2021. A new year. A rushing sense of opportunity to start over without the weight of whatever dragged you down in 2020 and let’s face it, it was a lot. The tickng over of the calender triggers soul searching and sparks renewed vigour in what the world has to offer.
My soul searching involved accepting the harsh reality that it wasn’t 2020 that held me back. It was myself.
My biggest problem is (cue mini violin, first world problems, oh poor you) that I have too many things on the go and I get overwhelmed. This leads to a kind of shut down where I do the minimum, then whittle away the rest of my day/week/year without achieving as much as I would like.
What’s missing? I ask myself.
In the past I was able to study, work, exercise, cook, socialise…
When I think back to what my days were like then I realise they were FULL. Everyday was jam-packed. I thrived on it.
What has changed? (I refuse to accept age as a remotely credible reason).
After having kids my life was subsumed by the needs of other people. What started as a necessity (keeping my own interests and ambitions limping alone while caring for small children) became a habit. My kids aren’t small anymore. They get up, make their own lunches, catch the bus to school and mostly manage their own lives with relative competence. They just don’t need me in the same labour-intensive way they used to.
One thing I know, is that things need to change. 2020 highlighted my willingness to be distracted. To take ‘self-care’ to a level that became ‘self-sabotage’ and that ambition and ideas are meaningless without consistent action.
What I need is accountability, deadlines, expectations and… outcomes. I’m a destination before journey kind of person. I need the tick. I need the sticker. I need the good report at the end of the year. I always have.
As I contemplate 2021 and the new projects I want to undertake, I have a few outcomes in mind:
Launch some new creative writing related initiatives – an online book club, more workshops
Get published in a range of outlets—short stories, middle-grade fiction, flash/micro-fiction
Earn money from writing—become a freelancer
Upskill—I’ve enrolled in an editing unit at Curtin
Write a YA novel
Along with these professional goals, there are the usual ‘lose weight’, ‘get fit’, ‘get kids through another year at school’. You know the ones.
Am I taking on too much? Will I be able to handle it? Will I be here again next year making the same promises to myself?
As I write this, I’m keening for the me that could always fit in whatever worked needed to be done. The one who would study until late in the night and get up early to go mountain biking. I need to get out of maintenance mode and find that self who would fearlessly take on more than I could handle and nail it anyway.
I suffer from, of all things, an abundance of time (I did say cue tiny violin, right?). My strategy for overcoming my excess time wasting is to go old-school. Literally. I’m going to construct a timetable that segments my days into portioned parcels of precious time.
Things on the list?
Chasing paid work
Chasing publication opportunities
Lunch… and so on.
I won’t be perfect but if I don’t follow it, I’ll have no one to blame.
There is prep work to be done but that’s what the summer holidays are for. I’m not stupid enough to think I can work to a full-time schedule with the kids in the house but I can lay the groundwork.
To succeed in an adult world, I plan to reduce myself to a high-school student. For better or worse I have chosen a life that is reliant on self-discipline and self-drive. Rewards and stickers come rarely (sometimes years apart) but it is still a life that is worthwhile chasing.
For me, creative work is very much an up and down enterprise. It’s one of those careers that requires (often) many years of unpaid work before it takes off, and taking off is not the same thing as earning a liveable wage.
There are parts of writing for a living that make it an easy job.
It’s flexible. You can write at two in the morning, or one in the afternoon because it’s not dictated by so-called normal working hours.
It’s interesting. You get to escape into your thoughts and explore literally any idea that comes to mind. (Watch this space for my future children’s book: “Snails Bums on Toast”.) You get to think creatively, with each new project presenting a completely different set of problems and while there are elements of writing that are tedious drudgery (like any job) much of it is puzzle solving and fun.
On the down side, like many artistic-based endeavours, writing isn’t the biggest money earner in the world and sadly, in our society at least, money equals value. Jobs that earn less money are afforded less respect and given lower priority than those that earn more, and this hierarchy isn’t necessarily a reflection of skill, ability or education—or even how useful they are to the community as a whole.
I’ve been pondering the things that act as road blocks to committing
to writing as a career and have narrowed it down to:
External: societal, economic
Internal: priorities, permissions
I’ve tried to work through them below. This is from my perspective, namely from someone embroiled in the machinations of family life, and I don’t pretend to speak for people whose personal and financial situations are entirely different to mine.
