Today’s guest blog post is brought to you by novelist, memoirist, poet, critic, editor, publisher and lecturer Jonathan P Taylor.
Managing A Writing Life by Jonathan P Taylor
On Saturday 29 March, I was invited to speak on a panel at The Writers’ Conference in Nottingham, run by Writing East Midlands, about ‘Managing a Writing Life.’ The other speakers were Lydia Towsey and Cathy Grindrod; the session was chaired by Jim Moran. We were asked to prepare answers to a series of possible questions. In the event, the panel was much more informal, spontaneous, chatty. But the questions we were asked were, I thought, intriguing as a framework, as a starting-point for thinking about the meaning of ‘the writing life’ to me and others – so I’ve written out my own notes in full here. As I say, these are just my own thoughts on the subjects raised, just one writer’s perspective; but hopefully they’re interesting and useful in that context. Thanks to Writing East Midlands for arranging the conference and the panel.
Maybe we could start with defining what ‘the writing life’ means to you?
Above all, it means to me the pleasure of actually writing, editing and shaping something that I enjoy myself, I am proud of. Publishing, teaching, anthologising, even performing – everything else has to be secondary to that actual pleasure of the writing itself. I enjoy writing now 100%, perhaps because it’s something I rarely have time for in its purest sense.
Explain what you personally think you are achieving in your writing life.
I think I’ve got to the point – and this will no doubt sound a bit big headed – of actually writing (stylistically speaking) quite well. So I know I’ve improved in the last twenty years – and just that is important in itself, a sense of getting somewhere. But there are still things I know I have to work on. I’m a bit of a jack-of-all-trades – that is, I write in lots of different genres – but that’s something I’m happy about, and wouldn’t like to change, even if it means that progress in any one genre is slower than it would otherwise be if I focussed entirely upon it, to the exclusion of everything else.
With regard to the current high-profile debate in The Guardian, is it really worth taking a creative writing course?
Yes: writing as a learnt activity. As I’ve said on other occasions, I don’t believe in talent or innate genius or prodigies. Writing is learnt through feedback, editing, audience, hard work, perseverance and no other way – and these are things which courses can (at their best) give you.
Discuss how you manage the finances. Does writing pay its way? Should we even expect writing to pay the bills?
Things have got worse over the last few years, given the degeneration of the net book agreement and copyright. Organisations like Amazon, Google, supermarkets, etc., basically want writers to work for nothing. Many people and organisations make money out of writing – why, of all people, not writers themselves? I don’t write what I write to make money – obviously! – and there’s no forcing a readership. So I don’t think writers should be angry at readers for not buying their works – but they have every reason for the distortion of readerships and the marketplace in general by big organisations.
If writing doesn’t pay the mortgage, what else should a writer be doing?
Teaching: it’s a democratising thing, where you pass on what you know to others. You should never, as a writer, be exclusivist or élitist, guarding what you do. Ideally, everyone should have access to it if they so wish.
Explain how you balance writing with other duties – teaching, managing a family life, etc. How do you carve out the time, and motivate yourself to write?
At the moment, I don’t, really: I write in the corners of my life. For a while, my university job (which is full time) has eclipsed my writing. I have to be very patient, given the job I’ve got, and hope (and believe) that, at some point, the time to write comes up. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t.
How much do you have to write? Do you have a daily word count? Do you need targets and deadlines?
I try not to. But it depends on the circumstances. We have twins, and when the twins were very young, they needed constant care because they were tiny and premature. So I had an hour to write a week. I’d disappear into our shed for that hour, knowing I had to write something there and then. I’d usually manage 1000 words. This is one of the reasons why the chapters of my first novel, Entertaining Strangers – which was what I was drafting at the time – are often quite short and sharp: because I wrote a lot of it in very short bursts over that first year of the twins.
What does your daily writing regime look like? Do you work weekends? How do you manage any kind of – what corporate firms would call – a ‘work–life balance’?
My work is all over the place and, as I say, I often write at the weekends. Writing is the most easily squeezed of what I do: after all, teaching is immovable, admin often has a deadline, and childcare has a routine, so it’s easy for writing to get moved around. Often, this is frustrating – but writing doesn’t pay our bills on its own, so it’s just a matter of being pragmatic.
Writing can be very isolating – how do you cope with that?
This is true – but it’s also, especially these days, a very social activity. Given the anthology I edited of short stories for reading aloud, Overheard, it’s clear that I’m very interested in the performative aspects of writing. I love giving readings and lectures. That direct connection with an audience is, in many ways, a more natural forum for storytellers and poets than big publishing.
It can also be very frustrating – how do you deal with writer’s block and other disruptions?
These days, I don’t believe in writer’s block. I don’t have it, and can’t help feeling it’s a bit of a luxury. Writing time is so precious, I just can’t waste it – and that kind of imperative means that I’ve always got something I really want to get down on the page. I have time-block, not writer’s block.
Once you have got the words onto the page, how do you pick a publisher?
Well, they pick you – that is, it’s often the other way round. It’s a very difficult and time-consuming process; but it’s a matter of finding a publisher who you like (personally) and who also publishes the kinds of books you enjoy.
Do you have any hints or tips for the ways in which writers should manage a public profile – do you tweet, blog, etc.?
You need some kind of web presence – but what that is will be different for different people. You also need to attend events – this is how you meet other writers and even publishers, as well as, most importantly, having that direct connection with an audience.
What is the main mistake that you have made in managing your writing life that you would want to tell others to avoid?
There are lots of mistakes. I’m very happy writing in lots of different genres – but you have to go into it with your eyes open, and realise that, by spreading yourself thinly like this, it means that it takes longer to have an impact in any one field. In many ways, it’s easier career-wise to concentrate on one genre, and just focus on that. But I personally wouldn’t change that ‘mistake’ for anything. I’d get bored otherwise, and boredom is the ultimate enemy of all writing.
Speak about the one aspect of your work of which you are most proud.
I think the moment I learnt to write was (for me) the moment I realised how important style was. I’m first and foremost a stylist. I don’t think learning to write is necessarily a matter of ‘finding your voice,’ but I do think one’s personal style is very important. And, although in many ways it’s not entirely ‘fashionable’ in a world full of ‘serious writers,’ I’m particularly aware of my style as someone who writes black comedy. The term encompasses a multitude of different aspects – but I enjoy reading and writing material which shows how – in real-life – the comic and tragic, laughter and seriousness intermingle.
For those who want to follow a writing life, what is the number one tip for what they should do next?
Go to events. Talk to readers and writers. Perform your work out loud to audiences. Get used to the public aspects of writing.
Thank you, Jonathan. That was really interesting and yes, it’s the same with me; writing is my favourite part but I get little time (usually NaNoWriMo) so it becomes even more enjoyable.
Jonathan Taylor is a novelist, memoirist, poet, critic, editor, publisher and lecturer. He is author of the novel Entertaining Strangers (Salt, 2012), which was shortlisted for the East Midlands Book Award, and the memoir Take Me Home: Parkinson’s, My Father, Myself (Granta, 2007). His poetry collection is Musicolepsy (Shoestring Press, 2013), and his short story collection is Kontakte and Other Stories (Roman Books, 2013).
He is editor of the anthology Overheard: Stories to Read Aloud (Salt, 2012), winner of the Saboteur Award for Best Fiction Anthology 2013. He is Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester, and co-director of arts organisation and small publisher Crystal Clear Creators.
Born in Stoke-on-Trent, he now lives in Leicestershire with his wife, the poet Maria Taylor, and their twin daughters, Miranda and Rosalind.
Jonathan’s website is www.jonathanptaylor.co.uk.
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