First, a pop quiz: which of these three statements is true?

1. When I went to school, I learnt to swim. I am now an Olympic swimmer.

2. I was taught maths at school. I’m now a mathematician.

3. My teachers taught me how to write. And I’m now a writer.

 

I can see your hand up, just there in the Blue Corner . . . Yes, that’s right; you’re reading a column usually populated by writers so the answer is number three. But the other two false statements show that the true one contains a falsehood. And this fallacy is one strand of a recent Australian debate about writing; a debate that appears to revolve around questions of economic value. But I think, like an episode of Lost, it goes a little deeper.

In the past few months, people as diverse as university lecturers, well-known authors and those trying to type out a career as freelancers, have made points about writing and money that have stuck with me.

Victoria University creative writing lecturer and novelist John Weldon (Spincycle) suggested in The Age ‘Debate’ section that in the digital age we’re all writers. This means, he wrote, that writing is no longer a skill for which people will – or should – pay.

Novelist Richard Flanagan (Death of a River Guide, Wanting) wrote in The Age’s ‘Life and Style’ section about what he saw as the literary industry’s wrongheaded emphasis on major prizes. He said it’s not the way to promote writing (and therefore reading), adding that the machinations (jealousy, payback, judges’ biases, fashion, etc.) that lead to an author winning an award rarely coincided with literary merit.

Flanagan also suggested the money up for grabs in literary prizes would be better spent in government grants, and that the grants themselves ($2m per year for the profitable writing industry, as opposed to $2b for the unprofitable Australian film industry) could do with a boost.

And Lisa Dempster, then Emerging Writers’ Festival Director (and newly appointed MWF Director), published on the EWF website earlier this year as many of the rate sheets she could get from Australia’s online and print magazines. Her post started a month-long debate that mainly voiced frustration about skinny freelance remuneration. Richard Flanagan also noted that Henry Lawson said anyone wishing to be a writer in Australia should reach for their revolver. The responses to Dempster’s post suggested that only our gun laws are keeping some Australian writers safe.

Let’s get back, however, to the swimming pool and maths. Everyone learns these skills at school, but we don’t all become experts. We all learn to write, but we don’t all become Henry Lawson. Or even Di Morrissey. However, unlike swimming and maths, the digital age allows us to make our writing public in ways we can’t make our swimming or maths public. Does that make us, as John Weldon I think mischievously wrote, all writers?

Obviously, there’s another question this one raises: what is a writer? In previous decades that question was easy to answer in Australia: Patrick White. I’m only half joking. A significant writer who emerged when White dominated the Australian literary landscape (literally and figuratively) said ‘we were all scared of Patrick’. What I’m getting at here is that a writer was known for the following:

  • his or her extraordinary gifts;
  • constant writing;
  • a penchant for solitude;
  • an almost religious vocational calling;
  • a disregard for literary fashion and, possibly, other writers;
  • an absolute regard for grammar;
  • being scary in one way or another; and
  • a suite of major publications.

The ease of online publishing (and the increased ease of print publishing) makes it now more difficult to answer the question. The ivory tower writer has become the writer in next-door’s flat. The same goes for other arts in which people used to merely dabble – photography, film making – that finds an audience online. But does that make us all photographers and filmmakers? The photographers I work with in my writing business give me an emphatic No, as do the feature and short filmmakers I’ve worked with. Yet, even though I similarly believe we’re not all writers, there’s hesitancy amongst writers to say the same thing. At least publicly. And there may be an economic reason for this: writing courses.

Except for those on the margins of education, we can all write. So when it comes to trying to figure out if we have any creative talent, many of us will turn to writing above origami, drawing, sculpture or ‘So You Think You Can Dance Australia’. And except for those in the centre carriage of the creative writing gravy train (‘airport’ novelists, some young adult novelists, ghostwritten celebrities, a handful of essayists, and a small, fading constellation of literary stars), all Australian writers have to make a living some other way. For many, it’s teaching. And from experience I can tell you it works out at a better hourly rate than most of the freelance journalism Lisa Dempster catalogued, although not as good as some copywriting and ghostwriting gigs I’ve had.

The students I’ve taught in workshops, universities and TAFEs have been a combination of talented, battling, frustrated, bored, funny, interesting, capable, sensitive, switched off and willing to learn. In short, fascinating to meet and engage with. But I wouldn’t mind betting that the following observation is most creative writing teachers’ experience: about 10 per cent of students have the ability to become consistently published creative writers, but it’s simply not in our interests to say that (did I just say that?).