Author work is often secondary to paid and family work:
Without money, at least according to the world and the harsh realities of family life, writing is a hobby. And when do you do hobbies?
When all the other, “valuable” work is done.
This happens because money is often, sadly, equated with value. It is easy to set boundaries, prioritise tasks and say “no” when there is a tangible, corresponding financial result.
When your work doesn’t yield financial benefits, there’s an almost unspoken understanding that writing is a distraction from a real job. Like reading a book or doing yoga. It’s mediation. It’s an indulgence.
The average wage for an author in Australia is $12,900 pa*. I’m not joking. And that isn’t all from book sales. That’s from author talks, and workshops and all the million other little things authors must do justify their existence. And so, for many authors, writing is something that doesn’t get to take centre stage in their lives.
An extension of this is the relative value placed on creative
work. Often people don’t consider writing “work” unless you are being paid.
This fails to recognise the many hours, and years of work that most writers put
in with no remuneration at all.
For many, writers are lucky to have a “hobby” that they love.
There is nothing as infuriating as the patronising notion
that writing is a great way for a mum at home to keep herself busy. As if mum’s
at home need extra things to fill their day.
While writing for a living may appear to be a perfect companion with busy family life because of the nature of its flexibility (location and time,) it is also, at times, a necessarily selfish pursuit. In our imaginations we see a writer locked away in a room, daydreaming and spinning tall tales. What a writer actually does is many hours alone, working. Yep, its work. Yet finding those hours, between the economic, emotional and physical needs (particularly of a family) of a household are often accompanied with guilt. Afterall, it’s not as if you are contributing financially.
It can be difficult to get real permission from others and
from yourself. The kind of permission where they are willing to sacrifice their
time, their productivity or even their income to support the author in their
lives. Getting permission from your family and yourself to treat writing as a
career, whether it ever earns money or not, is constantly deferred by the
elements listed above.
For example, I found out this week I came second in my heat of a short story writing competition. Yay! I was elated. This was justification for my desire—even need—to write. Because, having a PhD, a novella published, a positive manuscript assessment and the possibility of the publication of my novel on the horizon isn’t enough to legitimise my job description. Why? Because I don’t earn any money.
The next day? I discovered how out of touch with the world I am in terms of how well other, often less skilled, professions are paid.
The problem is this: I’m a poor decision maker in a
financial sense. My work in all its forms is universally underpaid:
Veterinarian, Mother, Writer. The skills and education that I value don’t pay
the bills. Bubble burst. Oh, woe is me.
Then optimistic me kicks in again. Pish-posh! I don’t need
money! I’m chasing personal satisfaction. That esoteric dream where I concern
my days with higher thoughts and principals than mere money. I am a writer.
It’s a real job. I can do that. Sort of. Well, not really.
Return of pouty face.
5: Main hustle or side-hustle?
Finding that tipping point where you can justify both the
job title of author, and the time that is needed to make it happen is an
individual and delicate balance.
This is the Catch-22 (thanks Joseph Heller!)
I want to write for a living.
Unknown writers don’t
The best way to get known is to write, write, write.
Don’t give up your day
Treat your writing like a job.
Do it for the love of
I’m hungry. And so on…
There is little I can do about my low earning capacity if I
want to stay in this career. What I would love to see, however, is a shift in
the understanding of what work is. Not just writing, but care-work and other
jobs than are given less respect and less consideration than their higher-paid
counterparts. Equal measure should be given to those fields that contribute to
the larger fabric of our society. Chances are, if you get paid huge sums of
money for your work, you aren’t any smarter or working any harder than those
with less. You are just lucky. You got a lucky break or chanced on a good
As for writers? We all love stories in one form or another.
We love books, TV and film. We voraciously consume the latest book, the newest
TV shows. Those stories are written by someone, and most likely not someone
earning the big bucks, who gave up their main hustle and made the people around
them understand that writing is a job like any other and deserves to be treated
as more than an indulgent hobby.
*This is income derived from working as an author. The
average total income (including from other sources is $62,000 p.a.)
I’m sitting in a coffee shop around the corner from my kids’ school. You know the type: laid-back tunes piped around a rustic brick room, with polished concrete floors; bespoke, slightly wonky furniture that has been cobbled together from salvage yards and roadside collections; and eclectic jars and pots with cuttings of succulent plants from the owner’s granny’s garden. It’s a surprisingly creative space and I like to come here after I’ve dropped the kids off to reconnect with the adult world. The one that doesn’t involve yelling, begging, huffing and scraping hard-set cereal off the kitchen bench.
