Paying for Our Passion – Ian McHugh

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.

Ian McHugh is one of those guys who you can talk to and not get any hint from him of exactly how talented, and successful, a writer he is. He has consistently hit the big overseas markets which is no easy task for an Australian writer–however, that has not stopped him from continuing to give back to the local writing community, both as an editor and as someone always willing to pass on his knowledge.

For all those reasons, and more, I am delighted to welcome the best beard in Aussie spec fic to my blog today.

Landing Jam Side Up

In 2014, I had the chance to take a redundancy from the public service. For someone like me, just past forty and with a couple of decades service, a Commonwealth government redundancy is like winning the lotto: it means a fat lump sum in the bank and my super immediately converted into a pension that almost covers the rent on a three bedroom house in an inner-city suburb.

I could have looked for a new permanent job (or probably walked straight back into the public service as a contractor) and turned the lump sum into a house deposit. But, I’m a writer, and the redundancy opened up another opportunity that I couldn’t pass up: I chose to fund my writing habit instead.

So, to cover that last little bit of rent (and food and clothes and Lego and overpriced soy flat whites) I now work as a sessional university lecturer and tutor, which means I have casual contracts for a term or semester at a time. I also teach short evening courses in fiction writing and occasional one-day writing workshops in Canberra or elsewhere. I have my kids about half the time and the rest of the time they live with their mum. I live in Canberra, but my partner lives in Sydney, so I do a lot of commuting between the two.

Angel Dust

The upside of all this is that I have lots time to write. Ten hours of class contact is considered a full-time teaching load at university. While I was working in the public service, in a permanent, most-of-fulltime office job, I was doing well to produce four new short stories in a year. In 2015, I’ve written eight new short stories and 60-some thousand words of a novel, so somewhere in the vicinity of 100,000 new words in all.

That doesn’t mean I’m writing steadily or consistently. My work commitments and weekly routine change every three months (or less). I’m periodically completely derailed by marking assignments and exams, usually for a couple of weeks at a time. The constant chop and change is good, though, because it means the day-to-day never gets samey. The teaching is great, because I’m up and moving and talking to people, which is a perfect balance for the solitary seatedness of writing. I’m rubbish at getting started with writing, but once I do, writing in intensive bursts for a few days or a couple of weeks seems to suit me.

It helps, too, that my partner is also a writer and writing is something that we love to do together. It helps that we’re working at about the same level of “emerging” professionals, with some good short fiction sales under our belts and similar levels of recognition for those, and both plugging away at novels. It also helps that what we write overlaps in genre but diverges wildly from each other in style and content. It means we can usefully critique each other’s writing, and have space to admire what the other does. And it means that we understand the ups and downs that we both go through with our writing, and all the writerly paranoias, insecurities and eccentricities that go with it.

Never Never Land

That my kids’ mum isn’t a writer isn’t why that relationship failed, or why we weren’t able to give each other the emotional support we both needed, and she deserves to be acknowledged for giving me the time and space to write – like letting me go to Clarion West when our daughter was one, or go to Writers of the Future when she was eight months pregnant with our son. These are not small things. At the same time, I would find the stories I’d given her to read covered in dust under her side of the bed, given up on after a couple of pages and forgotten. Having a partner who shares your geekdom, especially when it’s an obsession that’s so personal and creative, is a special thing.

The downside of my current situation is insecurity. Overall, my income including the pension just about covers my budget (or would, if I stuck to my budget). I have money in the bank, but never have paid work guaranteed for more than 14 weeks at a time, and no paid work over summer. The margins are fine enough that selling a short story here and there makes an appreciable difference. (If you know anything about the likelihood and rewards of selling short stories, that’ll give you an idea of the fineness of the margins.)

But even insecurity has an upside. I once heard Jack Dann respond to a question about what motivated him to write, and he said, “Fear”. And he’s right, fear is a great motivator – for me, it’s fear of not making the most of this opportunity, which is probably only sustainable in the short term.

And, too, talking about ‘insecurity’, in my situation, isn’t the same as saying there’s any ‘hardship’. I certainly can’t talk about ‘sacrificing’ for my art. I mean, seriously: I’m working 10 hours (or less) a week to cover the rent on an inner city house and feed and clothe myself and two kids, with money left over for Lego and writerly tour-de-cafes. If my life up until last year was tumbling like a piece of dropped toast, and it kinda was – immediately before I got the redundancy, I was $10,000 in debt, with no assets, and looking at several tens of thousands of dollars more in legal fees to get a final arrangement for care of the kids -, well, it landed jam-side up.

If ‘insecurity’ ever does become ‘hardship’, I have family and friends I can fall back on – and before things ever get to that, if I have to, I can almost certainly just get a real job again. One day in the not too distant future I expect I’ll have to do exactly that, so it comes back to reminding myself that I won the lotto. My life right now is a once in a lifetime opportunity that I need to make the most of it. Right now, the only thing that would really make my situation better (other than getting my uni contracts more than a week before the start of semester) would be if I was making some real money from my writing. The only control I have over that is to keep writing and submitting. Luck is such a huge part of writing. When it falls your way, you’ve got to use it.


Ian McHugh’s first success as a speculative fiction writer was winning the short story contest at the 2004 Australian national SF convention. Since then he has sold stories to professional and semi-pro magazines, webzines and anthologies in Australia and internationally. His stories have won grand prize in the Writers of the Future contest and been shortlisted five times at Australia’s Aurealis Awards (winning Best Fantasy Short Story in 2010). He graduated from the Clarion West writers’ workshop in 2006. His debut collection of short stories, Angel Dust, was shortlisted for the Aurealis Award for Best Collection in 2015.

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