The literary mother load

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.

Alice Robinson

Alice Robinson is a writer of fiction, essays and reviews. She has a PhD in Creative Writing from Victoria University and has published two novels, Anchor Point and The Glad Shout (both with Affirm Press).

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  1. Apparently John Keats sold only 200 copies of his combined work during his lifetime.

    A measly 200 …

    (granted he died of TB at 25, but still …)

    No one should expect to make a living from writing.

    You are right to tell your students that, and repeat it over and over, no matter how many piteous looks and harsh intakes of breath it may provoke.

    I only wish someone had reiterated that simple truth when I was a youngster !

  2. Great piece Alice, which resonated very much with me. Have you read the book The Divided Heart – interviews with women artists including writers about balancing parenting, paid work and ‘the third shift’ ie their artistic work

  3. As an ex-student of yours, I am heeding your (and others) inspiration to follow the PhD trail. Thank you! I want to add a few observations here. In the first 3 years, I aimed for the best result I could manage in every subject. I would add this encouragement to all students, because the step between Bachelor and PhD is also interesting. I’m doing Honours this year and my academic brain is expanding my creative brain in ways I did not previously appreciate could happen. I think the message should go to first year students – value yourself and work hard from the beginning – don’t wait to “find yourself” and think about Higher Ed in year 3.
    2 comments re writing and children:
    Kids take up a lot of time, but if it wasn’t them, it would be something or someone else!
    Jodi Picoult made a LOT of money. Her journey began by writing at her kitchen table, stuck at home with 2 little kids.
    Go Alice. You’ve already made an exciting start! Keep inspiring students. Thanks 🙂

    1. Thanks Alice. And I like what you have to add, Lynda, but I’m not so sure about the ‘Kids take up a lot of time, but if it wasn’t them, it would be something or someone else!’ line. I’m a writer, an activist-scholar, and have found part-time university research and teaching complementary and sustaining. But I’ve never had a kid and really do benefit from not having that extra responsibility. In a competitive and individualistic capitalist environment I think child-rearing can be a burden especially if you’re not wealthy enough to delegate off parenting tasks. It’s not the only reason I haven’t had a child but I really don’t think anything else matches the depth of responsibility a parent has for their offspring. You have my heartfelt admiration. At the same time I have no relative to care or look out for me, entertain or inspire me as the child I never had might have. Still, this is a loss easily filled by friends.

  4. excellent article – thank you Alice for covering the hard practical issues and sharing your experience. I know I and at least one of my writer friends relate intensely to what you’ve written here.

  5. Insanity. how interesting that the author singles out women [must be true]. As I am mental totally and on meds this allusion that women are driven insane is remarkable in the absence of evidence. It would be nice [not for the patients obviously] if some evidence were available. it’d make a great PhD project.

  6. I am looking for privacy and space at this time of life
    being happily in my sixties. I thought this could be a time of much time and privacy to write. However, my husband has a slow dementia and is needing a lot of my time and energy, and I have a third share in my elderly mothers care as well. When I do have time to write it is rare. Other demands call their siren tune, needing to be out and about, social justice action, chores at home and family and friends to keep up with. Perhaps these are stories in themselves.

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