4 January 2012

Remaining Unemployed

When I started this blog, it was my intention to write about my efforts to make a living while developing myself as a writer. So far, I've been focusing on the writing part and not written very much about my forays into the world of redundancy and endless work experience. This is partially because job seeking is boring, and partially because my CVs are almost supernaturally low on literary merit.

Why The Recession will End in Tears and Result in Boring, Samey Novels

Apparently, being unemployed is all the rage these days. My own demographic, 16-24 year olds, are the worst effected, presumably because we're all busy doing unpaid work experience.

If my generation is to be the Unemployed Generation, we're going to have a lot of time on our hands. Demand for entertainment will go up. Because everyone is unemployed, there will be fewer people being paid to produce entertaining things, so there will be less entertainment around.*

Intelligent people are naturally industrious, if there is no entertainment provided, they'll invent. Lying at home all day, the Unemployed Generation will have little better to do than starting bands, taking up knitting, and writing novels. There will also be an increase in teenage pregnancies, and more local football teams.

Of course, some of the UG will be happy lounging at home watching repeats of Location, Location, Location, but I prefer to deny people that boring exist.

Perhaps some of the great minds that would otherwise have been absorbed into the City will direct their energies into making great literature? Imagine what wonderful novels Alex Salmond could have written if he wasn't wasting his time reforming the Scottish political landscape.

Well that's not what I want to do. I'd actually like to have a job. And no, I'm not comparing myself to Alex Salmond. For starters, I have little interest in politics, and for puddings, I'm not particularly anti-English.

Without access to employment the UG will have little to write about apart from sex and death. The world of employment, on the other hand, is not only interesting in itself, it opens doors to other worlds too. It's all very well having unlimited leisure time to travel in if you don't have any money to buy train tickets.

Imagine how awful it would be if an entire generation's literary output was about unemployed twenty somethings who wonder around not even being able to afford drugs. It would be like Trainspotting without the heroin.

Why Working is Good for Writing

I think people often assume that creative writing and making a living are polar opposites. There's an enduring  image of the budding writer as poverty magnet. Writers live on Edinburgh housing estates with small children and smaller benefits, and write in cafés on Moleskine notebooks. Writers feast on Lidl's multipack mince meat and hover over electric radiators because they can't afford central heating.

Don't be fooled - it's an amusing stereotype to bandy about at parties, but it isn't always the case.

Extensive leisure time, which is a forgiving way of saying 'unemployment', simply isn't a necessity for finding your voice. We all know there are plenty of authors who had, like, you know, careers. Terry Pratchett and Charles Dickens were both journalists. Janice Galloway and Carol Anne Duffy were schoolteachers. Kingsley Amis and Liz Lochhead were academics. Jean le Carré was actually a spy, weirdly unlikely though that may seem.**

It's clear that, for me at least, having time to write and actually writing are very much not the same thing. The most creative period of my life (so far, hopefully) was the first term of my second year at Oxford. I wrote/edited over eight hours of radio drama with my friends, and recorded it too. This was on top of my Oxford degree and everything else I was involved with, of course.

In stark contrast, since September I've mainly been lying around at home in Y-fronts, but I've only written 20k odd's worth of creative writing (most of it my novel). That's an average of 222 words a day, which is frankly unimpressive considering that when I get going I can happily write two thousand words in an hour.*** I find that having more time to write actually makes me less motivated. If there isn't a hurry, then it doesn't get done at all.

On the other hand, I found while I was working (six days a week) as a Christmas temp for a large bookshop chain, that I was too tired to make good use of the hours I did manage to set aside for writing. That balance between work and real work, between employment and vocation, is really really hard to get right.

Perhaps this is why people at book festivals are all so interested to hear about the daily routines of the writers they admire?

Ask the average person about Haruki Murakami, and they'll tell you they've never heard of him. Ask the average person worth knowing about Murakami, and they'll probably be able to tell you the titles of a few of his books and the fact that he gets up at 4am most mornings and writes until lunch, before his main business of training for marathons, which he does for a further eight hours.

Murakami is obviously a nutcase, but perhaps he's onto something there.

I think the balance between writing and the rest of life is something every writer struggles with. It's a shame the current job market is tying the hands of so many people. By which I mainly mean me.

* The basic situation in the creative industries seems to be that most potential customers have no money to spend on the creative industries because the creative industries do not provide enough jobs.

** I freely admit that my source for all of this information is Wikipedia. I'm not getting paid to write this so I don't have to fact check.

*** I can prove this, if you don't believe me.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. A very interesting and well-written post. I came here, on a Google crawl, from a post at the Guardian, entitled, 'The graduates of 2012 will survive only in the cracks of our economy'.

    Lately, I've been doing a lot of reading on the subject of idleness, specifically its placement in society over time. Is it an apt sign of recent progression that societal caste, in the same period, has been defined by the measure of activity? In Victorian times, those who did the most were the worst-off; in modern times, those who do the least are the worst-off. Strange, isn't it?

    As I read your post, I found myself being able to relate to many of your observations. As you, I am unemployed. As you, I write. I do believe the themes of death and sex are prevalent in literature written by the unemployed; I do believe that working is crucial to developing your repertoire of drawable themes as a writer.

    However, as I presume you know, inspiration readily comes from sources other than the process of involving your body and mind in the 'real' world, i.e. the twinning of employment and recreation; I find that some daily reading of fiction both keeps me sane and provides me with new themes, styles, and conventions, broken or not; additionally, recreational drugs have helped me greatly in crafting worlds out of space that would otherwise be filled with repetitive themes drawn from reality.

    Have you experimented with writing whilst under the influence of recreational drugs? Or perhaps writing in hindsight of such an experience?

    Oh, by the way, I have heard of Haruki Murakami, but I am yet to read any of his work. You are the second person to have told me about him and, judging by your views in this singular post, I am confident in the receipt of that mention.

  3. You are right to point out there are more ways than social interaction to find inspiration or material for writing. Of course recycled material from others' work needs to be shaped into something worth someone else reading, but the extra stimulus needed for this might just as well come from another book than from real life. Or from drugs. Perhaps it is only real-external-life experiences that come across as 'authentic' though, especially for beginning writers? (http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2013/01/08/f-scott-fitzgerld-on-writing/) I'm speaking mainly about dramatic-story-based fiction though, not the more philosophical kind a la Borges/Kundera which I imagine is much more amenable to authors living inside their own heads.

    I've never written on drugs - not even alcohol, now I think about it. I do confess I am rather curious to find out what my writing would be like if I attempted it while severely inebriated. I have a horrible suspicion it would look much less funny/deep/experimental the morning after... Serious editing needed.

    This looks interesting: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/580859.Writing_On_Drugs

    Thanks for commenting. You've given me lots to think about!