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’s guest is T.R. Napper, who has been blogging about this stuff for a while. His post on the economics of being a writer, (GEORGE R. R. MARTIN’S SISTER: THE ECONOMICS OF BEING A WRITER), went viral and is a must read (as is the rest of his blog). So, I was thrilled to have him come and contribute a piece for this series!
The article David links to in his initial piece that heralds the start of this series, sponsored, needs mentioning at the outset. The author – Ann Bauer – makes the crucial point that her writing life is, in part, sponsored by a husband who works full time. She points out that there are a lot of authors out there who get to devote themselves to writing full time not via their earnings, but through the wealth they were born (or married) into. Sobering stuff.
In a sense I am sponsored. My wife works, I write; she pays the bills and puts food on the table, I write science fiction. How awesome is feminism?!
But it’s not quite that simple. We both worked in the Australian foreign aid program (AusAID), so were taking turns in overseas postings. I worked in Lao PDR from 2008 – 2011; my partner has a position in Viet Nam from 2013 – 2016. Writing aside, I was always going to to a break from paid full-time work – for the first time since I was 18 – in order to take care of our son, who was 16 months old when we moved to Viet Nam. Raising a child is still work, of course – and work that I love – but unpaid nonetheless.
However, when AusAID was drawn and quartered by the Abbott government, I took a redundancy and the qualified degree of financial flexibility that comes with it. When we return to Australia I’ll have to go back to work (our second child is due), but we’ve organised our life in a way that it need not be full-time work. So perhaps you could say I was semi-sponsored.
My path to writing was different than most. While always a voracious reader, I never felt destined to be an author; didn’t attempt my first novel at twelve, any of those born-to-write tropes. My calling was aid work, and I did that for over a decade. My second calling, discovered a little over three years ago at the age of 37, is writing.
At the start I had to write during my son’s daily nap – getting words down during those two hours in the middle of the day when he was asleep was crucial. Now he goes to pre-school I have a bit more time each day, and am producing a reliable number of words each month. Something I’ll be able to continue when we move back to Australia.
The more I write and become part of the genre community, the more I learn about the challenges we face, big and small.
On the micro-level, in my opinion, the obstacles myself and other writers face are largely trivial.
It’s hard to get terribly moved at someone bemoaning a rejection, or at having to write on the weekend in addition to work, or some other first-world problem, when you’ve dealt with starving ethnic minority children who’ve never seen the inside of a schoolroom. It’s hard to feel much sympathy at all when writing is such a satisfying, rewarding, and interesting profession (or hobby, or semi-profession).
The things required in a writing life: reading a lot of books; watching old movies (for research, of course); writing discipline; and letting the imagination run rampant and out onto the page, are all pretty straight-forward, positive items.
On the other hand, on the macro level, I’m increasingly worried at how egregiously undervalued books are in contemporary society.
Writers do pay for their passion with sweat and tears (and blood after one of those particularly nasty paper cuts), but readers are less willing to repay them for that work. Most readers take books for granted, and seem to think they should be cheap or even free. Consumers don’t blink an eye at a five dollar coffee, a ten dollar pint of artisan beer, or thirty dollar breakfast at their favourite café – but ask them to buy a book and they’ll cry poor or complain about the price.
The ability to earn a living from writing is diminishing every year. Every year the median earning for professional writers go down, advances shrink, and royalties peter off. This impoverishes the genre. It means the potential output of a writer is reduced as they spend their productive hours in a day job taken purely to pay the bills.
It also means that some are shut out of the profession. In the case where someone is, say, working class, or a single mother, or otherwise not able to be ‘sponsored’ – writing dreams shatter when run up against the hard reality of that next electricity bill.
So I’ll pay for my passion insofar as a writer earns next to nothing. When I return to Australia I’ll have to get back to work, support my wife, and make sure I take on my share of raising two very young children.
Writing will be tougher, as I’ll have less intellectual energy at the end of each day. I’ll write less than I could, because society undervalues books, because the market is so fragmented, because cutting through is harder than ever, and because, hell, I’m no Kim Stanley Robinson.
But to my mind, none of these things represent sacrifice. It’s just life. Being able to write is a privilege, and I feel lucky to be able to do it.
T.R. Napper is an aid worker, stay-at-home parent, and writer. He has spent the last decade living and working throughout South East Asia, and currently lives in Viet Nam.
T. R. Napper’s short fiction has appeared in Interzone (several issues), Grimdark Magazine, Ticonderoga’s Hear Me Roar anthology, and others. He has an upcoming story in Asimov’s, and is a Writers of the Future winner.