Monday, February 17, 2014

Public Writers, Private Lives

Just a quick heads up. Ruth Quibell and I recently wrote an essay, 'Public Writers, Private Lives', for Island magazine -- it's now online in full.

We interviewed twenty authors, from Australia and overseas, about the literary life: income, family, friends, identity and more. The result is an intriguing glimpse into the writer's vocation -- the anxiety and ambition behind the festivals and glossy interviews.

An extract was available in The Age, but the full feature can now be read here. A sample:
Full-time writers are as rare as six-figure advances and newspaper columns. Most novelists and nonfiction authors we spoke to have day jobs: lawyer, librarian,  journalist, academic. Their literary careers are worked in around the edges. While they often retain the identity, ‘writer’ or ‘author’, they have no simple fit between vocation and profession. Melbourne novelist and creative writing lecturer Tony Birch put it simply: ‘I’m a runner, reader, writer, in that order.’ This does not make writing less important, but it can lessen its centrality. 
What lawyer David Francis has in common with full-time writer Alison Croggon and other prolific or established writers is a firm idea of his own literary vocation. Despite his legal career, Francis identifies strongly with his own creative ambition, and claims space and time for it whenever possible. On a ship to Alaska, David writes: 
As soon as I enter a place where I’m staying, I sniff out my writing space. As soon as I got on this boat, I found the ‘bridge room’ and I’ve taken over a felt-covered bridge table. I just hope the others don’t find me. 
Most authors who write full time are confident of this identity, even when it is shared with other roles. Thomas Farber, for example, says he is a writer, but also a ‘husband, son, citizen, sibling, editor, teacher, consultant, etc’. Yet as we have noted, he sees his writing practice as precious, and is ‘single-minded’ about pursuing it. UK novelist Emma Darwin, who unproblematically identifies as a writer, is equally resolved about her writing hours. When she has to interrupt writing to teach, she immediately quarantines hours for creative work. ‘I start by ring-fencing writing time for that week,’ she says, ‘and fit children and paid work and social life round that.’ 
In short, before answering the question ‘how much time ought I have?’, many writers first ask ‘What am I?’ There is an existential aspect to the writing life, which provides the justification for later struggles and sacrifices. 
(Illustration: courtesy of Island)

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