This coffee shop backs onto my local bike store, and I have my old (emphasis on old) mountain bike in the boot of my car. It needs some serious repair work and I was hoping to get it up and running. But I’m not at the bike shop. I’m at the coffee shop, sitting on my own, procrastinating. What is that about? I squirm around the uncomfortable knowledge that I’m frightened. Frightened of putting my bike into a bike shop for a service—think about that for a minute. That is all levels of strange. I mean, it’s a bike shop. They fix bikes. They want me to drop my bike in.
So what is it that I’m scared of? My bike is old and I’ve let it get out of shape (hmm, is there metaphor in that perhaps?). I don’t want the man in the bike-shop to laugh at me. I don’t want to be ridiculous. I want to be taken seriously. I don’t want the man in the bike shop to see me as a failure. Wowsers, that is some over-thinking. Yet, that’s how I roll.
My mind jumps immediately to another time I was frightened to face people. A few years ago I got into great shape. I lost twelve kilograms, was exercising heaps and people commented on how well I was looking. But then I didn’t, so I wasn’t.
I struggled psychologically to return to my sport because I knew that my friends at training couldn’t help but notice that I’d dropped the ball, so to speak. I panicked about facing that community again. What would they think? That I was lazy? Greedy? I almost didn’t go back. This speaks to a different fear.
Most people have heard of the fear of failure. It goes along the lines of “I am frightened of failing, so I won’t try in the first place.” Hand in hand with this is the fear of success: “The more I succeed, the bigger my failure when I fall.” I used to mountain bike all the time, but now the bike-shop guy will think I’m a chubby, useless middle-aged mum. I was slim and strong, now the people I train with will think I’m over the hill and won’t respect me as much. The two feed on each other, and even knowing that these are the thoughts I am projecting onto myself doesn’t stop them from running rampant with my self-confidence.
As I sit in this coffee shop I can’t help but imagine how this self-destructive paralysis plays out in other aspects of my life. How do I overcome it? Try and care less? Push through the fear? Click publish, or send, or apply before my brain has time to wind itself up? People aren’t laughing. People don’t care because, in reality, they are too busy dealing with their own lives to spare much thought for that extra ten kilos, rusted chain or pending job application that seem to loom so large in my thoughts. And if they do care? So what? The challenge lies in pushing past self-doubt, past worrying what other people think, and being okay with showing the fractures in that carefully constructed and maintained self that we put forward to the world.
Easier send than done.
I did take the bike in but sadly its deterioration was terminal.
On a positive note, I get a new bike.
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As an aspiring author I am aware that social media is king. Publishers and agents want to know that you have a presence on social media and are aware and willing to utilise the incredible power and networking capabilities of the various social media platforms in order to build an audience and connect with people. In other words authors are their own marketing managers. The thing is, this is all time-consuming and the other thing authors are meant to be doing is writing, writing and more writing.
I went on an active campaign last year to get more Instagram followers. I love Instagram. I love finding new photographers to follow, drooling over their incredible images and imagining the adventures they must have had to get them (I follow predominantly landscape photographers). I never follow anyone whose images I don’t love just so that they will follow me. What’s the point? It’s disingenuous. The upshot of this, is that my unwillingness to play the game in terms of following and unfollowing has gained me a grand total of 100 extra followers in the past year. To put that in perspective, literary agents and publishing houses are looking for authors with over ten thousand followers across each of the various platforms. I have 135-ish (it fluctuates) Instagram followers, a poultry 20-odd twitter followers (though I rarely tweet), Pinterist is dead to me, and I ‘m not really sure what Google is doing. Linkedin? I’m on it… I think.
I have an average amount of Facebook followers for a person who posts way too many pictures of their kids and their sport (spoiler, my private profile is 70% taekwon-do and 30% kids). I like using social media. I like seeing news about my friends, family, and colleagues. I’m happy to find out about new books, or awesome podcasts, or the next best show on Netflix. I struggle however with the type of self-promotion that is apparently required of me when just at the moment I don’t really have anything to promote.
So here is my conundrum.
