A fledgling writer asks five of the best how they are striking a balance between work – as in, for proper money – and writing.
We like writers to be poor, but in a sexy way – black clothes from the op-shop, a windowless flat, and an endless supply of wine and cigarettes, but no food. Or outrageously rich, living the JK Rowling dream, walking the red carpet, philanthropising all over the place, and spending too much time on Twitter.
We don’t want to think about them lining up at New World to buy a week’s worth of boring groceries, going through their payslips trying to figure out if they can afford a writers festival any time soon, or getting up at six so they can have breakfast before they drive off to their frankly un-literary jobs.
But word-people need money too. The Writers’ Earnings in New Zealand report, based on a survey of more than 350 fiction, non-fiction, and children’s book writers, was released in March. The report showed that respondents earned an average of $15,200 a year from writing, even after an average of 18 years at it. Two-thirds of their total average income came from other sources: almost half of the writers surveyed had a day job that was completely unrelated to writing. Many also relied on their partners’ income.
I recently emerged from a masters in creative writing, squinting at my bright future. I quickly realised that while most people had studied towards jobs and careers, I’d studied towards something that the world viewed as more of a dream or hobby. The $15,200 average is about $13,700 more than I’ve ever made from writing in a year, but I did rack up a $60,000 student loan in my pursuit of writing skills. I needed to start paying that back, and keep buying groceries.
So I did what any millennial would, and undertook a comprehensive investigation (stalk) via Google of successful authors in Aotearoa who have interesting, demanding, rewarding ‘day jobs.’ There wasn’t much detail out there, and none of the stuff I most wanted to know (Do you secretly hate it? Do you have Google Docs open in a spare tab all day? Do you run off and write in the staff toilets?) so I took it a step further and set up some phone calls, coffee dates, and email chats, to find out how Chris Tse, Eileen Merriman, Isa Pearl Ritchie, Brannavan Gnanalingam and Pip Adam manage that balance of working, writing, and the rest of life.
I discovered that all of these writers are very busy people, and deeply invested in their work. There’s certainly no sneaking away in the day to type stories or poems. They get started early, finish late, and often don’t get much of a “break” at lunch. Eileen, Pip, Brannavan, and Isa also have children at home.
“My workday is structured around getting home to see my three-year-old,” Brannavan told me. “So I don’t write at work, or I’d have to stay later.” Brannavan is a practising lawyer and the author of five novels; his Sodden Downstream was a finalist for the Acorn Prize for Fiction at last year’s Ockham Awards.
Eileen works as a consultant haematologist at North Shore Hospital, completed a PhD last year, while working and writing, and is best known in the literary world for her wise and funny young adult fiction. “I am very time poor,” Eileen said, “And the on-call commitments can be quite heavy.”
“I’m fortunate that the jobs I’ve had don’t encroach on my writing,” said Chris, who has released two incredible poetry collections, and works as manager of engagement in the Office of the Auditor General. “I’m lucky that I can keep my day job and my creative life quite separate.”
By day, Isa Pearl Ritchie is a senior policy analyst at Te Puni Kōkiri. She has published two novels – Fishing for Māui was one of the Listener’s 100 Best Books of 2018 – and has also recently finished a PhD. “It’s a challenge trying to make space or hold space for writing,” Isa said.
Over the last decade, Pip has done a combination of contract work in teaching, writing, interviewing, and reviewing, while also completing a creative writing PhD, and publishing three books. Last year was an anomaly: The New Animals won the Acorn Prize for Fiction – and its $50,000 haul – and Pip received a grant from Creative New Zealand. It meant Pip had a year in which writing was her “main job”. But, she says, “I’m under no illusions that 2018 was anything but a once-in-a-lifetime year.”
Many of the writers mentioned that even though they don’t actively write at work, their creative projects are often simmering in the backs of their minds while they’re at their day jobs.
“If people knew the degree to which I was ‘playing with my imaginary friends’ while I’m working, they might feel very uncomfortable,” Pip said, “I am constantly not where I am.”
Finding time to write was the main challenge, but there were other difficulties associated with work, too.
Pip talked about the precarity and loneliness of contract work, and the impact that could have on her writing: “I think sometimes I come to the page feeling really bad about myself or really frightened about whether I will ever work again and that’s tough for me to write through.”
Eileen said that her medical work could be very stressful, “especially when dealing with cancer, and dying, but also in a time of limited resources.”
Working could also be a struggle when it came to the non-writing parts of being a writer.
“Wellington is a small literary community,” Chris said. “And you want to go and support people at events and book launches, but sometimes you’re too tired.”
“I don’t think work slows me down a lot in my actual writing – I am quite productive,” said Eileen. “But it can be hard to try to fit in the other things I love to do, like attending writing festivals, preparing workshops…”
Isa mentioned that work in the public service is great in this regard – she was able to take leave in advance for her recent book launch in Raglan, and took leave for the Auckland Writers Festival – but she also said of the extra bits: “You don’t have to do those things to be a writer.”
