In this series of guest posts, I have asked a number of writers and editors to share the price they pay for pursuing their creative passion or what they sacrifice–whether that is money, time or lost opportunities. It might be how they pay the bills that writing doesn’t, or how they juggle working for a living or raising a family with the time it takes to write or edit. The people who have contributed have shared their personal stories in the hope it might help those new to the scene manage their expectations, or help others dealing with similar things realise they aren’t alone. You can read about the inspiration for this series here, and if you want to be part of it please let me know. Our next guest is the indefatigable Zena Shapter.
Every writer sacrifices for their art—whether that’s with time, money, health or relationships. We just do it in different ways, at different points in our life.
In the beginning, I used to pursue my passion by fitting writing in around full-time employment. I wrote at lunchtimes on park benches, whether it was cold and windy or sunny and sweaty. I’d write when commuting each day, on the train from London to Reading, then on the ferry from Manly to Sydney. I’d write in the evenings, on weekends, and on holidays. With my trusty palm pilot in hand, I’d balance its flimsy keyboard on my lap, then disappear into my world until I had to be back in the office. I used to love my palm pilot because laptops were bulky and heavy back then, whereas my palm pilot fitted inside a handbag. Nice.
The only problem was when I had to transfer my day’s writing gems onto my iMac at home and the transfer didn’t complete—losing whatever I’d written that day. Eek! I’d scramble for my keyboard and jam everything I could still remember into it, leaving my fiancé to cook the dinner or clean up. He’d understand, and having an understanding partner is key to making this writing gig work. Still, I could never get enough time.
So when the kids came along and I had even less time, he helped again. With two kids under two, I had three goals each day—to eat something, go to the toilet, and have a shower. Most days I’d manage only two of those three things. It was a magical and wonderful time, growing two humans from nothing. It was also hard work, lonely, day-in day-out drudgery. For a time there, I lost myself to the stress of it all…
I had to get out and write!
So once a week, every Saturday, my now-hubbie would look after the kids so I could write in my local library. That day was like heaven to me. Peaceful. Just my fingers tapping on a keyboard…
As the kids got older, I’d write when they were having their day-naps too, if I could get their naps to overlap! Other mums would read magazines when their kids slept, or watch television, just kick back and relax. Whereas I was frantic, trying to get as many words down before the kids woke up—and they always woke up too soon.
When they started school it was like a fresh start for all of us—well, once my youngest started at school anyway… I would finally have more time. I would, wouldn’t I? There was no point going back to full-time paid employment because of the costs of childcare, which for a couple with no family to help out go a little like this:
Before school care: $15 per child per day, $30 for two, every day for 40 weeks = $6,000
After school carer to taxi children to after-school activities, help with homework & make dinner: $100 for four hours, every day for 40 weeks = $20,000
Vacation care: $70 per child per day, $140 for two, for 60 days a year = $8,400
Total = $34,400
A basic full-time Sydney copywriter salary (including super) = $60,000
Net income after tax = $44,521.49
Net profit after childcare = $10,121.49
Although a set-up like this suits a lot of people, for us and what we wanted for our family, the $10,000pa wasn’t worth it. Instead, we decided I’d earn as much as I could between school hours, then be there for the kids as their mum, personal fan club and confidant. It works! When the kids are sick, I’m here. If they need Mummy up at school for some reason, I go. I’m there to help them with their homework, cook meals from scratch every day, and get them ready for bed. I go to their concerts, sports carnivals, teacher-parent meetings, Futsal games and swimming lessons. While I’m working during the day, I can also do laundry and admin.
I can also write.
No, I can’t write everyday, however much I’d like, because money must come first. Kids are expensive! Once the kids were at school I looked at what skills I could offer and started a writing, editing and social media consultancy. I edit, copywrite, ghostwrite, proofread, mentor, consult, format and layout print books, create EPUBs, design websites, set up social media profiles, tweet, post and blog for clients, and heaps more. I don’t advertise, but people find me through word-of-mouth and online. I offer solid advice and always work harder and longer than I should because I’m a perfectionist. Luckily that’s what keeps my clients coming back. Value for money!
Yet for some reason, and even though this setup works for us, it bothers other people because I work from home and get to choose my own hours.
You don’t work.
It’s not work.
Oh, you’re working? Doing what? I thought you worked from home…
I thought perhaps you could do [insert errand/task] (because you don’t work)?
What are you doing today?
I get it all the time. Even yesterday at the bus stop when I was playing handball with my kids while waiting for the school bus, and I mentioned how hard the ball actually was on my soft little hand (how do kids do that all day?!), one of the other parents said: it’s because you don’t work.
Should I perhaps work in a field and harden up my hands?
It might actually be worth it if it would ease others’ judgements. Judgement is perhaps the biggest cost I pay for pursuing my passion and I have lost friendships over it.
Before I was a copywriter and editor, I was a solicitor, and every six minutes I had to look at what I was doing and ensure it was billable somehow. I made a great lawyer because I was efficient, and anyone who has ever worked with me knows I still work the same way, irrespective of my location, because of the type of person I am. The fact that I work at home shouldn’t matter, yet it does—to the point that parents take issue if I perchance whinge about my day from time to time.
At first I found their reactions isolating, and I didn’t feel as if I were a complete person anymore. As far as my family was concerned, I was always working. My kids have a rule now that during school holidays I’m not allowed to work after they go to sleep, because they know I otherwise would, and my health would suffer in the form of strange skipped heartbeats or night-grinding my teeth. Did I say kids were expensive?!
Yet my work still doesn’t seem to be valued by others because it’s not full-time or outside of the house.
Now-a-days, I try to surround myself with mothers who do as I do, earning what we can between school hours, at night and at weekends. They understand the challenges of this lifestyle—it isn’t for everyone. You have to be focussed, self-disciplined, and able to go for days on end without really speaking to anyone outside your immediate family.
Sometimes I regret not working in full-time employment, not because it would bring in more money (because now that I have regular clients and teaching gigs it most definitely wouldn’t), but because my work as a mother is so undervalued by society. I wish we could put a monetary value on a mother’s care—and just say that every mother who works from home automatically earns the equivalent of $50,000pa—just to get other people off my back and stop them judging.
But I’ve also learnt that it doesn’t really matter what other people think. I have the lifestyle I do because it’s cost effective for my family and the benefits are priceless. Plus, I’m happy, and that’s the best kind of gift you can give your children. Miserable is the worse kind of parent you can be. So I write when I can around my ‘work’, and if that bothers anyone else – so be it. It’s the price I’ll pay.
Zena Shapter is a Ditmar award-winning author who loves putting characters inside the most perfect storm of their lives, then watching how they get out. She likes close-to-reality books of the unexplained and travels in search of story inspiration, visiting almost 50 countries to date. She’s won ten national fiction competitions and has been published in anthologies such as Award-Winning Australian Writing and magazines such as Midnight Echo. Read her through the links on her website at www.zenashapter.com and follow her on social media as ‘@ZenaShapter’. She also blogs, and is the founder and leader of the award-winning Northern Beaches Writers’ Group, based in Sydney.