Your Biggest Challenge as a Writer -and What To Do About It - Part 12
Today, something different - a guest post from our beloved Gary Bonn:
I’m writing this in response to Grant’s superb series Your Biggest Challenge as a Writer – and What To Do About It. For this series of essays Grant has drawn on research and found time to be a huge problem for people – but not the only one.
Life as a writer has its own problems some of which it shares with other professions. It’s worth knowing what you are headed into. Writing costs and it’s an emotional cost in the end no matter how you get there.
Notes: For the purposes of this the label Artist includes all creators of art – including writers. I am going to mention extreme outcomes but you should understand they are exceptional.
Time can be forced upon people by their environment. The best-selling writer Stephen Godden (also known as T. F. Grant) lived in such a remote place, trapped financially and unable to find work, and was unable to do anything but write. That he achieved best-selling success and died more or less as the news broke was part of a miserable hand fate had been dealing him for a long time.
For others time becomes available when leaving college/university, retirement or the youngest child attends school. The latter is a hard choice in because it means you’re still having to work, clean, cook, when the children return home rather than having more time for them.
Health can force time on us too. Whilst instructing a group of teenagers how to play a totally safe game, popular among hunter-gatherer nomadic bands in west Africa, I suffered a spinal injury. This meant I couldn’t move for weeks. Instead I created a world in my head and worked there instead. I know that dreadful place as well as I know my favourite mountains. I met the people, befriended them, helped gather the materials they collected for money, tended their wounds and planned safety and political strategies. I still dream in that reality.
Inevitably stories emerged (still unpublished!) I learned more about world building and author immersion that I thought possible.
[deviation: This is a fabulous exercise and can be done in moments when you don’t have a way of making notes to hand or can’t sleep. Live in a world in real time and slow motion with all your senses switched on.]
Recovery was infuriatingly slow. Of course I wrote and work blossomed. Wonderfully, I had time to do it to the very best of my ability. There was no deadline for anything. The only limit was my skill level at any given moment.
There seems to be force involved either way. Either time is forced upon the writer or the writer must force it upon their lives.
Either way, you have time but the way ahead can be difficult. Be prepared.
Financial impacts are related to the fact that you have joined the ranks of artists*. The competition is terrifying in everything from digital animation to choreography. Most artists I know work to the best of their ability at all times and I have no doubt that there are many great writers, even geniuses of Shakespeare’s quality, out there who only sell half a dozen books.
Don’t expect money from art. How many villages, towns and cities have bands who play at weddings? There are hundreds, even thousands, of bands but they play for money which doesn’t cover their expenses. There is a minute percentage of disproportionately wealthy pop stars but these people are caught up in corporate machines and only a tiny number of those actually get to play the music they wish to.
*If people call a plumber in they expect to be charged for work. The same people will expect a painter to give them a painting, a musician to play, a poet to read for them – and it won’t even enter their heads that the artist needs to eat.
Wait until you have some books published. People will ask you if you can lend them copies. It’s going to happen.
To write full time from a standing start, expect to live entirely on support from others. This financial situation is replicated all over the country. In most cases it is one spouse supporting the other. It works. You don’t have a big house, your car drips oil and the children are not forced to go to theme parks so often.
Social impacts include your being financially straitened and you’ll slip behind your peers in wealth and status*. You’ll have to accept this is an almost certain outcome for you. You are often seen as a drain on other people. 'If you were any good you’d be rich.' 'You are only calling yourself an artist because you can’t do a real job or are too lazy.' 'Your spouse is gullible' and is frequently told so.
If you argue that Van Gogh sold only one painting or Da Vinci relied on patronage you’ll be told they are exceptions – that they are the opposite is not regarded. You cannot be understood by non-artists if you are driven to produce something not commercial.
You are odd. You are eccentric. Some people will affectedly tolerate you and be polite to your face, though stinging jokes and snide comments will not be uncommon.
Other people will think you are utterly amazing and your spouse/other supporters equally so. It’s advisable not to kill these ones. You will find fans in unusual places (never your family – almost never. Just accept they will hate your work. Deal with it now). Actually, that statement is worth further comment. Your (non-artist) family and long-term friends are unable to see what you’ve written – they see you without your defences and find it uncomfortable. A weird experience for them; it’s not worth making them suffer.
Social isolation can be a big problem for writers. You are going to spend hours alone, possibly a far greater time than you’ve ever spent before. People will say you are becoming socially withdrawn (because you are). You may find your social circles change to include more artists because you can talk to them. In addition the pressure to work can come spontaneously, often at times inconvenient to others and this can lead to them feeling you are not engaging with or prioritising them. Hands up if you’ve not said you need the toilet and hurried off to make notes (and found half an hour has evaporated).
*Actually an artist of any sort can mix socially with any class of people, except gallery owners and publishers etc. who hate them. Every artist knows award-winning and nationally recognised violinists/actors/dancers also work at the council recycling depot. Internationally acclaimed poets are allowed to sweep.
Health issues include alcohol abuse. Other substances may be involved but alcohol is the most popular. When producing art your drinking habits can change remarkably quickly.
One very level-headed writer I know through forums never keeps alcohol in her house. She didn’t drink it but was haunted. ‘It was always there’ she said, and got rid of it. I know just what she means (see emotional, below). It also happens to the people who cannot possibly imagine it could happen to them.
Exception: I know an outstanding poet who can’t write anything meaningful unless blootered. It’s not to be recommended.
Emotional issues, as you will already have inferred, are numerous. There are more.
Artists often work at extreme ends of the emotional spectrum and this can cost terribly – especially those who bleed, wring everything out of their souls or aspire to perfection. It’s worse when faced with deadlines from publishers, galleries and performance dates. The highs are wonderful but draining. The lows awful and equally draining. They can happen over weeks or within hours of each other. Acceptance, rejection, positive and negative criticism are all traitors we are subject to and you learn to treat them all with equal dismissal.
Physical exhaustion and mental prostration are frequent outcomes and can precipitate reactive depression.
I’ve known five professionally creative friends kill themselves. There may be more; some people simply disappeared. Artists often put unendurable pressure on themselves. Exhaustion, feelings of worthlessness, being a burden. Not being able to bear another single moment of pain beyond belief...
Less frequent/severe problems I’ve seen:
Once: separation after a spouse, who had looked after income for years, became jealous of the partner’s success and fame.
Several times: the roller-coaster of emotions exacerbating previously sub-clinical mental illness.
Twice: the inability to cope with sudden wealth and popularity.
Often: social withdrawal and agoraphobia (who me?)
Almost everyone: strain on relationships.
Common: disturbed sleep/nightmares.
Now take a deep breath. It’s a scary road but if you look after yourself none of these are going to happen enough to be a problem. Most of them have happened to me and most other artists I know.
Just be aware.
Thanks very much, Gary! Stay tuned to this blog for the next exciting episode...