Thursday, November 15, 2012

Cashing That Cheque

By Jay Stringer

We’ve just moved into a new flat. For the first time I have an office, a room with a desk (and a beer fridge) for me to sit and write. It set me thinking about work ethics, and what type of full-time writer I would be.

I’m in no real rush to be full time. I think the idea is often a very bad one. Certainly a full time novelist. I have many friends and colleagues who get to tick the ‘full time’ box by diversifying, by writing for the screen, for games, for comics. I think that’s something I’d like to try my hand at someday, because it’s an interesting enough mix to keep both the mind and the paycheck alive.
But I’m in no rush to get there.

Part of it is my writing style and interests. Having a full time job that pays the rent and puts food on the table means that when I sit down to write, I can write what I want. I don’t want to even think about being a full time writer unless I can still have that luxury, that freedom of expression, and it’s only a rare few that get to that point.

The other reason is voice. In my youth I liked being loud and outgoing, as I’ve grown older I’ve quietened down and would rather sit and think than go out and shout. I know all too well that, if I were a full time novelist, I could fall into the trap of becoming a hermit. If you have the luxury to choose what to do with all of your hours, then you become limited by what you would choose. Having a day job means getting out and interacting with people. It means spending large chunks of my time coming across views, opinions and voices that I would not otherwise have done. In short, it gives me stories and characters. I wouldn’t want to lose that.

I’m coming into the industry at a time when it’s harder than ever to be a full time writer. But I think the idea has also been overplayed. To a certain extent it’s a myth, and to look back at many of the great writers and novels of the past is to look at people who found other ways to pay their rent, and at books that were written at midnight after a long shift.

But this past week has still seen me spending way too much time wondering what kind of full time writer I would be. Would I wear a suit, or work clothes of some kind? Would I keep strict office hours and maintain the daily routine of a working-class work ethic? Would I write for six hours? Would I write for two hours then mess around on the internet?

I’d like to think I’d have the work ethic. In fact, I’d like to think that the discipline and time-management I’ve shown in writing in between full time jobs would extrapolate out into a prolific and dependable output if I was full time.

But it also leads me to a rant.

I’ve been debating the ethical issues of writing a lot this year with friends and fellow writers. I’m known to get on my high horse from time to time. I’ve already made it clear on DSD that I’ve had major problems with some of the decisions that comic book companies have taken this year, and with writers and artists who’ve taken that work. And I’m not here today to go back over that wound, but I needed to mention it to give an example, to give some context to a much wider issue.
One defence that I often hear for writers taking on ‘bad’ projects is “I have a mortgage to pay,” or “I have a family to feed.”

Well, you know what, don’t we all.

With all respect to the fact that we’re in a very bad job market, there are still options.  If you need to pay your bills, go find a job that does it. Go flip a burger. Work in a call centre. None of us have a given right to be money-earning writers, and just because you’ve done it in the past doesn’t mean you should always do it.

There are many jobs that we might not like but that will put food on the table without us having to screw over another writer or work for a bad project. And I’m sure people might point to the obvious here. “Who defines ‘good’ or ‘bad’ jobs?” Well that’s pretty easy. The writers who use “bills to pay” as an excuse are already defining it for us. They know the job smells funny, that’s why they’re using that line.

To say that you have to take one of these projects, ‘because you have bills,’ is to say that you choose to take the project, because any of the other jobs in the world don’t match 100% of your chosen criteria. It’s also incredibly patronising and insulting to all of the other people.

This ties into a second bug-bear. This is a recent one, so I’m putting this out there fully expecting that I may have crossed this line myself in an interview, and that people should feel free to point out in the comment section if I have. It’s the thing of writers being asked “why become a writer?” One of the most common answers –usually well meant as a self-depreciating joke- is “It’s the only thing I was any good at.” Or similar variations, like “I suck at everything else,” or “it’s the only thing I know how to do.”


I tell you, that doctor who helped you out last time you were sick, it’s a real good thing that they sucked at everything else and had to be a doctor. I’m real glad that there are so many people who grow up dreaming of flipping burgers, making coffee or putting sandwiches into plastic wrapping so that I can go about my life as a part-time writer. Because if any of them had had to settle for a fall back  option, or learn a new skill, we’d all be in trouble.


Anonymous-9 said...

Good thoughtful post, Jay. Thank you. I would argue that there is no such thing as a "bad" paid writing job when compared to the alternative: no work, or work other than writing. I had to write a lot of bad copy to get noticed enough to write on interesting accounts. The same holds for any job at all. You take what you can get, "bad" or "good" and then you move up. The publisher will always find a writer to do the work, it's not like you can prevent them from publishing by turning the job down.

angie Brooksby-Arcangioli said...

Dear Jay, Great post, no need to justify your choices, I agree. Me, I'm a wanna be writer because my time is so short. I'm a full time painter. For a long time said no to nothing, painted shit and more stuff repeated the same shit because I was tired of living in houses with no heat and getting frostbite on my toes. And I made lots of fast cash. Now my painting skill is, I can say with confidence, really fucking awesome. My writing sucks and my cooking is getting better, I worked at McD's twice because I liked painting better. So you are one lucky guy to have an office a real workspace where you can close the door. I'd go for it, full time. No questions asked.