Some of the writers had found ways to make flexible arrangements with their workplaces, so their writing lives could get a bit more space. For Brannavan, being part of the publishing collective Lawrence and Gibson means that he sometimes takes an extended lunch break to go and physically make some books. Isa spends one day a week working from home, because she’s introverted, and that helps her to recharge and have the energy her creative and career work require. Eileen tries to start early so that she can finish early, when possible, and has recently started taking whole days off for writing: “I had a lot of annual leave banked up,” she said. “Lately, I’ve been taking at least two days off a month. That’s made a huge difference.”
For Pip, not having a single, permanent employer makes these adjustments less of a possibility. “I haven’t had a non-contract job since I got my MA,” she said. “And every day I go back and forward in my mind about whether this is good or bad for my writing.” While the flexibility of contracting can be good, “I often think if I had a permanent job it might actually give me more flexibility. When I worked full-time I could plan out chunks of writing time, which are harder to ring-fence with contracting.”
The obvious bright side of having a day job is the money – it pays the rent or the mortgage, and puts food on the table. “Financial stability is an important backstop that I wouldn’t be able to focus without,” Brannavan said.
“I was a person who wanted to follow my ‘passion’,” Chris commented, of his university studies in film, English, and creative writing. “It never occurred to me I’d be able to use those skills in the real world. But the stability of this work has given me the comfort to write what I want and do things at the pace I want.”
But the routine of a job also has its upsides.
“I work well in a short amount of time,” Isa said. “I’m naturally a chaotic person and learning how to get structure to work for me has been very interesting.”
Brannavan referenced a saying in his profession – ‘if you need advice, talk to a busy lawyer’ – and said “knowing I have limited time makes me really focused.”
Each specific job offered the writer something important. Isa values her work in policy. She said it’s right for her because she’s personally committed to working towards better social outcomes. “Working in an area I care about is energising.”
“I’ve always had writing and editing-adjacent jobs, a lot to do with storytelling,” Chris said. “And there’s been leakage into my writing. I read a lot at work that gets me thinking about language.” He also finds that there’s value in having to think about other things than his writing projects: “Often, ideas come to you when you’ve got your head stuck in something else.”
Brannavan finds that multiple aspects of his job as a lawyer are useful in his writing. “I deal with words and tone every day.” He finds that litigation training offers a useful way to think about the structure of a narrative. And most of all, it’s about being out in the world, interacting with people: “I encounter lots of people, I’m forced to imagine other people’s perspectives,” he said. “I don’t think I could have written some of my books without having worked.”
Eileen similarly values her interactions with people at work: “Being a doctor gives one a special insight into the human condition – not just from a scientific point of view. You are privy to someone at their worst, and their best. They tell you a lot of things they wouldn’t tell other people.”
Pip talked about when she was a librarian and she and her colleagues used the phrase ‘serendipitous browsing’ – they believed that spending time in the library let them find important texts for their research that they wouldn’t necessarily have looked for. “I think work is like that for me,” she said. “I come across things I would have never come across if I was sitting at home writing.”
She highlights this interplay of work and writing in the acknowledgements of The New Animals: “In my mind this book is largely about work… While work is obviously and importantly a source of income, it also makes it possible for me to write in so many other ways. Work gets me ‘in the world’ and exposes me to ideas and experiences I do not seek out independently. These often become the heart of the stories I write.”
Each of the writers I talked to had a very different routine to fit writing into their lives. What struck me most, though, was that they shared an emphasis on being gentle with themselves. I’ve met my fair share of people who’ll tell you that you’re not a real writer unless you write every day, or that unless you get up at 4am and write 2000 words before the sun comes up, you’re not really trying. But these five writers have each built parallel successful careers for themselves without setting self-punishing goals.
“The only contract I make with myself,” Pip said, “is I try to touch the work every day. My friend William Brandt introduced me to this great process of going back and forward between planning and writing. When the writing isn’t working I play with my plan for the book and when the planning isn’t going well I go back to writing.”
She also talked about the writing work that happens even when you’re not consciously ‘touching’ it: “One of the interesting things about writing, I reckon, is I feel like I am always writing. If I’m watching TV I’m trying to work out how the plot is working to fix a problem I’m having in the novel. If I’m talking with a friend I am probably thinking about the novel. If I am walking somewhere I am usually listening to something to help with the novel.”
Isa was given similar advice, by her creative coach, Stephanie Joy Christie: “Start with the thought of engaging with your creative practice every day.” Isa likes to treat this engagement as a ritual. She puts everything she needs for her morning writing on the table the night before. In the morning, she starts to free-write and when she feels like stopping, she instead lights a candle and continues – from the candle onwards, this is the ‘stretch’ phase. “Sometimes I light the candle right at the start,” she said, “Because it’s all a stretch that day.” This is a gentle way to push through the urge to give up when it stops being easy to write. But Isa emphasised that writing doesn’t need to happen when it’s too hard: “It’s always with a view to doing what is easy, healthy, and positive – being miserable and frustrated doesn’t help.”