It’s definitely in the interests of developing a healthy society to encourage people’s willingness to explore their creative writing (published or not). But it should also be in our interests to inform creative writing students that they may not be able to make it their career. Or that they may not be able to live up to their own definition of the term writer.

And if you think I’m just talking about my students, you’re wrong. I stare at the same canyon that separates me from the writer I hoped I’d be and the writer I am.

I learnt to write at school, got a BA in Journalism and Cert IV in Professional Writing and Editing, gathered up an MA in Creative Writing, and I’m now doing a PhD. But, even in this new era where we can all be writers, I still have a lot of trouble calling myself one. The reason? Like many others, I’ve had to do other work (often corporate writing and teaching) outside of my real passion for creative writing. Even though I write every day, I don’t do the writing I want to.

Whinge, whinge, violin strings. Okay, I know. But I really do wish sometimes for that stretch of time, like the golden path in the Wizard of Oz that the wizards of Oz Co once gave me. Guys, I promise I’ll again use my gift wisely if I get another one. . .

I should note that I’m not getting paid for this piece. It’s not a poem, a short story, a script, or any of the other creative writing I have simmering on the stove. But I’m writing it because I see value in writing about this issue of writing and value. And value has nothing to do with money.

New York Times photographer Bill Cunningham said don’t take any money and they can’t control you. Poet Kathleen Norris wrote, most likely paraphrasing, that we live in a society that knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.

That’s why creative writing courses often get lumped into professional writing courses.

In a professional writing course you can study fiction, poetry, screen writing, even creative non-fiction, alongside more professionally orientated subjects such as corporate writing, editing, journalism one oh one, desktop publishing and PR writing. Or you can go through a professional writing course doing basically only creative subjects and still call it ‘professional writing’.

The problem is that many people have the mistaken idea that they’re going to make a career and/or (usually and) a living out of creative writing. But even those creative writers consistently published over many years don’t make the minimum wage out of their writing, even with the occasional government grant. You don’t need to have lots of strings to your bow, you need several other bows. (And many writers are fortunate enough to have beaus who are handsomely paid in some other field.)

I don’t want to give the impression that I think creative writing courses are a problem, pumping out too many writers for an ever-decreasing market of readers (although it is a concern if we believe constructing sentences and pasting them on blogs makes us all writers. I’m reminded of one creative writing tutor’s comments to a student: That’s not writing, that’s just typing.)

No, the problem I see, which is emblematic of a deeper question of value, resides with how these courses are named: Professional Writing and Editing.

Here comes the ubiquitous statement: Professional Writing and Editing courses have burgeoned/exploded/grown their hair out over the last decade. At the same time, markets for many kinds of creative writing have shrunk. In addition, the number of graduates these courses produce (I’m one), the shrinking journalism profession and the mischievous idea that we’re all writers, makes for an oversupply of ‘writers’, and thus a far more competitive industry. While you can’t yet get writing and fries plus a Batman doll for $2.95, you can definitely get some cold burger corporate prose for under $50 p/h. Which might seem like a lot if you’re starting out as a freelance professional writer, but when you discover how few hours a week you get to work, those $2.95 burgers start to look finger-licking good (Okay, so I haven’t written any fast food ads!)

To exist in the education sector at all in this consumer, achievement- and results-driven ‘socio-economy’, creative writing has to have a price. A professional price. But it doesn’t have one – it only has a value. And that value is the insight, beauty, clarity and wisdom that writing (I’m thinking here of literary fiction and poetry that is written with, shock, the market as only a distant consideration) brings us, as both producers and readers. You won’t find those outcomes on the course outcome list, or a freelance rate sheet. You won’t even find it in your book contract.

I learnt to write at school and I’m now a writer. Or am I? In one sense, it doesn’t matter what label I put on myself. I’m engaged in professional and artistic activities, and those borders often blur. Like they’re blurring for everyone in what is loosely called the writing and reading community. I used to admire Kafka for wanting all his manuscripts burnt after his death. It seemed to say his activity was egoless, beyond notions of price tags and publication. But what he was really saying, erroneously, was that his work had no value to anyone else. History shows the deep and abiding value of Kafka’s work. And I want us to continue to pay for this value, whether its creators are dead, living in an ivory tower or on the street, so that we who gain its benefits acknowledge the gift we receive.

 


 

More by Paul Mitchell can be found here