The Hard Truth of Being a Penniless Writer

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Literature and movies have a habit of romanticising the notion of being a penniless writer, that is someone dedicated to their craft to the point of having no money, scraping by, thriving only on their passion for their artistic pursuit. It’s regarded with a strange form of nobility, wherein few respect or understand the lifestyle. Chances are you know what I’m talking about. It’s the old stereotype. The characters in question inhabit dark, damp rooms or attics, often without furniture having spent their small savings on a typewriter. Even in modern interpretations, it’s always a typewriter. They struggle to pay their rent and ration food for weeks on end. They lose all sense of time, wrapped in a world of crumpled pages and finger-less gloves. Few friends, self-medicated drinking to sooth the savage torment of their ill-begotten career choice. Yet, there’s a deeper meaning to their woes, which enriches their writing. Eventually, we know and they know, their work will be recognised. Someone somewhere will discover them. Their work will be performed on the stage, showcased at a poetry reading, or published in local bookshops. The underlying message is ‘it’s worth it’. The glory of being a writer is that you were a writer even with what little you had because you believed in your writing.

Truth be told, as a teenager, lost in the turmoil of my world, I kind of fell for it. Back then writing was my personal therapy. If the world sucked I could turn to my pages and get lost in my own creation. I was socially awkward, very much considered a weirdo in the eyes of my peers, and unable to talk to anyone about what distressed me. My kinship to these lonely writer types came from a sense that I was like them. If I could write for a living, that would be the best thing. Money wouldn’t matter. People wouldn’t matter. I could spend my days lost in my world and as long as I had a roof over my head and a dry goods, I’d be golden. Compared to my parent’s house, a simple attic would be a dream. Privacy. Independance. All the trade marks of a penniless, passion-filled artist. I could do it until I was ‘discovered’, my work finally recognised. The trouble was it’s not considered sensible to enter into any artistic endevour as a main source of income, and my parents, for all the right reasons, I suppose insisted I pursue a healthier degree. Which I did. For one year anyway, in which I learned I hated what I was doing, couldn’t think of a better alternative, and swapped to a Creative Writing Degree in time for the next academic year to start. Take that world! I was proud to follow my passion despite the disapproval of others. I could be one of those people from the books I’d read. I could pay my dues as a writer.

I don’t regret changing my course. I enjoyed my three-years of study at University, and no matter what anyone says, it was worth it. I know much more about the art of writing than someone picking it up as they go, and though I am always reminded that most writers don’t have degrees in Creative Writing, I don’t care. Give me a novel and I can name almost every narrative device and style. I can identify the problems with story lines where others only have a sense of something being off. That might sound pretentious, but I earned it. People belittle my education and hard work sometimes, yet I have continued with it. Nobility. I always reminded myself: maintain a quiet nobility over what you do. One day, like the cold writers at their typewriters, you’ll prove you’ve got what it takes. I don’t regret getting the degree I did, and I’m doing a lot better than some. It took a few years but I earned a place as a professional writer; I receive payment in exchange for my work.

However, I have to tell you, the illusion of this glorified writer is a lie. In many ways if not all. The truth is being in that place between knowing you want to be a writer and actually being a successful one is hard. Even that passion, that deep knowledge that this what you are meant to be doing, that this is all you want to do, will come under scrutiny, by you. Being a penniless writer comes with consequences and sacrifices. And sometimes, truth be told, it absolutely sucks.

Pretentious as it may sound, I know it sucks, because I am currently living that stereotyped life and have been for about four years now. I tick most boxes on that list I gave above. My typewriter is actually a three year old laptop, bought with the remainder of my student overdraft and a few months hard saving while I worked a crappy retail position. I maintained crappy retail positions for two years after finishing University because professional writing work requires experience only gained through volunteer jobs and getting yourself out there. I lived in a basement, which is similar to an attic, only less windy. The basement flooded twice, soaking my Ikea furniture in about three inches of water, warping and wrecking it. So much so, that my bookshelves almost fell apart and thus didn’t accompany me on my required move to another abode just outside the city. My books now reside in large plastic containers, because even if I could afford to replace the bookshelves, which I cannot, I have no room for any. The basement wasn’t cold, but it was damp. I once suffered a bout of severe tonsillitis combined with a throat infection because of the spores. After that I had to spray the place with bleach every so often to keep the place moderately livable. My landlords couldn’t afford to deal with the mold and were very kind to me, so I dealt with it.  I own a pair of finger-less gloves, though I’ve never worn them indoors, and I can’t write in them.

