Monday, 13 February 2017

Tactless or honest? - Sheena Wilkinson

Last weekend I took part in one of the most enjoyable events of my career. Organised by Sarah Webb, Writer-in-Residence at the wonderful DLR Lexicon Library in Dun Laoghaire, just outside Dublin, and Children’s Books Ireland, it was called ‘When Are You Going To Write A Proper Book’? – a question I’m sure fellow-ABBA bloggers will recognise.

Elaina Ryan, director of CBI, introduces a panel
Panels of industry people – writers, publishers, booksellers, librarians, agents, festival organisers and more – spoke to a capacity audience mostly comprised of aspiring writers.

But I’m not here to give an account of the day. Sarah Webb has already done so on her own blog.

Why was this event so special? I think it was because of its honesty and its timeliness.  There have been several stories in the media lately about the reality of a writing career, especially about the gaping chasm between people’s romantic ideas about income and lifestyle, and the truth. I won’t rehearse the issue here: it’s been covered widely in ABBA, and recently in a series of articles in newspapers in Ireland and the U.K.

OK, I hear the impatient reader say, so what ARE you going to write about?

Honesty from Antonia Forest

I’ve often been in trouble for that. A phrase I heard endlessly as a tactless child and teen was, ‘Sheena! You can’t say that!’ But I really believe that urge to be honest is partly what made me a writer. As a reader, I always  valued the books which burrowed through euphemism to make me say, ‘Yes! That’s exactly how it is! Why does nobody ever admit it?’ One of my favourite scenes was the death of Marie Dobson, an unpopular character, in Antonia Forest’s The Cricket Term. I loved how Forest cut through the conventional hypocrisy of the pupils, making one girl refuse to use the phrase passed away in a letter of condolence. ‘Put died and I’ll think about it.’ I have never used the phrase passed away, and I don’t think I ever will, so I applauded Tim and Forest.

When Sarah asked me to deliver a talk about my day-to-day life as a writer, covering how much time I spend on various activities and how much I get paid, she encouraged me to be as frank as I wanted to be. Brave Sarah! I suspect she knew she’d get what she asked for. The audience was, I think, shocked to be told how small advances can be, how much time you need to spend on admin, and how occasionally you have to hustle and argue and fight to be paid fairly for events. 

how I actually earn a living 

I didn’t mind admitting to small advances and sometimes smaller sales; to telling people that the one year I didn’t have a year-long residency or fellowship I earned £6,000. (I hope I don’t have another year like that!) I was quite proud, really, to count up and reveal how many school visits and workshops etc I do. I pointed out that I am in my forties with my mortgage paid off, and no dependents. I couldn’t have considered this kind of freelance existence otherwise.I don’t spend every day sitting on a cloud thinking lovely story-thoughts and I don’t mind who knows it. 

But you know, it’s only money. I wasn’t bearing my soul. The bit I really had to force myself to do was when I talked about how I’d worried, this time a year ago, that I had ‘had’ my career, as I had no contracts in the offing. My natural demeanour is quite buoyant, and it’s hard to admit to feeling like I was sinking.  I wrote about this here in March 2016

but writing is easier than talking to real people. Nobody likes to admit to things not going well, and I don’t think I could have done so had my story not had a happy ending – two contracts signed within ten days last summer; two books due out this year. It didn’t matter how often people told me that it would be OK, it would work out: I knew plenty of talented writers for whom it hadn’t. I know plenty who are still waiting for another contract – as I will be, after I deliver my second of this year’s books.
talking about what keeps me sane(ish)

 I’m glad I was so honest; I have had so much generous feedback from writers, some of whom have contacted me privately to say they were experiencing similar difficulties and were glad to hear someone come out about it. And I’m glad the tactless girl grew up to be someone who wasn’t afraid to do that!

Also not afraid to say -- look! New book! 


AMy Butler Greenfield said...

Brilliant, Sheena! They may have been shocked, but they were lucky to hear you.

Stroppy Author said...

Brilliant. I talked to a group of students at a careers event last week and similarly gave them an honest view of what it's like regarding work and hours. A bit stunned, but still keen to go ahead with their ambitions. It's great if we can get aspiring writers to have realistic expectations.

Lynne Benton said...

Such a good idea to make people realise how unrealistic their impressions of children's writers are! Well done for your honesty, Sheena!

Sheena Wilkinson said...

Thanks everyone: the climate seems to be right for talking about this kind of thing, and I was really pleased to have the chance to add my voice to the debate. I think the fourth comment above is dodgy, by the way, in case any admins are keeping an eye.