Posted by: stelladuffy | September 2, 2011

Writer : a job description

A little something to consider before you chuck it all in to write the Next Great Novel.

If I had a pound for every time someone’s said “ooh, it must be lovely to write full time” … I’d have a lot of pounds. (That’s a lot. Not alot. Just saying.)

First off, it’s not about a place in Tuscany, and it’s not about a little place with a sea view, and it’s almost never about a country cottage that you can rush off to and plot and plan to your heart’s delight – it’s almost always about working from home. (Actually, I do know three people who have this – one each. That’s it. Three. Of maybe two hundred writers.)

Being your own boss (an interesting concept as publishing is changing so rapidly right now) means giving over a room or a table or a corner of your home to your work, never being ‘off’, never feeling like you can fully get away from it, never switching off on Friday night and forgetting about work until Monday morning. It means doing your own accounts, your own IT and cleaning your own workspace (no office cleaners here!). It means no holiday pay and no sick pay. No sabbaticals. No compassionate leave. No company pension. No company-paid training courses. No paintballing (phew).

Right now, in our house, it means dealing with next door’s builders hammering and smashing against our walls and waking up to a new surprise of scaffolding or another place where the noise is coming from every day. The new-ish neighbours have failed to provide us with either a schedule of works or any plans to what they’re having done, so we can organise our work around their work. Foolishly, we signed their party wall agreement in trust and hope that they would be helpful and friendly. Hey ho, you live and learn. (I blame Sarah Beeny myself. Enough with the re-modelled, re-made Victorian terraces, these are little houses – let them be!)
Today it also means that lovely Dom the electrician is wandering in and out trying to work out how the wiring for the electrics upstairs has gone. Coincidentally at the point next door started the really into-the-wall drilling … funny that.

For me, being a writer means doing loads of different jobs, often all at the same time.
Today I have edited another chapter of the Theodora sequel, if I get through the last 8 chapters today, I’ll have done my almost-almost-final-edit (I hope). I have written the basics of a song/game for a scene in TaniwhaThames (the show I’m directing at the Oval later this year), I have emailed two dozen people about another theatre project we’re working on in a few weeks, and made notes about a film project.

I like doing lots of jobs, I’ve never had a proper job in my life, and this suits me. It suits me not to have to get dressed up and made up every day. It suits me to work on things that interest me (and things I sometimes find very very dull, like this final, read-through edit!), it suits me to be able to take two hours out yesterday afternoon to tidy the garden and then work again from 10pm to 1am. It suits me to know that it’s all a challenge out there, that publishing is unsure about what next, that theatre has had massive funding cuts, that almost no films ever get made, no matter how hard and how well we work on them. It suits me to push myself and work bloody hard at what I do and enjoy that working hard. It suits me to make things – books, theatre, cakes, garden. I like to make.

What doesn’t suit me is the wishful, whimsical, unrealistic idea of what a writer’s life is. What doesn’t suit me is people saying “oh, I wish I could …” You can. If I can, you can. (If Beryl Bainbridge* could, with children and as a single parent, we all can.) But you might find it’s not easy and you might find you don’t like working at home and you might find that holiday pay and pensions and sick pay are things that are really really useful. You might find the dream is not the reality. It’s well worth it to me. It’s not worth it to everyone.

* there’s an absurd bit in this wiki entry – ‘to help fill her time, Bainbridge began to write’. Yes, because as a single parent of three children there must have been so very much spare time!


  1. I liked your post – and I dislike people who are complaining constantly without realizing their opportunities. What you’re saying about writer’s life fits for the life of all freelancers – artist or not. I always thought a combination would be perfect: part time job for securities and time for creative works – but you can’t have everything.
    If Bainbridge had said that it must have been an euphemism. Thinking about her life, attempting suicides, she was writing to stay alive.

  2. Thank you.
    I doubt it was said by Bainbridge, it wasn’t in quotes. (Not that that necessarily means it’s truthfully quoted either!!)

  3. The place in Tuscany needs another sharer, FYI! Ideal place to finish your book and v good value…

  4. hah!! xx

  5. Well put. I always thought it would be lovely to write full time, now I realise it’s great (for me) to have an easy 9-5 job and write around it. I can write what I want when I want without worrying whether it will pay the bills or not and if it gets published that’s a nice bonus.

