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.
Today I am delighted to welcome Jane Routley, someone who has seen all the ups and downs of the writing journey. Not only has she refused to let any setbacks stop her, but she has continued to provide support and encouragement to everyone around her. I was thrilled to see the rerelease of her trilogy and encourage you to check it out–along with her other great work..
Do you really expect to get paid? A survey of Professional artists in Australia came out in 2010 and I remember it because I was interviewed for it. In it they discovered that the mean or average earnings of writers and other artists from their creative work was around $18,000 a year.
Reading this report squashed my last remaining dreams of sitting in my leather padded study, spending the day dreaming of the next fine lunch with my agent/editor/publisher and the next overseas book tour. I also found it kind of comforting, because it meant my earnings weren’t so very terrible. They were merely average. Even though I’ve had four books published in America and Australia, I’ve only ever been over this average a couple of times. Most of the time I’ve earned a lot less. Which means that most of my writing life, I’ve had to and expect to continue to have to have another means of support.
At five when I discovered a passion for telling stories, my parents told me firmly that I would never make a living doing that. I had to be sensible, get a proper job and then maybe write as a hobby. I accepted this and I got a librarianship qualification. I became a skilled wrangler of the Dewy Decimal System, otherwise known as a cataloguer. And I worked hard to find the space and time for writing and forced myself to send things away. I won a competition and had some things published in small journals.
Working in libraries with sensible professional people like me made me aware that I wanted more than to spend my life putting the numbers on the backs of books even if it did pay for a mortgage. I wanted more time to write but did I have the right to make such foolish choice? Writing was a hobby and you don’t give more time to your hobby unless you can make money doing it.
In the nineties I got lucky. My very supportive husband achieved his dream of going overseas to work as an IT contractor, and he took me. For the first couple of years under German law, I wasn’t supposed to have a job. I was able to write full time which enabled me to put in the kind of hours everyone needs to put in to learn any skill. It was lonely and I was still full of doubt but hey I was living in Europe and being a writer. I met the wonderful NZ SF writer, Cherry Wilder, who was living nearby and who mentored me through my first novel. When it was finished, she introduced me to her agent. By the time I was legally able to apply for work, I had sold a novel and was expecting an advance any day. (Never hold your breath for advances. They are a loooong time coming.) My earnings were never very big but my husband was happy for me not to go looking for outside work and I felt that I had the right not to because I was going to become a successful novelist.
The nineties were a great time for me. I wrote four novels, I lived in Europe, I had a publisher, I was a writer. I never had book tour or lunch in Bloomsbury but I did have a couple of lunches in New York and I took myself to some killer SF conventions.
But things changed horribly around the beginning of the noughties. Publishers everywhere started shedding their mid-list authors – those who sold books but weren’t best sellers. Knowing that this might be going to happen, didn’t make it easier to spend the four years writing and rewriting the last book I wrote for them, the sequel that they passed over and I couldn’t sell anywhere else.
The IT work dried up and we returned to Australia to live. We’d been getting homesick anyway and were glad to be home, but alas, it was time for me to get back to the real world and back to earning a living. The fact that my skill with the Dewy Decimal System was in demand was a mixed blessing. I had lots of casual jobs because I still wanted to make time to write, but most of those casual jobs were full time. I made good money but I didn’t have much time to write. And after a while the ugly spectre of tendonitis which has dogged me all my life started to rear its ugly head.
Most writers have trouble with their backs and hands just as most ballerinas have trouble with their feet. Times spent at physios and gyms (doing exercise, yuk) keeping your muscles flexible is just another price you pay for your writing passion. I’d first got tendonitis very early in my librarianship career. At the time it seemed like a disaster. For a couple of months I was stuck at home unable to either work or write—worried that I might be a neurotic malingerer.
