Every three weeks, seven-time Going Down Swinging contributor Paul Mitchell will provide insight into the practicalities of a writing life: from staying inspired to surviving.
Once people get over their amazement that I remain a writer despite not having written Harry Potter and the Vampires’ Fifty Shades of Code, they ask how I make a living. I tell them I work as a professional writer and teacher. I do my creative writing when time – and bank balance – allows.
The next question is always how do you juggle your creative and professional writing? Do you work at night on your novel (it’s always a novel, isn’t it, that a real writer is writing?)? How do you switch between your novel and copywriting? When I tell them I switch between any combination of poetry, fiction, journalism, performance scripts, ghostwriting, script assessment, brochures and web copy in a given week – and sometimes a day – their mouths hang open and then their questions increase. As do their knowing glances.
Ah, that’s why he hasn’t written a bestseller. Can’t concentrate.
Well, I’d like to. But unlike that icon of writing, Cormac McCarthy, I’m not prepared to build my own stone house in the desert, eat little more than potatoes for several years, and have a series of ‘housekeepers’ type up my manuscripts. I’ve got a youngish family. School bills. All kinds of other bills that are far more creative in pricing than any of my writing.
So I’m a switcheroo.
A friend suggested recently that I am also a ‘spaghetti thinker’. I can pull out a strand of spag (writing) from my saucy brain, work it round in my fingers, gobble it, and then pull out another strand. All without disturbing the whole bowl of pasta. Maybe that’s true. Or I’m just good at time management. Or I am good at switching on and off in short periods. But the question of how switcheroo writers do what we do is probably not as important as how we do it without going insane.
Almost all writers in Australia are switcheroos of one kind or another. They work other jobs. Not all choose to work as professional writers (and teachers) like I do, but most writers don’t make a living from their works of creative genius.
For Miles Franklin short-listed novelist Tony Birch (Blood), being able to write at all is about having a job. Writing is not my job, he consistently tells crowds at writing events. He is a lecturer in creative writing at Melbourne Uni. He has taught in that department for ten years. But his doctorate is in history and he has also lectured in that department. He published two collections of short stories (Shadowboxing and Father’s Day) before Blood and this is how:
“Several of the stories from both books were published over quite a long period,” Tony told me. “Getting them together as a collection took six months full-time (while on leave on both occasions), and then about six months of re-editing while working also.”
That’s without considering the 18 months he worked on Blood while also working at the University. His kids are older. He can get leave periods. But he’s still a switcheroo, even with a Miles Franklin short-listed novel. And Helen Garner is also, to an extent, a switcheroo. Perhaps more so by choice than necessity. Which raises a question: is it in fact necessary to be a switcheroo in order to experience enough life to be a successful (even if that success is not financial) creative writer? All I can say is that I read the brief bios of many of my favourite writers and find that sitting at a high desk all day with a fountain pen in hand hasn’t been the recipe for the moving works they’ve created.
I’m writing this blog today. It’s on my To-Do list. Also on my To-Do list today is an edit on a short story for my PhD, a meeting with a co-writer to discuss a feature script we have in development, the need to create two PowerPoints for a course in poetry I’m running at Writers Victoria, a bit of sorting on a copywriting job (checking the copy and coordinating a photographer), and something else that I’ve forgotten and it’s driving me nuts trying to remember. Oh, yeah! I’m going to a play tonight and reviewing it for ArtsHub. And checking out the director’s work because he has a play I wrote in his hands and is deciding whether he’d like to direct it.
That’s a busier than normal day for me. Usually, I have fewer urgent items on my To-Do list. But, interestingly, if I look at the To-Do list for today, there are very few things that I actually have to do today. Almost all of it could be put off. But I’m not going to do that. I push non-urgent items into the urgent category. That way I find, in a few days, luxurious amounts of time spread out for me to write creatively. If I’m not totally spooked by the bank balance.
As I said, not all switcheroo writers work as professional freelance writers. They’re probably smarter than me. They have stable incomes that allow them to write creatively more often and with less stress. But I need the flexibility that freelance offers because I have to manage my elder kids for half of every school holidays as well as manage school train pick-ups and drop-offs. I would drive an employer insane. But I reckon my switcheroo skills means I’d get their job done. With time to spare.
Paul Mitchell is a past Going Down Swinging contributor and features in issues No. 19–No. 23, No. 28 and No. 30. Paul’s books are Dodging the Bull (short fiction), Awake Despite the Hour and Minorphysics (both poetry).
You can read more of his work here.