IRL: the positive benefits of work on writing

Since I was tiny and called myself an ‘authoress’ – seriously! – I’ve imagined my life as a full-time writer. I’ve always imagined the desk overlooking the hills, the latest novel up on the screen, my writing day punctuated by walks. I’d be happier, healthier, my house cleaner, my brain tidier. I’d have more sleep, I’d feel more fulfilled. I’d be able to keep a dog, make time for other interests, see more of my family and friends.

Of course, very few writers are able to write full-time. Most combine their writing with other, often better paid, work. Some are able to take employment that chimes with and complements the writing life: lecturing and teaching creative writing, copywriting, editorial services, working in bookshops (or even running one, in the case of Evie Wyld).

For the emerging writer, or the complete novice – the writer putting the finishing touches to her query letter to agents, the writer sending off his competition entry with crossed fingers – writing is a brain-sapping passion that happens in amongst the flotsam and jetsam of everyday life: the job(s), the household chores, the friends, the family. The thought of committing to a writing MA or jacking in the day job is not only a distant dream, it’s downright impossible.


Philip Larkin was well known for his employment at a library. (Image Creative Commons, but credited to Quite Adept)

Penned in the margins

But my experience so far – writing two non-fiction books and preparing a collection of short stories alongside a full time, busy job in a creative agency – has been a good one. My dream position of ‘full time authoress’ is receding: even if I was to land that dream scenario of tangible, we-can-live-on-this chunky advance, I now know that I’d spend a good proportion of my time in employment of some kind.

There’s a few reasons for that: some writing-related, some personal.

Firstly, I write better when I have a deadline, a goal, an aim. If there’s a competition deadline looming, or a ticking time bomb I’ve imposed on myself – I told myself to write ten short stories by the end of 2016 – then I’m prolific. I carve out time in the most unexpected places. I get the words down at night, during my commute, while I’m doing other things. So if my writing is restricted to evenings, weekends and holidays, I look forward to it during my working day, put on my invisible out-of-office and get to it. If I had all the time in the world, I have a feeling my productivity would go out the window – quite literally, as staring out of the window in a daze seems my procrastination habit of choice, these days.  

Thinking about writing is as necessary to the job as getting words down on the page, as is reading widely, and both of these things can still happen in and around my day job, for which I’m very grateful. I tend to do these things when actual physical writing can’t take place – when I’m squashed into a particularly unpleasant commuter train, for example. Working full time, and all its accoutrements, also aids writing in terms of subject matter: observations, colleague anecdotes, real life.

After all, writers solely writing about writers writing can be pretty unsatisfactory. (She says, in the formation of a blog post about writing).

Honing, skilling, developing

My working life has had a profound effect on me as a person, aside from the obvious benefits: regular salary, skills development. As an easily-anxious, often-unconfident graduate, my job of leading and managing both projects and people, and dealing with individuals, sectors and industries quite out of my knowledge range, has helped me sharpen up and assert myself. In my early thirties, I feel very different to the wavering-but-well-intentioned person I was in my early twenties. Of course, some of that is down to the ageing process and ‘finding my feet’, but much is thanks to my job. 

And this impacts my writing life, too. I can lead a community writing group, I invite and give constructive criticism, I accept rejections well, I prioritise and can focus on my priorities, I can sell myself and my work

I realise I am in the fortunate position of being in a day job I enjoy, with a passion I can pursue relatively freely outside working hours – which, of course, is not the situation enjoyed by all writers on the quest for publication. If I was to start a family, for example, I have a feeling my words would disappear out of the very window I once stared from. 

But for now, I’m treasuring my situation.


I'm a winner!

Yep, I can't quite believe I'm typing this, but... I won the Arvon Award at this year's Northern Writers' Awards! You can see the 'are-you-sure-you've-got-the-right-person?' expression on my face, with the official write-up, right here...

I entered the Northern Writers' Awards to try and win development time for my short story collection, currently in progress. The collection is comprised of stories based on or influenced by English folk song – reinterpretations, reimaginings – as a challenge to myself, to meld my love of folk song and fiction, but also to demonstrate what a strong, fascinating canon of folk song we English people have, much of which gives an insight into the lives of our ordinary ancestors: how they worked, how they loved, how they played. I believe our folk song is a rich compendium on which artists can draw – and thankfully, Ruth Borthwick, Chief Executive and Artistic Director of the Arvon Foundation, thought so, too!


Last Thursday, Chris and I travelled up to Newcastle to collect my award. It was such an exhilarating day! Firstly, I met the other award winners at the Northern Stage, where we chatted about our works in progress and got to know each other over tea and cake. I met some truly lovely, interesting people who I've vowed to stay in touch with as our year with New Writing North unfolds.

Then, in the evening, we went along to The Sutherland Building for the dinner and award presentation ceremony. A variety of different people spoke about their experiences of the Awards: New Writing North staff and trustees, judges and other writers involved in the judging process, and previous recipients, while each judge gave a heartwarming account of why they chose the winning entry they did. I must admit that when Ruth took to the stage to talk about my 'ambitious' project, a stray tear did make its way down my face...

I'm now able to attend an Arvon course of my choosing – dream come true! – and attend other development sessions and opportunities courtesy of New Writing North. It's going to be a fantastic year.

And I'm one of those writers that firmly believed 'it won't happen to me...' If you're deliberating about whether to send in that entry, do it. You never know what might happen!