Well, January has crashed into being with all the usual fears and concerns: money, weight loss, what-the-hell-am-I-doing-with-my-life worries. Once again, it’s the season in which we make arbitrary promises to ourselves, determined that this time we will keep them, and within a fortnight we have reverted back to our regular set of impenetrable failures.
Already, in the eight days since 2018 reared its ugly head and peered rheumily about at the world, a whole series of terrible and, let’s face it, thoroughly unhelpful questions have been asked of me:
- Is it worth it, this freelancing thing, given how stressful it is to deal with money?
- Should I just get ‘a real job’ like ‘everybody else’?
- Am I failing?
I suppose I am lucky in that I spend a great deal of my time with other artistic types; writers (of all forms), artists, producers, actors, directors, musicians and performers all seem to suffer these same crippling terrors on a rotating basis and none of these monsters is the kind you just ‘get used to’. Every time they return, they are just as terrible as before, and it doesn’t help that our attitude to artists in the UK is so poor.
So, for my own sake and general laughs, let’s unpick this series of terrors and try to understand them for what they are. If we can.
Is it worth it, this freelancing thing?
Depends what you value, I guess. Ever since I was extremely young, my father has drilled into me a key message which, for better or worse, I took very seriously. Often frustrated and stressed in a high-responsibility position, Dad worked long hours and often had to commute abroad for his job. In his brief moments of respite, he said to me:
Money does not make you happy. Even if all it pays for is the bills, do something that you love.
Now in his defence, he may not have meant for me to completely turn my back on any form of conventional career and become an impoverished artist, but in my defence, three of his four children have all had the same idea and done just that. Throughout my entire life, I think my options have been writer or misery. I am a writer to my very core, its in my blood and bones and trying to beat it out of me will only kill me. I had no choice but to try. If I hadn’t, each and every day would have felt like cold, hard oblivion. In fact, for a while, I did try. I trained to teach and, for the first year or so, loved it, but the long hours, the tiredness, the stress and guilt all ate into my writing time and, in the end, I couldn’t cope with not writing. Having removed myself from an educational environment that, for reasons of national cuts, a crisis in teacher numbers and a thoroughly reductive curriculum, limit my creativity and played havoc with my mental health, I am now much happier. I am able to organise my own work, develop projects that appeal to me and find time to write. I still supply teach occasionally, but even that is significantly less stressful than full-time teaching. All in all, it was an extremely good decision for me.
Money, though, that’s an issue. And the main reason it is an issue is the difficulty in persuading organisations I work for to pay me on time. According to the law, payment should be made to a contracted worker no more than thirty days after request for payment has been submitted. Thirty days, when you don’t know where your next pay might be coming from, is still a really long time, so when that payment doesn’t get processed, is stuck, or has to go through an utterly inefficient system, this can cause immense stress. I have, before, not received payment for a job for twice the allocated length of time, meaning it was two months after the fact that I received the funds. How can I—not the most effective budgeter at the best of times—plan for that? Technically, I am entitled to charge a late fee for this, but this requires me to approach the organisation (for whom I did, in fact, thoroughly enjoy working), and make such a demand. No one will do this for me. As someone who suffers with anxiety, making this move causes unbelievable levels of stress and I worry heartily about burning bridges. I don’t want to cut myself off from future work, but I do need to be paid on time.
Taxes are another difficulty. The entirety of our education system gears us towards going into work where tax, NI and other such business is dealt with before our funds get to us, where our salary comes to us on a regular basis and we do not need to worry about it being late. I was never taught to write an invoice, no one ever talked me through submitting my tax return or the consequences of making small mistakes in this field. It’s all very well if you can afford an accountant, but I’m a writer. I can’t. Mistakes in this field are costly, and you only learn from them after they have set fire to your bank account and thoroughly obliterated any possibility of sleep for the next month and a half.
And even this is not as irritating as the constant barrage of frustrating requests that I receive as an artist. ‘Can I do this job for free?’ ‘I won’t be paid for this job but it’s GREAT exposure!’ ‘I should approach this organisation any time I want a REAL job.’ Sometimes, I’m offered a really reasonable fee to do a job halfway across the country, for which I will receive no compensation for travel, thus my entire fee will be taken up with paying for travel and all I will end up with is another crumpled train ticket at the bottom of my purse. People want my work, but they don’t want to pay for it. Apparently, as an artist, I should love what I do, and my passion alone should be enough to pay my rent, heat my flat and put food in my belly. Apparently, artists do not need sustenance like real people, we just need a pat on the back and we’ll be fine. Life will be great because, even though we are a week away from losing our homes, cannot afford central heating and have lived off pot-noodles for the last year, we love what we do.
