This may be a colossal mistake. Writing a post on a topic about which I have such conflicting opinions seems intrinsically unwise. But the timing is right to at least air my at-odds thoughts on the topic of being paid (or not) in the business of being a writer, particularly a poet-type writer. Should we ever work for free? Well, I’m going to get a tiny bit post-structural and insist that context is everything. Maybe I should’ve titled this post “How to sit on the fence” but I do believe that there are occasions when it is entirely reasonable to provide our expertise at no charge – primarily those situations where we are donating our skills in support of a cause.
When I initially wrote the above sentence I added an extra clause – “or when there is a larger picture to consider.” On re-reading I’m unsure about it now. What I meant was that sometimes we as writers allow work to be published without payment for the furthering of our careers. I’m certainly guilty of this, especially when I was first starting out and the only publishers accepting my work were those who didn’t or couldn’t pay. I felt I needed to submit poems to them to create a publishing record, to have something to put in my bio, and to be honest, for the validation of their approval. I have sympathy for that younger self. I remember being the fresh, thin-skinned writer who only felt proud of my work once it had been given the stamp of legitimacy by a publisher. Until receiving the acceptance letter it was still a draft poem. Once a publisher liked it, it became a good poem, a finished poem. But here I am, much further down the track, a short and a long collection published and no longer needing outside acknowledgement to tell me when something is good – so should I still be sending poems out to journals that can’t pay me or worse yet, ask me to pay for the opportunity to submit?
These issues have been playing around in my head since Friday. For a normal person, Friday would’ve just been an interesting day. For an introvert with anxiety issues over-laid on a chronic lack of self-confidence it was an emotional rollercoaster. The cause? Talking to a class of kids. Yep. This was clearly one hard-core public speaking gig. You can probably tell that I’m unlikely ever to be elected Secretary General of the United Nations.
I received an email out of the blue from my local Primary School a couple of weeks ago after one of the teachers, Sally Owens, heard the Poetica interview on Radio National. The interview had focussed on my background as an environmental activist and campaigner and so Sally asked if I would come and talk to her students about being an environmentalist and how knowledge about and love of my local area inspired me as a poet.
Sure, I said. I’d love to. (translation – Hell no! What the frick am I going to say? They’ll hate me. I’m terrible with kids. They’ll be bored stiff. I’m a fraud. I have nothing intelligent to say. Insert exceedingly lengthy self-berating and derogatory monologue.)
And then I was thrown for a further loop. Sally asked me how much I would charge to speak. Now, I’m happy to collect reading fees because the event organiser sets the price and I don’t have to ask or haggle. I just accept the money gracefully and buy a round of drinks at the bar. For non-performance work, the employer generally has set rates determined by word count or per article, so thankfully I don’t have to enter into any kind of negotiation – I just give them my bank details – end of story.
I sat at the computer impersonating a fish for several minutes. When gaping silently at the screen ultimately failed to provide an answer, I decided to ask a good friend for advice. She is an experienced freelance writer and recommended $40 as being a reasonable price for an hour class by a beginner. This still felt a bit much so I replied to Sally saying $40 would be wonderful and I’d throw in a free book for their library.
Now this school is a tiny state-run primary school in an area that most Adelaideans would consider rural. So, even after they agreed to my price I still had this lingering feeling of ripping them off. Let’s face it – I’m not a qualified teacher. I’ve taught casually at a tertiary level (which caused the onset of weekly stress-migraines) and while I’ve attended many many (yes, many) poetry workshops I’ve yet to actually run one professionally. Adding to my quandary was that is my local school. I live 500 metres down the road.
To cut short a lengthy description of how I worked myself up into a stressed-out frenzy of insomnia and serious over-preparation, the upshot is that I arrived at the school on Friday morning jittery with nerves and when asked for my invoice I told them that I was happy to do it for free. I considered it an honour to be asked and had decided that it would be my version of a donation to the community and to the promotion of poetry.
The class went really well – primarily because the kids were absolutely brilliant and Sally and the staff involved were welcoming, supportive and perfectly organised. It was a mixed class of grade 4 to 7 and they were all incredibly engaged and enthusiastic. And their poetry! We did a couple of poetry exercises together and they came up with lines and images that would put many adult poets to shame. It was so exciting to see how keen and creative they were about poetry. At the end they each came up to shake my hand and tell me what it was they most enjoyed about the class. I was stunned. Sally even asked me to come back to teach another poetry class later in the year and insisted that I be paid when I did. She went so far as to say that when the school needs a plumber they pay for the service so it should be no different with writers and artists. What a brilliant attitude.
It was easily one of the most fulfilling days I’ve had as a freelancer and I did it for nothing. Which brings me back to my central question about working for free. These days, when asked what I do I say I’m a writer. Sometimes I say I’m a poet but it really depends on who is asking. The responses vary from “what do you really do?” to “uh huh”, the latter usually accompanied by eyes crazily swivelling to look for someone, anyone else to talk to.