According to Cal Newport’s book Deep Work (2016), which I highly recommend you read, social media is an evil that stops us from working in a focused, consistent and productive manner. It so easily draws our attention away from the task at hand and back to the daily gossip, the sports report, the fashion posts the… I mean you should TOTALLY be reading my blog posts via Facebook and you should be telling ALL of your friends about it too (irony acknowledged).
Cal Newport’s remedy is a sabbatical. One month. See what happens.
I’m two weeks in to my disconnect with social media. I’ve deleted Twitter, Facebook and Instagram from my phone so that I can’t quickly access them as a reflex every time the phone pings, or I’m looking for an excuse to dodge what I should be doing. It’s school holidays here so I can’t say that this week has been overly productive, though last week I sourced three short story competitions I want to enter and began brainstorming ideas for them as well as completely re-imaging the new novel I am working on. I feel more focused/less scattered and I feel as though my brain has time to settle on my thoughts and ideas better than it has in a long time.
This was what I was hoping for. What I didn’t expect, however, was how I would feel when I did sneak a peek back at the insidious, perpetually scrolling view of the outside world. Sad. Because Facebook is a major form of communication between my friends and I, a major source of information for writing groups, taekwon-do news and kids activities it is completely unrealistic to stop using it altogether and it seems that if I want a writing career I not only have to engage with it, but embrace it. Yet, when I open my feed I find it bruising and jarring. From animal welfare advocates desperately trying to help those creatures in need (and as a former veterinarian I find this admirable and distressing), to fundraising for charities, to sexism, to racism, to the political shambles that seems to be inherent in every country, it simply hurts to see it all condensed and unfiltered and always there at my fingertips.
This should be a good thing, and I’m sure it is in many ways.
The challenge for me is finding the balance between remaining engaged with the world as it is presented and interpreted through social media and keeping my own head-space clear so that I can work, but also so that I can intelligently navigate all the information, misinformation, opinion and fact that I am bombarded with.
And how the heck do people attract 10, 000 followers???
Most kids go through a ‘I’m going to be a vet when I grow up, because I love animals’ phase. I didn’t that I can remember and maybe that should have been a warning to me that vet wasn’t a job I was cut out for. Don’t get me wrong, I loved my cats with a kind of sycophantic obsession that bordered on pathological, but the job itself wasn’t one that I’d fantasised about. Coming up to the end of year twelve it was obvious that I was going to get a decent enough score to get into something big: law, engineering, OT, physio, pharmacy, dentistry—vet. This was problematic because the competitive nature of my personality made me apply for the most difficult possible courses. (Yes, I did apply for medicine, and clearly no, I didn’t get in. Something for which I grateful every day.) I didn’t have a burning desire to do any course, so because I got the score, veterinary medicine seemed as good an idea as anything else. I adored animals, I liked science and I wasn’t grossed out by blood and guts. Bonus.
My five years studying vet at Murdoch were awesome. It was everything that I’d dreamed university could be. Gone were the flakey pot-smokers and heavy drinkers (I went to a pretty rough high school) that looked down on someone who knew how to spell their own name correctly and in their place were some of the most amazing people I’d ever met, who are still some of the most important people in my life. The course was exhausting, exciting and fascinating. The lecturers and clinicians were in equal measure inspiring, terrifying and objectionable. It was bliss. Everyday I was taught new things, pushed, encouraged and because vets have a unique perspective on the world, my dry and often scathing sense of humour actually made me friends for the first time (instead of solidifying my place firmly on the fringes). It was gratifying to tell people you were studying vet. After all, everyone had wanted to be a vet when they were a kid. They loved animals so much. It must be so satisfying to be able to help them.
They thought you were a little bit special because not only do you love animals but you were dedicating yourself to their health and welfare. It felt noble.
The hours at uni were brutal. The stress was immense. Everything not vet fell away. But the benefits seemed obvious. When I graduated I felt certain that my life was on track and my blazing future in the world of small animal veterinary medicine would be just as fun, and stimulating and exciting as my five years of tertiary education had been. I left uni passionate about my career.
Cue “ba-bow” sound effect.
My first job (after many months of searching for a practice that wasn’t over an hours drive away) was in an extremely busy small animal practice. My boss’s wife informed me early in the piece that I was a girl, and girl’s didn’t survive there. What bullshit, I thought. She doesn’t know me. Didn’t she know that nearly all vets were girls now? (90% or so of graduates). Anyway, I’d survived five years of gruelling study. I could do tough conditions with my eyes open (because new graduate vets don’t sleep). I was terrified of course, but the feminist in me, the arrogant achiever in me, brushed off these remarks and willed myself to do it anyway.