It has become more and more apparent to me over the last two years that society punishes the unconventional. That might seem like an obvious thing to say, but it spends a lot of time pretending that it doesn’t. Advertising encourages us to ‘stand out’, ‘be different’, ‘make our own rules’ and yet it only encourages us to do this within certain parameters, and only at face value. Be different, but only by a certain percentage, stand out, but not too far, make your own rules, but only so far as they fit in with the ones we already have.
So, is it worth it? Yes, but it’s still really, really hard and I have very few allies outside of my sphere of other artists.
Should I just get a ‘real job’?
Short answer? I have a real job. I have a job in which I write to and for people. I produce things that make people laugh, cry, shudder. I enthuse groups of youngsters who might not have had the confidence to speak a single word in class before they read that poem they just wrote. I create, I engage, I challenge. I love what I do. I get paid pittance, but at the end of each day, what I have made, delivered or facilitated has value beyond the material. It has a spiritual, psychological, human value that reminds us that our brains need more than food and sleep.
Why is my job less real than the suited banker who spends the working day filling his own pockets by exploiting those more impoverished than himself? Why is my job less real than the CEOs and Managers whose organisations are responsible for dodging tax, rewarding themselves with huge raises whilst paying their workers as little as legally possible?
I have a real job. One that values people, tailors itself to suit its consumers and doesn’t exploit anyone. (except possibly, myself, but that’s the way the cookie crumbles).
So please stop asking. Or at least, if you do ask, be aware that I have based the entirety of my identity on developing an excellent control of the English Language and I will use this to metaphorically skin you alive in front of everyone for asking such a ridiculous and clichéd question.
You have been warned.
Am I failing?
Probably. I feel like I’m failing all the time. I haven’t yet found an agent for my book (never mind that the book is not finished and I haven’t sent it out yet). My poetry collection hasn’t yet taken over the world (it came out last September, there’s time) and I’ve just been hit with a tax bill so enormous I am genuinely considering selling my teeth in order to pay it off.
I feel constantly as if I am a failure. There is nothing more disarming than being aware that I am about a disaster and a half away from total destitution and to be reminded, constantly, that I am here by choice even though I’m smart enough to be earning loadsa money by now.
I grew up thinking that everyone had a passion, something which was just as vital to their survival as oxygen, that they couldn’t give up because if they did, the world would lose all its colour. It took a while before I realised that not everyone is like this and that I am, arguably, just unlucky in that sense.
I could well be earning loadsa money by now, in a job that made me want to claw out my own eyes. I would plod onto the train, my feet marching to the same tattoo as hundreds of others, motor through my day in a kind of anaesthetised autopilot and then plod home. Likely (and I know this, because I have been here before), I would feel so little enthusiasm for life that I would spend most of my free time sleeping. Waking up would involve that terrible, crashing reminder of my own utter insignificance and it would take every ounce of my energy and shattered self-worth to drag myself into another day.
I’m not a writer by choice. I’m a writer because if I don’t write, I’ll explode.
And it’s alright to be a writer if I’m a success. If I publish several bestselling books, get a couple made into films, go on tours, get into the windows of bookshops, I’m a virtue and an asset to society. But while I struggle to make ends meet, write obscure little books that touch only a few scattered souls, scavenge for work under every rubbish heap in order to fund my need to write, I am a leech and a nuisance. I should ‘get a real job’.
We don’t permit our artists to fail, even though failure is what makes an artist. We feel like we’re failing because we are made to feel ashamed of our failures. No one ever sees them. The public see our bestsellers, our finished novels, our developed shows, or successful interviews. They don’t see the novel that still hasn’t been written after ten years, the seventeen notebooks packed with terrible poetry that it took to produce this single, sixty-page collection, the rejection letters, the sleepless nights, the phone calls to our parents apologising but we just need a little bit more money to help us.
And how does this translate downwards? Our youngsters do not want to take that risk. They opt for misery because misery is safe. At least it pays the bills on time. So our youngsters will join the plodding masses, unequipped against the onslaught of political deception and corporate control, voiceless against the constant manipulation and exploitation, oblivious to the delivery of our lives into the hands of destructive capitalism. There will be no artists to fight it. No voices in the dark to hold a candle to the truth. No one will take up that mantle because this is how we treat our artists.
If we do not pay them, respect them, value them and accept them regardless of their perceived ‘success’, we will not have any artists in the future. They will all have ‘real jobs’.
Not wanting to end on a negative note, I will finish simply by saying: in spite of all this, I am not done. Hard as it is, and much as I need to expunge my soul occasionally, I hope this blog post hits the hearts of other artists and reminds them they aren’t alone. We are necessary, though they don’t want us. They don’t want us because we expose their lies, question their motives, challenge their politics and force them to confront themselves. They build a culture in which we are on the fringes because that’s where they need us to be.
But artists have always succeeded in spite of this. We have always taken their dismissal, their judgement and their aggression as a challenge. We aren’t weak. So that ‘real job’ application you’re writing, because in a moment of vulnerability, someone got to you? Put it down. There’s work to be done.