I know I make this sound a little over-dramatic, but in terms of my lifestyle choice, I have had a rough couple of weeks. Money is tighter than tight; I have been reduced to the change in my purse. This has happened a few times. Maybe one day I’ll write about the week I survived in 19 pence, when my source of sustenance were charitable donations of fruit on my fridge shelf, or the weekend my pay was delayed and I had pasta sans source for lunch and dinner for four days. I guess there’s experience to be had in these sorts of crises, lessons to be learned, but in the moment it can be worrying. I haven’t been paid for nearly two weeks now. One of those weeks I was working solidly on a writing project of considerable urgency. Late nights and early mornings, scrambling it all together, rigid editing, re-writing and re-writing, in combination with little money, because my other jobs dry up over the summer. Writing is essentially my only income and it doesn’t pay much and it doesn’t pay often. For a week I’ve been living off what I can find in the cupboard; a box of stale cereal lasted a couple of days, and cheap ready-meals, while worthless as far as health is concerned, were a luxury every other day. A friend was kind enough to pay for a hot-chocolate and a medium serving of chips when I met with him, and my housemate allowed me to eat his day-old Chinese leftovers. I’ve gone hungry some nights, but that’s not all that bad in the long run. There’s a worse side to having no money and that’s letting the people you love down.

I don’t mean in terms of their anger or frustration, everyone in my life has always been very forgiving of my financial despair. The trouble is the feeling that their dealing with your career decisions. They didn’t choose my lifestyle, and nobody made me do what I do. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not ashamed of doing it either, but there are days when I’m ashamed I’m not more successful, because at least then I could contribute to their lives. People are kind. My parents offer me money, my boyfriend pays for practically everything pertaining to both our lives, friends pay for meals and drinks, often without hesitation, and I try to give back where I can, but at times like this I just can’t. I have to cancel pre-arranged meet-ups because I can’t afford bus fares and train tickets. I buy birthday presents or send care-boxes. Sometimes I think they deserve better than a writer whose most successful endeavour is a part-time job writing on behalf of other people. And while this sentiment certainly doesn’t come from them, I can safely say, often I’m not too proud of me for not being further along, for not having published a novel, or even being terribly regular with blog posts. It’s something not spoken about with those that care, probably down to my pride more than anything; I don’t think anyone would run away from me if they knew how bad it was, but I’m embarrassed and ashamed that this is the result of my efforts after so long.

There was a moment today which made all this so sharp in my head. My boyfriend called to announce he had been in the paper recently, to which I was overjoyed, but wondered why he hadn’t told me sooner. Through nothing but kindness and hope to preserve what I had, he told me he hadn’t said anything because he knew I couldn’t have afforded to buy one. I appreciate his honesty and the sentiment behind the idea, but I replied that I could have afforded a newspaper for him. Later though, I realised I couldn’t have. More than anything I would have wanted to, but I had only the change in my purse to the amount of 45 pence, and all I can think is, he deserves so much more than that.

As to the success at the end, I don’t know. I learned long ago there’s no magic man who ‘discovers’ you. Very rarely are artists picked up from windy attics to write for the stage, or manuscripts taken from the table to the bookshop. In any case, you have to have written one for that to happen. Truth be told, I don’t yet know if it’s worth it, and on days like this I wonder if it would be better to just stop and do something else if not for me than for the people who keep me in their lives. There are only two kinds of writer: those who make it and those who don’t, and it’s always a see-saw as to how I feel about my place in those categories. Am I trying hard enough? Should I be something more than I am? Uncertainty and questions and hunger and tiredness, these are the prices you pay to continue with something you are passionate about, and I honestly can’t tell you if it’s worth it, if dues being paid ever reaps some kind of bountiful reward. I know and accept that for every person we hear made it, there’s a hundred, maybe a thousand people who haven’t.

I’ve always had passion for what I do, but sometimes I wonder, unlike the stereotypical writers in their freezing bedrooms tapping away at metal keys surrounded by the evidence of their effort, sometimes I really ponder, lay awake thinking, if passion is really enough.

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