T + 801 Writers' Toolkit Part 5

The last seminar session I attended before the closing address from Graham Joyce was one of the sessions that had been held on the same topic earlier in the day but this time it was with a different panel.

Real Writing Lives – 2

Writers sustain their creative careers in different way. Our Real Writing Lives panel sessions give you an opportunity to hear established writers talk about the reality of their writing lives.

Brenda Read-Brown: writer
Helen Cross: writer
Naylad Ahmed: writer, former Development Producer: BBC Radio
Ceri Gorton (Chair): Relationship Manager, Literature: Arts Council England, West Midlands

In this session the three panelists spoke about the experience of being a full time writer and what that really means in terms of earning a living and how much time is actually spent writing.

Helen said she had been a full time writer for 12 years and to some extent she will do any sort of writing that pays. She had written articles and reviews when asked and also done writing workshops and worked in schools.

She did however temper that "if you pay me I'll write it" approach by saying that as primarily a novelist who therefore needed to spend long periods of concentrated time on a book she sometimes had to turn work down. She expressed her attitude to these pieces of work outside the current main project of her latest novel as being the necessary way to "buy time for writing". She also tried to find paid work that would feed in to her writing. For example having worked in schools it helped her when writing a twelve year old protagonist in one of her works.

Naylad started by outlining her writing career which began with having a poem publish in a book as a child and continued through to the point where as a teen she would compose award acceptance speeches in the bath. At university she took some modules in creative writing and ended up as a BBC Radio Development producer but then took redundancy and became a full time writer.

She spoke about her writing for radio and commissions for new writing from the Birmingham Rep theatre. She felt it was important to be able to write in a number of media from short fiction and novels through to radio, theatre and screen plays. Any medium could be the right one to tell a particular story.

When it came to fitting in writing round other demands on her time, be that work or family commitments she said it seemed that she did some of her best work when she had the most other demands on her time and some stories "just have to come out."

Brenda's initial talk focussed on the theme of "seven plus or minus two" which related to the number of active projects and work engagements she had on at anyone time and also applied to the number of days per week she worked. ( A nine day week must be hard).

As well as being involved in working for various festivals she had also worked as a writer in residence at a number of sites and done lots of projects where it was about helping other people find their words through writing workshops. Much of the work was through being commissioned or approached by organisations for whom she had worked before. Along side all that she did her poetry writing and performance.

On some days she wondered if she should call herself a word smith rather than a writer but then she thought of the likes of T. S. Elliot and Philip Larkin who had "proper jobs" most of their lives and yet no-one would say they were not writers.

Brenda said one of the reasons she had so many projects on the go was because they were all temporary and short term so she needed to make sure there was always something in the pipeline. However she was always looking to fit in writing around these other activities like people do with full time jobs and even during the activities. When doing writing workshops she, herself, always completed any exercises she gave her students. As well as being good for the students to see the teacher still felt it important to practise she also was able to find new and surprising things when she completed the activities again.

Brenda said a professional writer, a bit like any self-employed person, had to develop skills aside from the craft of writing. It was important to get invoices in on time and to handle the publicity for your own work. (On that point when writing this blog and looking for links for the speakers I found it interesting that only Brenda had her own website and it came up in the first page of a Google searc,. For Helen I was only able to find her Bloomsbury bio page and for Naylad it was just the Writers' Toolkit reference. Maybe, as someone who lives on the Internet, I am biased but it seems to me Helen and Naylad are missing opportunities to get their voice more widely heard relatively easily).

It was clear that all three writers felt it was important to be able to work in different media not only as a way to maximise earning potential but to be able to find the best medium for the story you want to tell. Their final advice, and something that is commonly said to new writers, was that you had to love your writing and stay true to doing what you enjoy alongside whatever else it took to allow you to do it.


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