  6. holy crap stella your frightening me. Now that you made me think-guess i figured you were rich and could simply buy time. Silly, stupid me. When we admire others work the awe of it sends us to the twilite zone. In the absense of reason, your fan, susan.

  7. No. Not rich, nothing to inherit from parents, no independent income from family. Didn’t earn my living fully from writing books until there were 5 or 6 of them out there earning from overseas sales and royalties, which is fairly standard for anyone not getting the massive (and well publicised) advances – and that’s most of us. I don’t mind at all, the reason I house-cleaned and did ironing for rich people well into my 20s was so I could keep on making work I wanted to, work I like and can take the time to be proud of. But easy, with hours free to sit back and just think, floating about my life like the lady novelists of prose? No. (Thankfully!!)

  8. Stella, thank you for sparking my interest in twitter leading to my interest in the internet. Your attention and kindness encouraged me. Your blogs and tweets showed courage and intelligence, patriotism and compassion. Your fortitude sparked my own. I never imagined so much could be ‘transmitted online”I will never forget you. A fan, Susan Bolda

  9. Thank you Susan, very kind.

  10. i missed reading your blog. and how ironic ! the very day i decide to post something on writing a novel, my first : 1/ i link my post to your blog without knowing you wrote sth on being a writer (linking on some French writers ans you) 2/ i remember discovering your blog, your novels on the journey 2 years ago that will be the very subject of my novel … anyway, just passing by and saying hi and thanks from Paris. *hug*

  11. *and, not ans, silly keyboard

  12. Thank you Laurent.

  13. Hi stella what a honest post about writing it’s not all glamour and wealth x

  14. Great blog – as usual. Particularly loved the allusion to those essential-but-terribly-tedious editorial tasks: If you don’t love doing those (even if lambasting them at the same time), it just ain’t gonna happen.

    Another thing to mention is the difficulty (I find) in balancing the fact that one is rarely ever “not working” with having a relationship. I most often feel like I’m cheating on one with the other!

    Am not a writer, but in an equally glamorous-not-very pigeonhole, and it’s the same.

  15. Thank you, really appreciate your response.

  16. Hi ! very good, even read the messages to you.
    Yea, I’m a writer tho’ not a ‘real’ one as I’m unpublished
    as yet, (not counting a few tentative journalistic efforts years
    And I’m proud to say I am no longer a virgin!….. this is my
    first proper engagement by blog, my brother sent it on to
    me, so I thought I would reply, as it was ‘a good ‘un’.

  17. Loved the read Stella…I’m currently trying to barge my way into to the writing or rather blogging arena. I’m a devout foodie of some 25 years, and recently qualified as a secondary school teacher – food technology (no surprise there!). The thing is, no jobs….but, all is not lost. I’m a recently single parent, but quite ambitious and certainly determined. Ive just returned from a 2 week VW trip to the South West coast of France. I had the best company for the trip; my 5 year old son and a menagerie of cuddly toy animals. I’m now ready to rock and roll…so to speak.

    I want to write, and my search has brought me here. An inspiring read including all the reponses. Now, what I need is a dangled carrot to keep my interest keen and positive. I’ve been writing to foodie people for advice, and am looking to start a blog of my own. I just need to shorten the list of potential titles, and narrow down the topics. Any advice or leads would be very much appreciated…Watch this space!!


  18. hi Aly,
    have a look at my old friend Gill’s food blog :

    as for dangled carrots – I find the necessity to pay bills helps!

    and good luck!

  19. Thanks Stella! I had a look at the website, looks really professional, quirky, and quite varied. So, does Gill make a living from the this?

    I’m very happt to have received a reply…so many simply don’t bother!

  20. You’ll have to ask Gill! Though I don’t think many people actually make a living from writing a blog, not sure that’s the point, is it?

  21. Indeed…I think please and satisfaction come first…the feeling of being able to sharing something you’re passionate about, with the knowledge and capacity to respond to all sorts of questions and queries…a pretty good bundle by all accounts! Any financial incentive would simply be a bonus.

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