How to Live a Writer’s Life

Now, I realise the title of this post is a bold statement because let’s face it, finding the best way to live a writer’s life is the Holy Grail of all writerly quests.  It’s one of the reasons I started writing this blog in fact, after having no end of sleepless nights trying to juggle teaching and still be a productive practitioner.  My feeling was, and still can be to a certain extent, that I’m not giving full commitment to either, and therefore I’m failing at both.

Anthony Burgess composing and smoking after stacking the chairs.  A true multi-tasker.
Anthony Burgess composing and smoking after stacking the chairs. A true multi-tasker.

But in order to look at this issue with some kind of perspective, it helps to step back for a moment and look at the lives of others.  At the MIX Conference a couple of weeks ago, Sophie Rochester talked about the writing life of Dostoyevsky, scraping a living doing a variety of jobs to support his writing, and often having to self-publish to get his work into the public domain.  Throughout history the story is the same.  Anthony Burgess, as well as being a genius with words was also a teacher and a composer of music.  TS Eliot worked in a bank, Arthur Conan Doyle was a doctor, Dickens was a journalist, and most intriguingly JD Salinger organised entertainment for a cruise liner (now that’s an evening out I’d like to experience).

This list is just a snapshot, and not just that but a snapshot of a narrow and privileged band of writers that made it into the big time.  And they still struggled to make a living by their writing.  So if these writers have to juggle, compromise and scrape by, what about all those other writers, mid-list, low-list, self-published and just plain hopeful?

The main thing I take from this knowledge is that even though I’m constantly juggling, sometimes well and sometime really not, it doesn’t mean I’m failing.  There are times when I feel despair that I don’t have enough time to write, that my work isn’t good enough, that I’m not helping my students in the right way, and this doesn’t even broach the tricky business of being a mother too.  But a writer’s life isn’t just about sitting in a room and tapping away on a laptop.  It is about being human too and this means living a full life, feeling the determination when faced with adversity and doubt, using the elation of every small success to push you forwards, being a part of other people’s lives, and knowing that ultimately, this is what will make you a better writer in the future.

Oscar Wilde famously said ‘Those who can do.  Those who can’t teach‘, but Joanna’s presentation and my own experience confirm what I’ve suspected for a while now, that for writers around the globe, those who can do, and those who still can’t make a living from it teach, as well as finding a whole host of other ways to just keep bloody writing.

3 thoughts on “How to Live a Writer’s Life

  1. I love the fact that Salinger organised cruise liner entertainment, I can’t imagine that at all. I think the point about staying engaged with the world is a good one. I’ve spent way too much time in the last year just sitting in my room by myself and not only is that a bit depressing in and of itself, but it also isn’t good fuel for stories. With respect to being a teacher, especially of creative writing, presumably constantly being in contact with other writers, seeing what they’re doing wrong and doing right, is helpful anyway, isn’t it? I certainly found that to be the case as a student. Also, for the record, you were one of the best teachers I had at Bath Spa, certainly one of the top two in terms of the amount of preparation you seemed to do for your classes, so I wouldn’t worry about failing your students because you’re definitely not doing so.

    1. Wow, thank you Ed, that’s really good to hear. You’re right that teaching and being around writers all the time has a positive effect. I learn a lot from my students, not just hearing about writers I’ve never read, but also different approaches and methods that help me to look at things in a different way. And I’m often in the middle of a class teaching a particular technique, reminding myself to do it in my own writing. Now that graduation has come and gone, I hope you are getting out there yourself and building up more story fuel!

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