,” my colleague asked me with a sly grin, “do you have something to tell us?”

“No, I most certainly do not. I am not pregnant and have no plans to be ever again.” I felt my voice rising and cheeks flushing. “That’s not the point.”

The point is that to deny someone the chance of a pay increase because they have taken the maternity leave to which they have a right is, in my mind, quite certainly illegal under UK Equalities legislation. There is no reference to paternity leave or any other type of family leave which might be taken by either a mother or a father. Only maternity leave. Only leave taken by women.

“I’m raising a complaint about this.”

And my colleagues’ heads disappeared quickly behind their own computers, eager perhaps to dissociate themselves from the rebel in the corner.  “Ooh,” said one, like she was trying not to laugh, “good luck with that.”

To give my employer the benefit of the doubt, this is a careless oversight rather than a blatantly discriminatory move against women. I certainly hope so, anyway. And I hope they are willing to rewrite this without any kind of protracted argument. But all day I’ve been riding a wave of indignation, partly at the words on the form but also at the failure of some of my colleagues– my FEMALE colleagues–to display the same anger that had so overwhelmed me. Why didn’t their jaws hit the desk the way mine did?

And I can’t help but think that it’s because we have become so afraid, as employees and as a society, to speak up against the injustices that are done to us by those in power that we pretend we don’t see them. We are going to wake up one day soon and find that all the things our grandmothers and grandfathers fought and sometimes died for are gone. Things like equality and fair pay and workers’ rights. We don’t speak up because we’ve swallowed a myth. The myth is that you can always achieve more. You can always improve. With right attitude and the right gadgets you can always please more people with less money, less time, less medicine, less service, more more more for less less less. You can split yourself into ever tinier bits so that you can do right by your boss, your customers, your children, your partner, your 1,752 Facebook friends, your dog, your cat, and last but of course not least yourself, all at the same time. You can have continuous economic growth without some fundamentals eventually drying up and breaking down. Over the last day or so, I’ve heard a lot of people saying that Steve Jobs made the world a better place. Without denying the genius of the man and his inventions- one of which I am now typing on- I have to wonder: did he really? Is the world really a better place because you can take all your work home with you on your iPhone?

To be quiet in the face of overt injustice is to be complicit in it, so goes the saying. A voice in my head tells me I shouldn’t publish this particular blog. I could get hauled over the coals for this. Another, stronger voice, which sounds curiously like that of my dear late grandmother Lucy- who never learned to bite her tongue-tells me I have to.