Friday, 28 November 2014

A Tale of Two Activities - Clémentine Beauvais

If you're reading this post in the morning of the day it's come out, send me a positive brain wave and cross your fingers for me: I'm currently shaking fretting panicking calmly getting ready for a job interview in a university somewhere in the UK...

So I'm taking this blog post as an opportunity to reflect on the difficulties and joys of having another job in addition to writing, one that you really don't want to give up on. Most people tend to assume that I'm secretly dreaming of being a full-time writer. I often hear, 'Are you keeping up the academic side just for the money?'

That's easily answered in MS Paint:

To most people, if you have an 'artistic' side, anything else you do must surely be 'paying' for your artistic activity. If you're not giving up the 'day job', it probably means the artistic one doesn't earn you anything, or not enough. 

Even my academic colleagues have somehow internalised the notion that I would 'prefer' to write children's books as a full-time job; that it's what I really want to do. We were talking at lunch about what we'd do if we won the lottery (yes, students: that's the kind of thing your lecturers and tutors talk about at lunch), and several colleagues said that they'd quit their job immediately. I said I certainly wouldn't stop working - I like my research and teaching, and I'd get bored. The immediate response was, 'But you could spend all the time you want on writing your children's books!'

Frankly, if I really wanted to spend all my time writing children's books... well, I would take the jump and do it. And if I needed a job to subsidise this activity, I probably wouldn't opt for one that requires hours of teaching, reading, essay-marking, meeting-going, networking, jargon-deciphering, revise-and-resubmitting, email-sending at two in the morning, in a crazy incertain job market, with no weekends to speak of, holidays that are in fact conferences, and the absolute impossibility to stick to regular hours.

Well then, are you keeping up the academic job as a safety net, 'just in case the writing doesn't work out?'

(The notion of academia as a 'safety net' is just... I mean, I wish, but...)

If the writing didn't 'work out', it would probably be in part because of the other job. Writing success isn't some esoteric thing that does or doesn't work out according to the unpredictable movements of the stars - the more you work on it, the more likely it is to 'work out'. You might never be J.K. Rowling, but you can get very respectable sales by being strategic, working hard, meeting children and promoting your books. This is more difficult when you've got another job.

So of course, having another job isn't ideal for your publishers, agents and publicists. There is definitely faint pressure to 'quit the day job' and be a full-time author. School visits and festivals often happen during the week. Even if you can make some of it, you can't be one of these writers who do school visits all the time. Therefore your books might not sell as well, and you might not get as high an advance next time, or even asked for another book.

Gone are the days when it was acceptable to write your books in your 'free time', and to decide that this year, you'll only publish one, or none. It doesn't work like that in the UK (to a degree, it still does in France). The publish or perish rule applies here like it does in academia; being a part-time writer will always put you at a disadvantage.

Implicitly, there is pressure also from other authors and illustrators who are full time. There's a very legitimate worry that writers like me contribute to making our activity appear unprofessional, amateurish, dilettantish, something you do 'when you've got the time', or if a partner is subsidising your indulgent bohemian bourgeois lifestyle. I entirely understand this concern, and it does bother me that I contribute to this vision. Authors and illustrators should absolutely be in a position to live - and to live well - thanks to their work. Saying that your writing brings you 'pocket money' or is 'a fun thing on the side' is quite insulting to the rest of the community.

But choosing not to choose is perhaps the only authentic option when you have the luxury of having two activities that bring you different rewards, different challenges and different joys. And many people, I'm sure, secretly want to do not just one thing, but several. Recently a student asked me for career advice (I know, terrifying). She said she was split, because she wanted to be a film maker, but 'not just': she was also considering being a researcher in psychology, or perhaps a teacher, or even a consultant. Why can't we do several things at the same time, when we have so many interests?

I agreed of course, but said the reasonable thing: doing several jobs, especially an artistic one and another 'official' one, is difficult. She said 'Well, you manage it!' I told her 'managing' was a strong word - she doesn't see the moments when I'm marking essays all evening before updating my PowerPoint for a school visit the next day, or playing Google-Calendar-Tetris with deadlines on fiction-writing and article submissions and conference abstracts and book edits.

Since I was making it sound like my life was only slightly less sinister than that of the Baudelaire orphans, she blurted out: 'But you're happy, aren't you?'. I had to admit that I am...


Clementine Beauvais writes children's books in French and English. She blogs here about children's literature and academia and is on Twitter @blueclementine.


Stroppy Author said...

Good luck with the interview, Clem! They will be fools not to take you. But I wouldn't give a student a negative message about doing more than one thing. It keeps you enthusiastic, lively, out of ruts. The time management can be tricky, but you (we) make choices and then juggle them. Everyone does it in other areas of life, so it's not very different doing it with work. It isn't harder to juggle two types of work thant to juggle one type and some care responsibilities, for instance. I'd speak out positively for the choice - it does work, and is more fulfilling than sticking to one thing. Very pleased to hear you wouldn't give up either :-)

Emma Barnes said...

Nice piece, Clementine. But you do rather imply that making a full time living out of writing is simply a matter of working hard...I think the recent figures from ALCS/Society of Authors suggest otherwise.

Sue Bursztynski said...

I'm a writer whose day job is teaching. I agree with you that if you have to do a day job, teaching is not the ideal one. It can drain your creativity, which you have to use on your teaching, and leave you exhausted at the end of a school day and, as you say, mean you're unavailable for school visits.

But there is indeed something about a day job that keeps you going. A while back I went to a talk by a popular American YA writer who said she had only left her day job about two years before and only because her travelling for her writing made things difficult both for her and her employers, who insisted on calling her while she was on tour. She said that people have this idea that if you just go to some cabin in the woods you can get lots of writing done - it doesn't work.