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Showing Them the Money: Why some writers don’t like to admit where their cash really comes from.

January 29, 2015


I read Ann Bauer’s article on Salon, “Sponsored” by my husband: Why it’s a problem that writers never talk about where their money comes from, with an uneasy flush of recognition. In it she writes about how writers lucky enough to have income from sources other than writing, often fudge these details in public, especially if the money comes to them through inheritance or marriage.

“In my opinion,” Bauer writes, “we do an enormous “let them eat cake” disservice to our community when we obfuscate the circumstances that help us write, publish and in some way succeed… I do have a huge advantage over the writer who is living paycheque to paycheque, or lonely and isolated, or dealing with a medical condition, or working a full-time job.”

I relate to this because, mostly through circumstances beyond my control, I’ve come to rely almost entirely on my husband for financial support –  at least for now. And I’ve certainly been guilty of glossing over my economic position out of deep feminist shame. Bauer makes a powerful case for fuller disclosure, but I take issue with another side of her argument.

She goes on, “Those with privilege and luck don’t want the riffraff knowing the details. After all, if “those people” understood the differences in our lives, they might revolt. Or, God forbid, not see us as somehow more special, talented and/or deserving than them.”

I don’t believe this. Naturally I accept that, in many ways, my position is a privileged one: I’m white, middle-class and tertiary-educated, and very fortunate that my partner is willing to do the heavy financial lifting on my behalf. When I look at the achievements of, say, Maxine Beneba Clarke, I’m filled with embarrassment that I’ve done so little with so much. And I think this might be the real reason that the more well-off writers often stay shtum.

Here’s my situation: I’ve always worked part-time. The main reason is that making time for writing is always my first priority. I also have a strong aversion to devoting large chunks of my life to a business I don’t care about, in the service of goals that I actively despise (I discovered the latter while temping for a large financial institution).

Luckily, since I have no interest in ever owning my own home nor raising children, my needs are modest. For most of my adult life I’ve lived in share-houses, and bought second-hand clothes, furniture and appliances from op-shops and garage sales. This meant I could get by on a combination of part-time work and (very small) lower-income Centrelink payments.

Then I moved in with my boyfriend – now husband – and my benefits were automatically cancelled, because his income was just over the cut-off point. I was studying at the time, so looking for full-time work wasn’t an option even had I wanted to. I worked in a market research call centre for three years, until the constant verbal abuse from strangers wore me down. I knew it was time to quit when my hands started shaking.

So I switched to reception jobs. These included a position where a colleague would assign me work I was unqualified for while she argued on the phone with her fiancé and browsed online for wedding accessories (I could see her screen from my desk), and a job with a really nasty mean-girl clique of senior staff who regularly bullied and mocked the receptionists. I was made redundant from that one, three months before my own wedding.

During this period I completed a diploma, had four short stories published and won two writing prizes, so I wasn’t exactly slacking off.

I then spent months applying for reception jobs, writing literally hundreds of application emails, before finally giving up. The majority of these were for part-time work, partly to leave aside time for my writing and partly because, as I’m an introvert with severe social anxiety, just being around other people for eight hours at a stretch can be really difficult. As far as office work was concerned, I was at the end of my tether.

After several months of searching, I was very fortunate to get a job teaching creative writing at a community centre. I’ve been doing this for 18 months and absolutely love it. There’s just one problem: it’s only two-and-a-half hours per week and even that’s hanging in the balance at the moment, due to a drop-off in numbers. (This isn’t due to my performance, but to students variously falling ill, taking other courses, being unable to afford the fees, having to look after grandchildren, and most unfortunately, in a couple of cases dying.) So at the moment I’m doing a bit of online transcribing, which pays peanuts, and crossing my fingers I still have a teaching job come February.*

I certainly didn’t make a choice to be financially dependant on my husband; it just happened. Luckily I’ve developed frugal habits from all those years on minimum wage, and he’s very disciplined about sticking to a budget, so we get by. Necessities aren’t a problem, but there have been days when I’ve actually scrounged down the back of the couch for enough coins to buy a $3 bottle of wine.

We’ve agreed that for the moment it makes the most sense for me to concentrate on my writing, since that’s what I’m best at. My skill set is, unfortunately, highly specialised and not very sought-after. And yes, I’ve applied for copywriting and editing jobs, but have only had a couple of interviews. I think employers sense that for me these jobs are only a means to an end (writing fiction), whereas they want someone hungry to make it in their own field, which is fair enough.

Recently a friend from uni, who now works there, asked me to contribute a Q&A interview to my old course’s Facebook page. I responded enthusiastically, burbling about my teaching job and my freelance successes, while neglecting to mention that these don’t come close to paying my bills. I now feel that this was dishonest, but for not altogether bad reasons – sure, I wanted to save face, but I was also reluctant to squash budding writers’ enthusiasm. It’s a long, hard road, and sometimes our dreams are all we have.

My fervent hope is that, over time, I’ll build enough of a motley career in freelance journalism, teaching and, eventually, book royalties to be able to pull my weight again. In the meantime, I now see that my silence on this topic harms nascent writers, who deserve to know how tough it is out there. So starting here, I intend to be much braver about revealing my present circumstances.

However, I certainly don’t see myself as “more special, talented and/or deserving” than the writers whom life hasn’t treated so kindly. Like them, I just want to get on with the business of writing. The worst thing I could do with my advantages, and with my husband’s generosity, is to squander them. Looking at it that way, I don’t have anything to be embarrassed about after all.

* postscript: Thornbury Writers Workshop is going ahead this semester, as is a new subject, Unlocking the Book in You.

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