Sunday 3 February 2013

Being a writer is a cushy life - discuss

I've made a living from writing of one sort or another since 1988. The last time I had a 'proper' full-time job with a paid salary (indeed, the only time if you don't count holiday jobs at university) was January to March 1988. Even then it wasn't a *real* proper job as I was an academic.

Now, being an academic is hard work, which is why I decided not to do it any more [joke] but it's not 'proper' in terms of having to work 9-5:30 in the same place doing as you're told all the time, all year. OK, they employ you to teach medieval English and French literature (in my case), and if you don't cover Chaucer and Malory and Langland and Chretien de Troyes and the Chanson de Roland, there will be trouble. But whether you see Nicola at 10 am or 6pm is up to you and Nicola. Whether you mark Sahib's dissertation at 2pm or 2am - no one cares as long as you do it before the deadline.

Luckily, that job was temporary. And when it ended, I didn't apply for another academic job - or any job, in fact. I'd tried having a job and I didn't much like it. So I set about selling my time in chunks for specific tasks - whether the task was teaching Renaissance poetry or writing about operating systems or training grumpy printers in digital typesetting.

I have a few friends with 'proper' jobs. Some of them have a low opinion of my so-called job. They think I have a warped view of the world and a cushy life because I don't have to get out of bed and drive or cycle anywhere at 7:30 every day (at least, not since the days when I had to get my kids to school). And because I can take holiday at a moment's notice (ho ho - not if there's a deadline looming). Never the mind the fact that I usually start work at 6 am while they are still asleep and take far fewer holidays than they do...

But I think *they* have a warped view of the world and a cushy life. They are paid if they're sick! They are paid if they go on holiday! They don't have to do tedious admin, or clean their own office, or order their own toner cartridges or fix their own computers! And - craziest of all - if they screw up something, they're still paid. They're even paid to have another go at it! If there's nothing for them to do one day, they're still paid. If a client cancels the project they've been working on, that's OK because they've already been paid for the work they did. And they know how much they will get each month. What's more, it goes up, even if slowly. It never goes down. It's never zero. And if they lose their job, there's a benefits safety net. They can easily prove they don't have any work and they get their handout.

I love my job and I wouldn't change it - had I wanted to change it, I would have done so years ago. But please, non-writers, don't assume it's a cushy life just because the hours are irregular and I don't have to do as I'm told. I would hate to be a wage-monkey, but I suspect you would hate not knowing if you'll be paid for the work you've done, or knowing you won't be paid if you take a week off with flu.


  1. "But you don't work..." I am not sure how many times I have been told that. I really am not sure how to explain that I really do work from home. It requires much more discipline than those cossetted individuals who go out to work - but a pay packet would be nice!

  2. Have your friends heard about grass being greener etc.? and what's stopping them from taking up a cushy 'writer's life' ?

  3. I find it interesting that we define 'work' as that activity which brings in money, without including the need to find it deeply satisfying.

  4. I did say 'job' rather than work, JO. There is a distinction, certainly. I know people whose 'job' is working in Waitrose but whose real 'work' is illustration, for instance.

  5. So true, Anne! I think my "cushiest" job was the highest paid - programming computers in a nice warm office, finished at 5pm every day, only worked 5 days per week, paid holidays, no stress. Well, it didn't last. I was made redundant (along with ten others) one Friday afternoon with no warning. From good salary to zero in the space of a weekend, had to sell the house pronto since huge mortgage paid for by my salary. There are upsides to being self-employed... you can't fire yourself!

    1. True - but you can fall into a gap between contracts. I'm sorry you had such a bad experience. Nothing is stable, is it?

  6. You can fire yourself. I'm always doing it. Unfortunately, I have to keep re-hiring myself because I can't find anyone else prepared able top make sense of the inside of my head.