It is a truth universally acknowledged that a person in possession of a passion for writing must be in need of supplementary income. There is, of course, the occasional exception. But the writing life, for all its gifts and freedoms, is rarely a financially consistent one. The Victorian image of the impoverished writer, tucked in a garret with candlelight, fingerless mittens and an ominous, rattling cough, has not fully gone; our consumptive days may be over but our financial perils remain. The writing life is still, at times, a difficult one, in which a perturbing bank statement (or the need to live with one’s parents again in one’s thirties) is never too far away.
The Reverend David Williams set up the Royal Literary Fund in 1790 with the expressed intention of being able to support writers financially — and, on reading the list of those who have benefitted from the Fund over the past two hundred and twenty-eight years, my eyes widened. My two years as an RLF Fellow have brought new skills, knowledge and friendships, but they have also brought the first period of financial stability since taking up my pen in 2002. Those termly cheques have allowed me to write without worrying; I have four uninterrupted days a week in which to write my novels — without having to grapple for money elsewhere or to lie awake counting my various hopes for income on my fingers and thumbs.
But the Fellowship is temporary – my stint is ending – and I’ve found myself pondering what other jobs writers have turned to, to supplement their written work. Before the RLF, what was done? Were there any specific roles that famous, established writers were drawn to, fellowship-like? I turned to the internet. Whilst there are examples of writers maintaining full-time professions as they wrote (Conan Doyle and Carlos Williams were both in medicine; Dostoevsky was an engineer), they seem to be in the minority. Manual jobs appear to be a recurring theme in the lives of writers: Frost worked replacing arc lights in a mill; Carver worked in a sawmill; Atwood served coffee in a Toronto coffee shop; Kerouac was a deckhand and cotton picker — and Douglas Adams was a security guard, a barn builder and (my favourite) a cleaner of chicken sheds. Such manual jobs do not seem uncommon.
In my early twenties, I knew that writing was my passion and that I wished to devote my life to it. Yet I knew, too, that I’d need secondary work; I could not survive on fiction alone. I had rent to pay, bills to meet, printer cartridges to save for. But I also understood that I wished to protect my writing. This was my worry: that a secondary job might pay those bills but it might, too, impact on my writing. It might rob me of my early mornings (my most productive time); its fixed hours might mean I’d no longer be able to take research trips — to coastlines, other cities, the British Museum. I also worried that, as a deadline approached, I might no longer be able to withdraw from society, turn off my phone and write through the night which had, till then, been my tendency. In short, I realised that flexibility was vital. Indeed it – and payment – were my only prerequisites.
At twenty three, I entered the service industry, and I’ve worked in it, on and off, ever since. Primarily, it’s been bar work: in canal-side taverns, Harvester restaurants, city boozers where one’s forearms stuck to the bar top and (the best of them) a Highland pub where the drum was banged till dawn, my whisky knowledge improved tenfold and collecting glasses from the beer garden was to look up at the braes and see the deer watching you. I’ve waitressed in restaurants; I’ve worked in a cheese shop (during which time my right bicep grew noticeably larger from cutting through Parmesan with the wire); I’ve been a car park attendant, a chambermaid, a pot-washer, the warden for an archaeological dig — and I wrote my first novel as I worked at Blockbusters (in the golden age of VHS). Each time, I took these roles on because they met that early criteria: flexible hours and earnings. Very simply, they allowed me to write.
But I see now that they have been far more valuable than that. I understood very quickly that these jobs have advantages I never predicted but which have transformed both my writing and my writing life. Firstly, their skills are transferable, which has suited my wanderings; they can also be physically demanding compared to the days when my tapping fingers are the only real movement I make. But the most joyous aspect of these jobs is that they involve other people. In them, I have colleagues, meet others, and therefore these jobs are more than a source of income: they’re the much-needed opposite to my writing days. I do not mind the solitude that the act of writing demands – that wheezy, impoverished Victorian writer is always alone and for a reason – but to be part of a team feels wonderful. In the service industry there seems a them/us mentality, in which one absolutely stands at the side of one’s colleague, and it’s dizzying in comparison to the writing world in which a bad review or rejection note is the loneliest thing.
But working with other people is, too, an astonishing resource. I never expected this; it’s important to stress that I’ve never written specifically about the people I’ve met as I’ve poured tea or scanned barcodes. But in those conversations – ostensibly about opening hours or the various odours of the washed rind cheeses – there have been flashes of life which I’ve longed to write down. There is material everywhere. Moreover, in a service role, you are often unseen by those around you; the anonymity is, in fact, an opportunity. Anger, regret, loneliness, longing, obsession: these are easy to detect in the single man at the bar or in the Christmas shopper who wants everything faster. We hear stories, confessions. We see fights, hysteria, clumsy chat-up lines. We witness the tiny, human actions that might enhance our protagonist, such as how they sneeze or adjust their spectacles with the inside of their wrist, or the surreptitious unbuckling of a belt at the end of a meal.
I have become particularly aware of how people pay for things: do they have immaculate purses with folded receipts? Velcro wallets which, through age and dust, no longer fasten? Or do they fumble for change, place coins on the counter and walk away? This sounds an odd thing to notice, perhaps. But somehow, I feel it’s telling. If I can answer this question about my own characters, I feel I know them far better.
One role, in particular, has an additional poignancy. Chambermaiding is different in that the people themselves are absent. One only has the signs of them, and this has, in the past, brought to mind an established creative writing exercise I’ve both taught and undertaken: take five personal objects and imagine their owner’s life. Whilst I’d touch nothing, I’d see them: the self-help guides or the Chanel or the shoe trees or the biscuit crumbs. The pyjamas, folded up. It always felt an eerie privilege: to make their beds whilst they were both there and not there; I’d feel watched, despite being alone. I’d return from my shift, longing to write.
This, therefore, is the third advantage of such roles: they pay, they are flexible, but they are also so full of people. And whilst there can be rowdy drunks to contend with, from time to time, or difficult customers, those interactions are the minority. Mostly, I have come back home from shifts with a deeper interest in – and affection for – people. I wasn’t surprised to find that one of the best parts of the RLF Fellowship is being part of the students’ lives, however briefly; they enter apologetically or deflated or with a fiery determination to get an A grade, and I feel lucky to have spent fifty minutes with them. If they are overwhelmed with their study, I advise them to have a good meal, a good sleep — and to seek good company.
As for the malnourished Victorian writer with his candlelight, who knows what he was writing or thinking of? We only assume he was struggling, with writing and life. But, if I could, I’d advise him to set down the pen, put on his coat, enter a pub with breath on its windows — and pull a stranger a pint.