Late Shift: Why Writers Work At Night
Once we had an image of the Victorian lady author, a person of gentility and slender means, seated at her escritoire quietly at work on a sensation-novel. It was a job opportunity open to those who did not become tutors or lady’s companions, the spinsters’ choice.
Well, it turns out things haven’t moved that far on. The Guardian reports that writing is once more in danger of becoming an elitist profession, with many authors being subsidised by their partners or a second job in order to stay afloat, according to new statistics.
Findings from the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society report into author earnings announced last summer that earnings for professional writers had fallen to less than £10,500 a year.
However, the picture is more complicated; while the average professional writer earns ten grand, the mean earnings for a writer’s household were more than £81,000 a year, and median household earnings were at £50,000 per annum. Writers need to supplement their income from other sources, such as a second job or household earnings contributed by a partner. The report analysed answers from more than 5,500 professional writers (NB they didn’t ask me).
This is bad news for new young writers and working class writers, they point out, as it puts a limit on the number of people who can consider writing as a profession. If you can’t pay your way at the start of your career you need to do something else as well. The system is different in France, where literary skills are held in high regard. Florian Zeller, the novelist/playwright, had his first books published in his early twenties and is now dominating the London stage with plays like ‘The Son’ and ‘The Father’, mature works from a writer in his 30s.
However, I need to play devil’s advocate here. I only ever wanted to be a writer, and having no support or idea how to go about it took a full-time job (one that ran into most weekends) and wrote in the margins of my day, basically late at night and early in the morning, something I continued to do for the next 34 years.
The downside was that I didn’t consider that writing was my full-time job until I was in my fifties. As part of the workforce I was surrounded by fresh young voices who helped keep me relevant and up-to-date. Anyone who has worked in an office full of writers will tell you it’s either the most mind-stretching place on earth or the most infuriating. But writing always had to come second to the job that paid the bills.
Equally, when I worked on a writers’ charity which awarded substantial sums to promising writers just starting out, not one of them ever delivered a finished product (often through no fault of their own, it must be said).
Probably the most useful training was the 10,000 hour rule – but reaching it while facing the demands of a second job, well that’s always going to be the hardest part.