Thursday, 13 March 2014

On Not Being Able To Say No: Sheena Wilkinson


This is my first blog post for ABBA, and the first time this week (it’s Saturday) that I’ve sat down to write something. This is because I’m now, after years of juggling writing and full-time grammar school teaching, a full-time writer.
 
I know. It’s a paradox.

Since my first YA novel Taking Flight was published in 2010, I’ve worked like crazy to establish myself as a writer while teaching to pay the bills. As so many of us do. I don’t get big advances; I get so-tiny-you-have-to-laugh advances from my wonderful but small Irish publisher. I don’t have a partner so I have only myself to rely on. My headmaster was generous enough to give me occasional leave for events but always unpaid, so I often worked at a loss, reckoning it a necessary sacrifice to launch my career.

I was lucky to win awards for both Taking Flight and Grounded (2012) and people assumed I must be raking it in. They were taken aback when, on being asked if I was going to leave teaching, I replied that I
didn’t let myself even dream about it.

That was a lie. All writers dream. It’s what keeps us going.

The Ibby Award presentation
Last year the Northern Ireland Arts Council gave me a Major Award, which was enough to let me take a career break in the confidence that, even if I didn’t earn an extra penny, I wouldn’t starve. Around the same time I was appointed Writer in Residence at a teacher-training college 100 miles away in Dublin. It meant two days a week away from actual writing, but starvation retreated even further.

In 2011, I had eight months in which to write Grounded while commuting for ninety minutes a day to a demanding job. Not to speak of promoting Taking Flight. I worked all week and wrote all weekend. I made my deadline. OK, I got shingles along the way but luckily not on my fingertips. The intensity shows in the book, I think, in a good way.

So why, now, with no ‘real’ job, do I struggle to find time to write? I don’t waste time online. I don’t even have a TV. I get up early, though not as cruelly early as in my teaching days. This week, I had a short story to deliver for an IBBY publication. 1,000-odd words, and I delivered late. I never deliver late.

To be fair, I had two days at college, a lecture to MPhil Children’s Lit students at Trinity, meetings with agent and publisher, a day as part of the We Love Books tour of Ireland, and all-day school visit. And to be fairer, it was World Book Day.  Most weeks aren’t quite so frenetic.

It’s mostly fear. If I say no to this school event, because I really need to edit my work-in-progress, there might never be another. If I turn down that festival, they will never invite me again. Nobody will.

And of course now that I have tasted the freedom of being my own boss, I never want the prison gates of fulltime work to close behind me again, which means Earning a Living. There’s also the intoxication of the cheques. For nineteen years I took it for granted that my salary would appear in my account on the 28th of every month. It never seemed to be connected with what I actually did every day. Work just was. Money just was.

Now, I’m typing this on the MacBook bought with the earnings from teaching my first Arvon course. When I had to buy two new tyres yesterday I consoled myself with the knowledge that they were paid for twice over by the school visit I had just done. Last week’s royalty cheque is earmarked for an oil delivery. For the first time I’m making the connection between what I do and what I earn.

Library visit
Trouble is, what I do is write. In theory. But the writing brings in least money. I also – luckily – really enjoy the school visits, residencies, workshops, festivals, Arvon courses, etc. And if I don’t write, the invitations certainly will dry up.

This morning I’m sitting at my laptop with nothing to do but this blog post – a commitment I couldn’t have taken on last year. Nowhere to go. Lovely. It feels exactly the way the weekends used to feel when I was at work and set aside Saturday and Sunday for intensive writing time.  Which is not quite what I planned, but I’m grateful for it. I know I’ll learn to relax. I’ll learn to say no, or at least, not this month.

And next week I have two days set aside just for writing. Two whole days.

Sheena Wilkinson

@sheenawriter




8 comments:

Penny Dolan said...

Wishing you the best kind of good speed on your writing days!

The balance between "outside" work and "inside" work is always tough, but the direct economics of your post does show why asking writers to do free events isn't always greeted with joy, even if the children "would love a visit."

Joan Lennon said...

Saying no without breaking into a sweat ... when does that get easier?
Your post illustrates the writer's life brilliantly!

Lynda Waterhouse said...

Lovely post Sheena and thanks for sharing your experience. It really cheered me up. This should be one of my writing days but I have to go to a school related meeting about data and stories to tell Ofsted!

Sue Purkiss said...

Good luck - with new writing and with events!

Maeve said...

Welcome to ABBA, Sheena. Good luck with all your new projects. A thought - Why not take the train to Dublin and squeeze in a little writing time then?

Lari Don said...

what a fabulous first post, Sheena, and a very accurate description of the paradoxes of a writer's life. I particularly recognise the fear that if you say 'no' to an event, the opportunity will never come again. But it does, it does! So best of luck saying 'no', and keep guarding your vital writing time. Lovely to meet you on An Awfully...!

Lari Don said...

what a fabulous first post, Sheena, and a very accurate description of the paradoxes of a writer's life. I particularly recognise the fear that if you say 'no' to an event, the opportunity will never come again. But it does, it does! So best of luck saying 'no', and keep guarding your vital writing time. Lovely to meet you on An Awfully...!

Emma Barnes said...

Coming late to this, but wanted to say - brilliant post, Sheena. I think most ABBA bloggers will share your feelings - and especially the week after World Book Day.