The important point is that I don’t let my lack of income dictate my identity as a writer. I used to. When asked, I used to define myself to others by whatever menial work I was doing at the time. The fact that I felt my vocation was writing was subsumed by what I thought they were really asking me – how do you make a living? Since I wasn’t making a living as a writer I thought I had no right to claim it as a profession. What I failed to understand is that writing is both a profession and a vocation. I spend my days writing, thinking about writing, reading and thinking about what I’ve read. Even when I’m working casually as a bookseller, I can guarantee that I’m thinking about how I can turn what I’m experiencing into a story, article, blog-post or poem. I’m pretty sure that constitutes being a writer, regardless of how much I’m paid for it.
Most people don’t feel they are being at all rude when they quiz me on my income. They feel completely justified in asking how much I earn a year, then questioning why I write poetry when I clearly can’t support myself from poetry-generated income. Things have become a little harder lately now that my scholarship has expired and I’m still finishing my PhD. When it becomes clear that my husband generates the vast majority of our household income you can see in their eyes the exact moment they pass judgement, not only on my chosen art form (and its lack of profitability) but also on my partner for his decision to support an artist.
And then there’s my mum. As a ludicrously well-behaved and submissive kid who got straight A report cards, I was meant to be a doctor. Mum chose all my subjects with this career as the final objective. So you can imagine how well my being a poet goes down with her. I feel really uncomfortable talking about any kind of success so I rarely tell mum and dad about anything writing-related unless it’s really big and I’m afraid they might find out and be offended that someone else knew before they did.
The one constant in my mum’s reaction to my writing is that she always, ALWAYS asks me how much I was paid. It feels as if my writing means nothing unless there is payment attached to it and the success is quantified by the financial recompense for the work. So interestingly, my most nationally significant accomplishment, being shortlisted for the Newcastle Prize, means nothing to her, as I was only paid $75.00 for the publication. My first collection apparently doesn’t count either because I didn’t sign a contract and didn’t receive an advance. My first book hasn’t paid royalties – so ditto. And interestingly, the achievement for which I’ve been paid the most money in my career, the Poetica interview, she hasn’t even listened to yet. On the rare occasions she asks me about writing these days she now just assumes that I’m not being paid for anything. I’ve got to be honest – it hurts. How much I’m paid makes absolutely no difference to my sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. But if my own mother judges me by my tax return then the equivalence of success and status with income is deeply embedded in our culture. I try not to let it get to me and I know without a doubt that I’m a much better poet than I would be a doctor.
But despite this “wah wah, my mum doesn’t appreciate me” whinge, I recognise that I am actually in an incredibly lucky position. My husband – on many levels, supports me completely. He knows that I’m happiest and most fulfilled as a writer and a poet. He’s a successful and highly paid paramedic. We exist primarily on his salary. There is no way I could support myself as I now live on the money I make as a writer. I sell a poem for the amount he makes in an hour. My weekly wage as a bookseller is less than he makes for one overtime shift. I jokingly refer to him as my patron but really that is exactly what he is. He provides the money necessary to support me while I write.
So I recognise that I’m in an extremely privileged position. I’m not dependent on the money I make from writing. I can decide that certain gigs are for charity. I can write free reviews for local publications that I want to support because they are important sources of independent opinion in a media environment that is suffering a severe lack of diversity of ownership.
That said, it rankles when asked to read for venues that are benefitting financially from my performance and the custom that I bring with me and I’m not even offered a free drink. A few months ago I was asked to perform with another writer for an entire evening, an event for which a $25 entry fee was charged. $25! This is practically unheard of in Adelaide – especially for a poetry performance. At the end of the night I was given a bottle of wine as a thank you (supplied by the sponsor). This is dodgy practice. And disrespectful. Why should an organisation generate profit from my art for which I’m not paid even a token fee? I’m embarrassed that I even agreed to participate in the event – so this was a serious learning experience. Next time I will be sure to ask rigorous questions and ascertain exactly what the public will be charged and what I will be paid before agreeing to perform, rather than just assuming that the organisers will do the right thing. The photo below was a promo for this gig – so in addition to being expected to do the performance gratis I also had to take time off to attend the photo shoot and the wine I’m holding – yep, provided by yours truly – so the wine I received on the night cancelled out the one I had to bring as a prop.
Which brings me to what else happened this weekend. I rushed home on Friday, still buzzing from the poetry class and frantically (ok, I admit it, superficially) cleaned the house ready for the descent of a film crew who were to use our house as the set for a short film.
Last May I wrote a feature article for InDaily about how it felt to be threatened by bushfire (for free – In Daily being one of those important independent non-News Limited media outlets in Adelaide). The CFS communications unit read the piece and decided to use me in their bushfire awareness campaign for that fire season. One of the crew that came to our place to film the ad really loved our house and so a month or so ago she emailed me asking if I would mind if she used it as a set for the short film she was making. She wanted to use the place for two nights. She sent me the script. It was great but it really didn’t matter. It felt good to be able to say… Yes. I support the arts. I’m happy to be temporarily inconvenienced if it means that someone can fulfil his or her artistic vision. And it was a great experience. The whole crew were lovely. And it turned out that my dog is a freakin’ celebrity. At one stage I snuck quietly onto the set, thinking that my dog was probably being a huge nuisance, chasing food, getting underfoot and into shot. I found him stretched out on the lounge with a semi-circle of people around him wielding cameras like pack of paparazzi “Des, Des – look this way. Aww – he’s so gorgeous. Des! Turn this way – over here. Des!”
I should’ve charged a fee for the dog’s performance.