There were always a few sharp intakes of breath when I told my students that I didn’t expect to make a living from writing. I had assumed that there wasn’t much money going – at least, not for the kind of literary work, novels and essays, that interest me. I knew this understanding was contentious, potentially exacerbating the problematic question of fair remuneration, especially for emerging writers who are prone to being asked to work for free. But long before I understood the intricacies of the industry, I simply decided not to worry about payment, cutting any anxieties regarding the solvency of my passion off at the pass.
‘This is the position I’m talking from when I talk about writing,’ I explained to my students, registering looks of horror and pity. ‘Don’t worry,’ I rushed on. ‘It means I can write what interests me!’ They weren’t buying it. I over-shared that I’ve always presumed to work part time, in related roles if possible, living frugally, writing when I can. That’s what my fine-artist father did; modeling the way a creative career might work. There are undeniable structures of privilege underpinning our abilities to choose and lead such lives: emergency support (moral and financial) from wider family, sound educations, good health. Until retirement, my father always worked: as an emergency teacher, then in Universities and TAFEs, unhooking his creative pursuit from responsibility to bill paying. Though he didn’t necessarily covet paid employment, he lived comfortably if quietly, enjoying the freedom this afforded his art.
In my twenties, several understandings crystallised almost simultaneously. The first was obvious: writing seriously was going to require a massive investment of time, preferably on a daily basis. Probably more time, if I was honest, than my boring job, uncompromising social life, and developing literary skill were allowing. Secondly, I had chosen a partner who was wonderful, but also a writer. We were working together in admin and in hospitality – industries crammed with Arts graduates. I could hear my biological clock ticking like a cooling engine, aware that our circumstances would not stretch to support either one of us at home with kids, if we went down that path. Thirdly, though I had in place the trappings of a writing life: an idea, an office, a desk, a computer and time, in the twelve months I had thus far been ‘a writer’, I had, shamefully, produced little to nothing. I recognised that I needed a better pay-to-hour ratio to free up more time for writing and some kind of support structure to help guide me in my work. Long term, I needed to be eligible for those rare jobs inclusive of some paid maternity leave.
So I followed a route that is increasingly popular among Australian writers, though not necessarily openly acknowledged as such: I enrolled in a PhD by Research in Creative Writing. This was chosen among the range of postgraduate options because research degrees do not incur HECS. I was unbelievably blessed. As my interest was climate change, my project technically fell into one of the university’s key research areas, more commonly reserved for the readily funded sciences, which boosted the ranking of my scholarship application. Once secured, the university’s generous stipend (around $20,000 per year for three years) was sustaining. As an annual income, this amount is not a lot by national standards, but I was used to living on little. I quit my job. Years later, I still marvel at the privilege and opportunity bestowed on me by this precious, institutional break. My gratitude is boundless.
Writer Ann Bauer recently ‘came out’ as a kept woman in Salon, revealing that her husband’s lucrative career has allowed for her (largely unpaid) literary career to burgeon. For those of us without wealthy benefactors, creative writing PhD programs appear to be an increasingly attractive alternative. Writers like myself, nurturing fledgling writing careers, looking to begin their first book-length work but struggling, are finding support of kind in academic contexts that is perhaps more robust, but also more rigorous, than the range of early career fellowships, internships, competitions and prizes on offer. Institutional affiliation provides much for emerging writers: legitimacy, networking opportunities, the guidance of supervisors (mentors) and peers, potential financial assistance, research resources and a quiet place to work. It offers the chance to create a book-length work in a supported environment, with the hope that, even if publication is not forthcoming at the end of process, an academic teaching gig might eventuate. This is employment that could help sustain an unpaid or poorly-paid creative writing career.
I was lucky. I did get some maternity leave from my employer, our government paid some too, at minimum wage, which is far more than many mothers globally can say. But something by comparison doesn’t make it enough. Though I’ve worked hard to construct a life in which writing and financial security are not interdependent. Now that my children severely limit the hours I can commit to writing or in my paid role, I no longer necessarily stand by this as a sensible approach. The question I ask is: shouldn’t I get paid for the work I do? I wonder, but quietly, hardly daring even to suggest such a thing to myself.
But what is there to take the place of my assumptions about writing and wage earning on personal but also cultural fronts? Getting a PhD is not a solution for all – even most – writers. As a go-to structure of support for emerging writers, the academy is particularly exclusionary, capturing only a select few: those with undergraduate and perhaps postgraduate qualifications (and who have, therefore, enjoyed the privileges underpinning such educations) and those whose ideas translate clearly and in a saleable manner to both creative and academic discourses. Yet, when I speak with my enthusiastic, talented students about the lives they might lead beyond my classroom, I always urge them toward higher degree programs like the one I completed if they appear to have a suitable project. Reading bedtime stories to my babies, I wonder, am I doing these new writers a disservice?
Incredibly and against all odds, my modest writerly dreams, for what they were, came true. But culminating in my early thirties, prime child-bearing age, they coincided with the births of two children, complicating things in the way that parenthood has been complicating the lives of men and women forever – but especially women, who still bear the brunt of child rearing and associated housework at significant cost to their careers (and, sometimes, their sanity). Despite the privileges bestowed on me, I’ve run into an age-old cultural stumbling block. Did I think the protection of a PhD could circumnavigate the rigors of motherhood? The sleep deprivation? The pressure to prepare infinite snacks made with cheese? Of course not. But the reality of the situation is that, currently a stay-at-home parent by day, a writer by night, I am doing what untold numbers of people in each camp, and all those in both, are doing: two challenging but largely unpaid jobs.
I don’t know what the solution should be. I acknowledge that I have enjoyed every privilege afforded by my education, and yet, I find myself at a point in my life – a point shared by millions of parents – that presents a creative stumbling block; one that seems insurmountable because it is so structurally ingrained. Though they are rarely placed together, unless to address what one might detract from the other, it strikes me now that the work of motherhood and of writing share a common, binding misfortune: each undervalued in the remunerative sense, but fundamental in the cultural.