As someone who writes and is turning 30 this year, the reactions I get to what I do can be divided into three categories. There’s pity. I have had a couple of strangers say, quite literally, within minutes of meeting me and hearing my circumstances, that they feel sorry or worried for me. One of those responses was in early summer 2011, when I was extremely happy, hopeful and doing well (God only knows what she’d have made of my life a few weeks later, after my friend died, my best story was dropped, and I spent a year singing Back To Black in my pyjamas…). Then there’s hope and reassurance. One of my aunts has been saying “You’re going to be in lights one day! I can see it! I can see it!” every time we’ve spoken since I was about seven years old. Obviously, the second is the more desirable of those two. Thirdly, though, and the most common reaction, is what I call the “choice” line. Whether it’s said with admiration and respect “Bravo! Well done you for choosing to follow your heart and sticking it to the man! You’re so brave!” or disdain: “My folks would never let me choose a job like yours. They said I had to have my own house and earn at least 25K by the time I was 25, or else! If I was you, they’d see me as a failure…!” there’s the implication that somehow my career direction was a conscious political decision. A choice.
It wasn’t. I write because I can and because I must. Because, when I write, people mostly smile, make encouraging noises and say nice things. And when I try and do anything else they mostly make fun of me, pity me or sack me. I like making people smile and say nice things. I do not like being made fun of, pitied, or sacked. I’m not “sticking it to the man”, “following my heart”, “being true to my soul” or making any kind of profound social contract by being a writer – I’m trying to survive. Making the most of my skills and abilities in the same way anyone else does, and trying to convince everyone else that there is value to it. And getting sick of every article in which a writer dares to suggest that writers should be able to earn a living wage and live in their own home and is told below the line that s/he should have done STEM subjects at school/been a teacher/ gone into PR.
With the very best will in the world there is not a single STEM subject I could have studied post-16 (I only managed mediocre grades in them at GCSE and that took an embarrassing amount of effort). I can’t train to be a teacher because my maths is too poor and I’m not good at leading big groups for various reasons. I could do one-to-one or small-group teaching (I did a pocket-money job as a learning support assistant to SEN children with language difficulties for a while) but nowhere will fund me for a qualification in that because I’m overqualified already. As for PR, the careers lady at Durham memorably told me I was “too genuine” for that. That’s a pretty reductive and one-dimensional view of PR, actually, but still. As a business associate said to me more recently: “It’s not that you can’t do PR. It’s that the bits of PR you’d be good at (he meant charity comms, basically) are hugely oversubscribed nowadays, and you’d be competing with people who’ve been after it since they were 14.”
All of that considered, writing pretty well ends up being my best option of every obvious avenue for BA graduates. (I’m not going to go into what makes trying to write for a living distinct from writing for a hobby; I can do that another time. Suffice to say, it is…). I’m not asking to be paid a fortune. But I am asking to be deemed deserving of a living wage, and for my situation to be respected and understood for what it is. I respect anyone else in any arena who does what they are best at doing – writers, bankers, teachers, social workers….We all need each other. It would be great if we could accept that and try to empathise with those who take different paths to ourselves, instead of constant adversarial silliness.
Writing may well be a overtly political act for some; it isn’t for me. What is political is the dyspraxia awareness and consultancy work that I do (and am now trying to expand into my main business). I do that because I recognise that not everyone who is dyspraxic or dyslexic has the privileges that I have and can afford to train for the job that suits them best, or has parents to go to for help when a job doesn’t work out. Some people’s families won’t accept the nature of their problems at all, let alone help them in any way. Some – especially those with few qualifications – are stuck in unsuitable jobs, effectively out of the charity of employers. Others – mostly blokes from privileged backgrounds – do incredibly well at work and get to quite senior levels in the professions and in the City, but overcompensate for their dys’s by epic bullshitting and being insufferable shits to work with. I tend to meet them when I’m doing journalism unrelated to dyspraxia, and they end up confiding it in me when I tell them about that side of my business – sometimes I’m the first person they’ve ever told. They are, by turns, extraordinary, wonderful and very, very annoying. I rant about them often.
I digress. In short, I hate the use of the word ‘choice’ to describe the only option that’s bearable. Of course writing is a ‘choice.’ Living is a ‘choice.’ Does that mean we should congratulate people for their bravery in doing it? Or, when it’s hard, tell them: “Well, you chose to live!” ?
Writing’s not a choice. It’s an existence. And I shouldn’t have to defend it.