Brannavan is gentle with himself too: “I’m chill about whether it happens. I try not to force it.” He has found a way to structure the writing process in the long-term that makes daily writing easier: he spends a minimum of six months planning and thinking about his new novel. This means that by the time he’s writing it he’s not struggling to decide what will happen in the next chapter. In the writing phase “I have a 45-minute walk to work in the morning,” he said, “And I think about what I’ll write that night. Then when writing time comes around, I can do 500 to 1000 words, and it’s not from scratch.”
Eileen writes after dinner most evenings. “Although I can’t usually do serious writing until my five-year-old is in bed. I write in an armchair in the lounge as I don’t like to shut myself away from my family.” She tends to write from 7:30pm to around 9pm, but not always, and on the weekends, she’ll write for an hour or two if she gets a chance. “If I’m tired or I go out, I won’t have written.” Like Brannavan, Eileen thinks about her projects while she’s walking, driving, or running, so it’s easier to write when she comes to the page: “All of the characters are always marching around in your head. That’s why I write novels so fast – I just think about them all the time.”
Chris doesn’t deliberately put time aside to write: “That’s never worked for me. If it’s been a tough day or week, I won’t feel like writing at all – I’ll zone out and watch TV or read a book instead.” Because his job is also working with words, this doesn’t bother him. “I don’t feel guilty if I don’t write. I’m always writing every day anyway – that muscle’s being used.”
He finds that the way his creative process works means he doesn’t need a regimented routine: “I don’t write linearly – I write in fragments and jump all over the place. It’s about getting the ideas down at first, and then putting them together later.”
One thing that all the writers had in common was that by prioritising writing, they were sacrificing other possible uses of their non-work time.
“I don’t watch TV,” Eileen said. “I don’t have time.”
“I really don’t watch TV,” Isa said. “I don’t go to the gym. I don’t socialise much, even though I do miss my friends. I don’t do much of anything other than work, writing, and looking after my daughter.”
“I don’t watch Netflix,” Brannavan said. “I do socialise, but my exercise is getting to and from work.”
Pip: “I work while watching TV at night… I tend to work most weekends, but it often doesn’t look like work – reading books for review, reading books for events, reading books for research for the novel.”
There was a unanimous feeling that these were compromises worth making.
And when it came down to it, nobody wanted to stop work completely, or at least not yet.
“I’m happy with the balance right now,” Brannavan said. “It’s working so far.” He hasn’t applied for residencies or funding at this point – “I’d rather it went to people who needed it” – but as for the future, “Who knows?”
Here’s Isa: “I’m not sure writing full-time would be the best thing for me or for my writing. Maybe at some point. But putting too much pressure on your creative process can burden it. I’d like to move towards working a bit less eventually. In a few years’ time, it would be good to work four days a week.”
Eileen doesn’t think she’ll ever give up medicine completely. “I’ve built up so much skill over the years, and I do enjoy it – ideally I’d like to work two to three days a week with no on-call, but that’s a wee way off for various reasons, including the fact that writing pays very poorly! I’m still excited about my job – it’s a joy to be able to help other people. If money wasn’t an object, I’d work two days a week.”
“After I published my first book, a lot of people said, ‘Now you can quit your day job!’” Chris said, “But that’s a weird luxury I’ll never have, until I retire. If I could live off writing, would I do it? I don’t think I would. I like the variety of my life, the social aspect of work is very helpful. What would I write about? I’d just get bored.” But he added, “We’ll see how I feel in 10 years’ time.”
And what about Pip, who has had the chance to try a life of mostly-writing? “I am so grateful for the CNZ grant and for the money I received from the Ockham Award. I love being able to prioritise my writing,” she said, “And I’m really interested in how much I still want to work. Like, I think I need that mixture. I love work. I always have. And it’s absolutely vital to my writing.”
I’ve started work as a graduate policy analyst this year. I’m thrilled (and a bit surprised) that I could get such a ‘real’ job and be good at it – like Chris, I followed my passions through university, and then discovered my skills could be useful. But I’m still at the beginning of this balancing act and not yet as comfortable with it as the writers I interviewed. I occasionally battle with surges of resentment when colleagues talk about spending their spare time baking, swimming, going to music festivals, watching movies, and travelling. I like all of those things, too, but after a 40-hour week of thinking and typing, I go home to think and type some more. A future full of these compromises is daunting. I’m already a bit exhausted by it. I have to remind myself that I love writing – and that it’s worth making sacrifices for.
Subscribe to Rec Room a weekly newsletter delivering The Spinoff’s latest videos, podcasts and other recommendations straight to your inbox.