When it came back in later in my career it was actually a piece of luck in disguise. At a time when circumstances in the publishing industry were telling me to go back to full time work and got back to writing as a hobby, the choice was suddenly made very stark. My body wouldn’t let me do data entry as a cataloguer all day and come home and write all evening or on the weekend. I couldn’t be a writer and a librarian.
By then thanks to savings from the glory days of Europe and an inheritance we had managed to pay off our house so we felt confident of always having a roof over our heads. My husband decided to go part-time to pursue his interests and I started looking around for some kind of part-time work that would not involve data entry. In this day and age it’s not easy. Almost all white collar jobs no matter how humble now involve some kind of data entry.
Eventually I stumbled on an ad for Railway station Attendants in the local paper. I’ve always liked trains. They’re a kind of cut price promise of travel and wider worlds. It was the best career choice I’ve ever made. If you’ve read the Station Stories I’ve been posting regularly on my blog you will know that I love my job.
Basically I stand around at a railway station, giving directions, helping people use the ticket machines, manning any barriers and listening to complaints. The information aspect makes it a very, very distant poor relation to being a librarian. It’s often boring (but boredom is a factor in most waged jobs) my feet hurt and I’m outside for four to six hours at a stretch.
When I first started work at the railways in the most humble job you can get there, various mothers of friends and friends of my mother said, “You poor thing. What about your degree? What about your career?”
Yet I love it. For someone who’s a devoted people watcher and sticky-beak, customer service in a busy place is heaven. There are always interesting people doing odd things and people who want to chat. Occasionally there are also dramas, brawls, meltdowns, arrests and lunatics. People are often happy to tell an interested stranger quite intimate things about their triumphs disasters and cancer operation. After a morning spent struggling with my demons at the writing desk, standing round all afternoon waiting to be asked a question is so relaxing. And due to the unionised nature of our work force, my blue collar job is actually much more secure than any of wildly restructured white collar jobs I ever had.
My partner’s other ambition was to take early retirement and he’d spent enough time helping me live my dreams to deserve some time for his. So now we are both part-time workers. That affluent middle class lifestyle which I’d expected to live when I grew up seems to have escaped me. There are no overseas trips, or regular restaurant meals or weekend mini-breaks.
Every year when I go to do my tax the accountant still asks me why I don’t write a Mills and Boon you know, something that makes money. (Gee I hate that. Every time I come home questioning my path and am grumpy all week.) Sometimes as I stare out the window wondering what we are going to do if the car dies and when we’re going to be able to afford a new oven, I feel certain I’ve made the wrong decision.
A while ago when I was feeling depressed, I set myself the goal of working part-time till I was fifty and if I hadn’t sold another book by then going full time in something and trying to make some real cash for overseas travel etc, which I still love. That goal is well past now, but I’m still working part-time. Novel sales are small although I did get a grant to blog about Flinders Street Station one year. I have been offered the chance of promotion, of more hours and indoor work sitting down. I even tried it once. It had more of the things I hate about my job and less time for writing. In the end I went back onto the platform.
Perhaps it’s too late to change. Just writing this article makes me realize how much I love my life style and how happy it makes me. If I have time off I don’t plan to go away. I plan to do some writing. If I don’t get time to write anything for a couple of days I become depressed and grumpy. If I go back to full time work so that I can have a big superannuation payout and retire to the Gold Coast I will really feel like I’m wasting my life. We’ll find a way to replace the car when it does die. There’s always public transport.
It’s taken till I was fifty to come to grips with the fact that I should spend my life in a satisfying way rather than a sensible one. I’m as hooked on writing as a junkie is hooked on heroin. As so many songs say,” How can it be wrong when it feels so right?”
So now there’s nothing left to do but to find a way of paying for that passion.
Jane Routley lives in Melbourne and is writer of the Dion Chronicles triology and The Three Sisters, all of which are now out on ebook with Clan Destine Press. Her short stories have appeared in a number of anthologies. She has won the Aurealis award for Best novel twice. If you’re like to know about her adventures on the station platform read about it at www.janeroutley.com.au