If I thought the hours and load and uni were brutal, I was wrong. My new shiny life as veterinary surgeon meant bigger, longer hours and the responsibility of being in charge. I worked three nights a week on call—and you always got called. At 12-15 hours a day—before you were called back for the emergency caesarian, gastric dilation, poisoning, car accident or my favourite, the midnight emergency toe-nail clip—it was tough.
Then there was the youth bias. I get it, we all have our favourite doctor, and no one wants their precious pet to be treated by the new kid. I almost understood that. I didn’t understand the gender bias. The ‘she isn’t allowed to touch my animal’ (often more sweary than that)—not even to take out some stitches. This was persistent, pernicious and degrading. Between the lack of sleep, the fatigue of the physically and emotionally demanding nature of the job and then the sense that some people were offended by your very presence was exhausting. I cried almost everyday (more even than when I was first at home with kids—I know right?).
On top of this my boss, whether through insensitivity, or his own struggle for survival, was not supportive. It was most definitely a sink or swim scenario. What got me through the day was my amazing colleagues, the nurses and vets who just like my awesome friends at uni, were funny and clever and made going to work possible. One in particular became a mentor and a support structure and without him, I would not have made it out of that place alive. My boss’s wife was right, I couldn’t cut it. It has taken me fifteen years to accept that.
I had other jobs too, after this one. But it was almost as if I’d given my veterinary career everything I had in those first two years and I couldn’t seem to find a way to recharge. Compassion or empathy fatigue is a phrase used a lot to describe the veterinary profession (an industry with one of the highest suicide rates of any profession), because not only do we look after animals, who we can’t help but form an emotional attachment to, but we also look after their owners, guiding them through the often difficult decisions that have to be made during their animal’s lives.
Euthanising animals for me didn’t get easier with experience. Rather, the emotional drain grew, as though cumulative. Successes on the other hand, were accompanied by second guessing and self-doubt. I found I couldn’t sleep if I had a critical patient in hospital, worrying whether I should be doing more. I found justifying the expense of medical treatment on a daily basis impossible. I couldn’t reconcile my ethical objections to hunting and animal cruelty with having to treat wounded dogs who had been gored, dehydrated or otherwise injured on a hunting trip knowing that they would be back after the next one. Then there were the rescues. Every vet practice (not just shelters, though they have it worse) has more “clinic cats” and three-legged adopted pets than they can handle because we just can’t put down another healthy animal. (The feature image of this post is my cat Tuna, who was found dumped on the side of the road when she was ten-days-old.)
When I fell pregnant with my first child after eight years in to veterinary practice I couldn’t wait to quit. That was it. I was out. I could stay at home and look after my baby and I’d never have to kill anything ever again. It was good. People would look at me shocked when I said I didn’t want to go back. “But all that training!” Yeah. Right. They could keep it. I did a few bits and pieces here and there but when my second baby came I knew it was over for real, and I was relieved.
Relived until it was really over. Until I’d let myself get so far out of my profession that I couldn’t go back (not easily anyway). Suddenly, I could no longer say to people “Oh, I’m a vet, I’m just not working at the moment”. I was studying for my PhD, but no one is as remotely interested in feminist fiction as they are about talking to you about their pets. I found my social traction slipping. I wasn’t as interesting to other people anymore. I was a mum (blah!) and a student (double blah!!). Then I felt a tug that maybe I had made a mistake. That maybe I shouldn’t have let my career slide into near oblivion.
Cue identity crisis.
Then I think back to that first job and I’m filled with dread.
It’s not completely impossible to return to vet, I could study more, find some kind-hearted practice to let me ease my way back—it’s all still there, just a bit rusty. But if I’m honest, the fear of the emotional burden of this job is enormous, like a big black cloud. If I went back in again I’m not sure I’d emerge out the other side. And the pay is terrible, so don’t tell your vet you ‘should have shares in this place’ or that they can ‘buy another Mercedes’ with the cost of your pet’s treatment. Chances are, your local vet earns a lot less than you do.
To my friends who are still in the thick of it. You guys are amazing, strong and important.