Thursday, December 08, 2011

So you want to be a writer part 3

Note to readers: This is the third of a three part series exploring my desire to become a writer. You will find first post here.

I finished my last post  saying that, through blogging, I found myself writing for the sake of writing. In the end, I decided that writing was what I wanted to do in this last stage of my life. The long but partially submerged itch had developed into a fully blown disease.

This post describes the confusions and conflicts that resulted.

Let me start with a very basic question, what do I mean by writing and writers? This may sound a simple question, but it lies at the heart of my personal confusions.

In my first post in this series I said that my original desire to write was little more than a romantic dream. In my second post, I said that one reason why the dream receded to the background lay in the fact that my work required me to write all the time. There was limited time, less desire, to write outside the purely professional. Those two posts encapsulate the confusions I now face.

It's fair to say that my original romantic dream centred on the romance of writer as Writer. As I said then, I was fascinated by the lives of the writers I read about. They weren't always attractive people, their lives were often confused, most struggled with money, but some found wealth and fame.

To a boy from a secure middle class academic/political New England family, this was a window into a new world. They might be strange, but they were interesting. I dreamed of writing the great novel, indeed a great anything, that might lead to fame and success. Even starving in a garret (a concept originally applied to writers rather than painters) seemed somehow romantic.  Not, mind you, that I had any real idea of what a garret was!

While the dream receded, I still carried through elements of it into the present in a way that I did not properly realise. We now come to the second element, my subsequent writing. Here I because I was writing for a purpose, the writing was a means to an end. No matter how good the writing might be, I did not classify myself as a writer because I wasn't writing as a Writer.

When I decided a bit over two years ago that in the last stages of my life I wanted to be a writer rather than someone who simply wrote, the original dream was in fact alive and well. However, the major projects that I had in mind were not writing projects per se, but rather specific pieces of work intended for other purposes. My writing was in fact, as it had been before, a means to an end.

This may sound confused, and indeed in some ways it is, so let me try to illustrate.

My history of New England is a history whose genesis lies deep in my past. I am not writing that history because I want to be a writer. I am writing it because I want to write a history of New England; my writing is a means to an end. However, because I now classify myself as a writer, I find myself focusing on the writing process rather than the specific result, the delivery of the history.

I could have focused on my role as a free-lance historian in the way that the Canadian historian Christopher Moore does. Instead, I chose to focus on my writing.  Mind you, Christopher classifies himself as an historian and writer.

The nature of the confusions created were highlighted in a simple way. Once I started describing myself as a writer, people asked me what I wrote. Was I a novelist, a poet, a playwright? Well, clearly no. I mainly write non-fiction. Further, I write across genres. After I had explained all this, questions often shifted to money. How did I earn my living?

This raised another difficult issue. I used to explain that I was doing contract work to provide an income stream to support my writing. That's true enough, but it also conceals.

There is very little money in professional writing. Most writers are like isolated chooks, scratching a a few crumbs on the margin of the flock. Those who do make something approaching a living often do so by contract writing, using their writing skills to deliver things like manuals or documents that the client cannot do themselves.

When I shifted my mental classification of myself to that of writer, I started looking for writing jobs. Here I struck a problem. It turns out that I actually don't want to do many of the jobs advertised.

For example, I am a reasonably good editor, I have done a lot of it, but I really don't want to spend hours in front of a document trying to turn it into good English where my role is limited solely to the editing task. Mind you, it does depend upon the document to some degree.  My problem lies with the stock-standard document, especially where I have some professional knowledge of the subject matter. 

It's not just that the task is sometimes as boring as bat shit, although that may be unfair to bats. More importantly, I find that my pen itches to improve the content to the point that it's actually quite painful. I find that I take very little satisfaction in turning badly written crap into well written crap when it's still crap! I would be better off with the original content creation task where my writing was actually a secondary factor.

I found another problem as well.

I have quite a high-powered basic CV. That shouldn't be surprising, given the things that I have done. Now that I wanted short term contract work to support my writing, I found my CV to be a real impediment to getting work. Finally, I sought advice from a colleague occupying a senior management role in the area that I was targeting.

His advice was blunt: "Jim, no manager is going to give you work when you obviously have so much more experience than them and probably a great deal more basic ability.They may not say it, but that's the reality."

I intend to write something on this properly at some point for it's actually quite important in considering labour market flexibility, especially for older people. For the moment, I simply note that it is a problem that was further compounded by my attempts to rewrite my CV to better reflect my immediate aspirations and especially my desire to be a writer.

Now where am I going in all this? How do I pull it all together?

Regardless of whether or not I capitalise it, I am clearly a writer: I have let that genie out of the bottle; I cannot go back; I must write. However, I am also more than that. I am both a writer and a person who writes with intent. I am an historian, a sometimes economist, a consultant and a manager. I am a father, a partner, and an often very confused person.

In this next stage in my life, I have to learn how to use these various roles to support what I want to do. I find this confusing, but also exciting. 


Augustus Winston said...

Jim - Whatever happened to the block busters of yesteryear. The GodFathers, the Jaws, the Exorcist to name a few. This may surprise you but a few years ago I tried my hand at writing. I thought that if some talentless hacks like Geoffrey Archer and Dan Brown could pen out a few offerings then why not me. I could certainly use the money. And so I embarked on a literary, though short lived career as a writer.

I wanted my first book to have a name of blockbuster proportions so I called it "The Day the Sun Exploded". Without giving away too much of the storyline its about how a group of survivors shelter in a libray. This was rejected by Hutchison (London) publishers.

So I then wrote another (potential) Blockbuster called "The Most Deadly Virus Ever" This one had exotic locations and was about an epidemic that killed more than enough people to be a good story. This was sent to Hyperion publishers of NY but was rejected too.

