Creative Work: Five Limiting Factors

Creative Work: Five Limiting Factors

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.

It’s hard to find the right balance between financial/responsibilities and the desire to pursue a creative career.

External

1: Financial

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.

2: Social

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.

3: Priorities

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.

4: Permission

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.

Pouty face.

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.

Internal

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 get paid.

The best way to get known is to write, write, write.

Don’t give up your day job.

Treat your writing like a job.

Do it for the love of it.

 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 opportunity.

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.)

Source: Australian Authors: Industry Brief No. 3 – Author’s Income. http://www.businessandeconomics.mq.edu.au/our_departments/Economics/econ_research/reach_network/book_project/authors/3_Authors_Income.pdf