So finally I wrote a detective novel called "The Last Hold Up at a Bank". Which was basically about a bank heist gone tragically wrong. But it too was rejected this time by the Australian publishers Collins.

I guess the point I am making is its not as easy to write a book and get it published as people would lead you to believe (trust me Jim I've been there). And I think you need to have friend in the business too.

I don't want to discourage you but its not as easy as it looks.

Augustus Winston

Anonymous said...

I nearly put this link

up on your first post for interest.

Anybody can write. A few people can write well. Now anybody can publish, but the trick as always is to get somebody to buy the output. One of those 'build it, and they will come' situations.

Good luck!

Jim Belshaw said...

That's interesting, Augustus. I didn't know that you were a previously frustrated writer!

I agree that it's not as easy as it looks.

kvd, thank you for the link. The genesis for my series lay in my own confusions about about writing and being a writer. I was trying to clarify for my own sake.

In a way, the issue of publishing and making money from writing is a different issue. One of my personal problems is that I write for my own interest, so I'm all over the place. If I'm to increase my income from my own writing as opposed to writing or editing for others, I need a better focus on that. I simply don't know enough about options.

I also need to complete some of my larger pieces.

Winton Bates said...

Jim, I have been thinking about your comment that your C-V was an impediment to getting short term contract work to support your writing. I don't have anything constructive to say, but for some reason your comment came to mind this morning when I was reading a review of Sylvia Nasar's book, 'Grand Pursuit: the Story of Economic Genius'. Apparently Karl Marx once applied for a job as a railway clerk. He presumably saw this as a means to support his writing.

That is the only possible point of relevance to your situation. Marx's application for the position was apparently rejected, not because his C-V was too good, but because his handwriting was poor and he couldn't speak English.

Jim Belshaw said...

That made me laugh, Winton.

It's interesting on the contract one, because I actually blind-sided myself.

For consulting work, people focus on the strength of your skills, experience. You come in, do, leave. In contract work, they think of it more in conventional job terms, using different criteria. This holds even where it is a three month assignment.

I first came across the problem last year.

I have had a particular focus on Government contract work since my skills here are obviously
very strong. Most of the positions advertised within the NSW system are at 9/10 level.

Last year I got a number of interviews, but neither I nor the agency could understand why I wasn't getting offers even though the interview feedback was positive. I have good referees, but they weren't being consulted. It took a while to suss out the over-qualification problem.

I fiddled with my CV, among other things explaining why I wanted contract work. That actually made things worse; neither fish nor fowl.

In November last year I got six months private sector work on a web/writing project. Only two days per week, but it gave me enough cash to survive & do other things. When that finished, went back to the work that I had been looking at before. The same problem emerged.

I completely rewrote my CV, clearing it through referees and senior colleagues. On their collective advice, I deleted some of the senior stuff such as former Government board positions, toned down other material. It hasn't helped. I have applied for 36 contract assignments in the last two months without cracking one interview.

The agencies make their money out of successful placements. They don't need problem candidates. So they are increasingly reluctant to put me forward.

I have had some fairly absurd experiences recently including one, for example, where I was told I didn't have enough NGO experience. In a second case with some policy work with a specialist medical college I was knocked out on the basis that I didn't have enough health experience even though I am a former CEO of a specialist medical college. In yet another case, a six months assignment, the client wanted someone who would grow into the position!

While I have used some of these experiences as grist for my writing, I have generalised because I felt that being too explicit would not help me get the assignments that I needed. However, as time has passed the strange Kafka like world that I now inhabit has begun to overwhelm me to the point that it is affecting my life and writing; maintaining any form of balance has become difficult.

I am sure that I have been doing many things wrong. Still, it's interesting because of the sometimes harsh light it throws on generalised arguments. I keep quite meticulous records, so at some point I will write on the whole experience. Here I have been trying to boil down my own experiences into practical advice that may help others avoid my mistakes.

Winton Bates said...

The situation seems absurd, Jim. The only explanation that could make sense is the one that you have already been given - that managers may be fearful of hiring staff who have more experience and ability than themselves.
Such managers could probably benefit from some mentoring!
Now there is a thought. I wonder whether any organizations are interested in employing people who have had previous management experience in part-time roles designed explicitly to help new managers to cope with their responsibilities.

Anonymous said...

Well, if you are at a bit of a loose end at the moment Jim, I could use some advice.

My extended family Christmas gathering is tomorrrow night, and I'm wondering if I should be there when my admired brother in law opens his present from me. You see, a couple of weeks ago I bought him a lovely Fletcher Jones gift voucher.

ps there's a moral in there, somewhere.

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Winton. There is an entire mentoring industry, but I'm not quite sure how to break in, assuming that I could.

I thought of writing something on Fletcher Jones, kvd. It's the end of an era.

Anonymous said...

I have three good suits, left over from business days. They all still fit, are in that wonderful anonymous style which is always "in", and they're all FJ's.

What a pleasure it was to be offered their services, once every blue moon. Which is possibly part of their problem.

I agree it really is the end of an era, and we are the losers for that.


Jim Belshaw said...

Too true!

Anonymous said...

Hi Jim- just catching up on blog-reading, and I hope that this comment isn't too late (one of the problems with coming into a conversation a month later!). I was interested in your comment about your CV. My husband (aged 61) recently took redundancy, expecting rather naively that he would pick something up fairly easily, and it just hasn't happened. I wonder whether his CV, too, doesn't reflect so much experience that it intimidates managers. What an awkward situation- having to judge what is 'too much' and yet being asked to show 'enough' experience.

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi RJ. Email me ndarala(at)optusnet(dot)com(dot)au and I will send you a more detailed outline of my experiences and lessons drawn that might (might not) be helpful.