The Unemployed Life of a Professional Writer
From Job to Job, Book to Book, on the West Coast of Canada
Some let the heart lead them through life, others are guided by the head. My heart’s been dragging me across the map for years, and finally, in 2014, I said Enough, Misses, we’re dropping anchor. I now live alone on a hillside in historic Ladysmith on Vancouver Island. I’m 51 years old, my most recent book—I Wasn’t Always Like This (essays, Signature Editions)—has just been released, and if I’m lucky, in a few days I’ll be wearing steel-toed boots and an orange T-shirt as I stock shelves at a Home Depot in Duncan.
I’ve been writing and publishing books in multiple genres since 1990, when Thistledown Press released my first collection of poetry, A Few Words For January. I was more enthusiastic then, and much younger. That first book sold out in a month. Back in those days, I actually had the chutzpah to sell books door-to-door in my neighbourhood.
In my home province, Saskatchewan, I was well-served by the various writing organizations. The Saskatchewan Writers Guild funded me for numerous school and library readings; for residencies; for its manuscript editing service; and as an editor for the publications Spring and WindScript. The SWG bought my profiles and articles for its monthly newsletter, Freelance. Saskatchewan Publishers Group (now SaskBooks) paid me for reviews and for marketing Saskatchewan-published books at artisan fairs and educational conferences. Sage Hill Writing Experience hired me time and again as a Youth Writing Camp Instructor. I also freelanced for myriad markets, sold work to CBC Saskatchewan, worked for three years as a radio advertising copywriter, and consistently led workshops. It was enough. And it made a huge financial difference that I was not living alone.
A quiet but prolific career. Four books of poetry, three short fiction collections, a novel, a juvenile novel, an illustrated children’s book (with Bill Slavin), and an essay collection. Like so many others who’ve been writing and publishing for decades, I’ve felt the effects of our rapidly-changing industry, including far fewer reviews, fewer reading opportunities (and independent bookstore closures), much more self-marketing, more challenges for readership, and overall, a devastating decrease in income (which never amounted to much even in the rosiest of years). Each spring at income tax time I measure income vs. expenses and come to the same dire conclusion: Girl, this is bloody impossible.
I’m among the lucky—or the cursed—who knew from an early age that writing would be her raison d’être. As a toddler in Kyle, Saskatchewan, I’d scribble across pages and show my mother, asking: Does this make a word? Does this? Apart from one Grade Twelve teacher’s author suggestion (the novels of Hugh MacLennan), I wasn’t introduced to CanLit in school. My first brush came via my mother’s subscription to the venerable literary journal Grain: a Sandra Birdsell story fired a kind of consciousness. The work was an affirmation. Yes, it intuited, you can have these thoughts, and share them. This is the most exciting thing in the world.
So the heart took us to Edmonton in 2010. Not far from the homeland, I quickly connected with the writing community and managed to get readings and other opportunities. The Writers Guild of Alberta was good to me, and I particularly appreciated the invitation to lead the Nine-day Writer-in-Residency at the Banff Centre.
I was found by former coworkers in radio and seduced to work as a radio advertising copywriter—which I’d last done in the late 1980s, early 1990s in Saskatoon—for two rock and roll stations. Writing commercials shares an affinity with poetry—the brevity, the every-word-matters-ness. As a “spec” writer creating 30-second spots to lure new clients, I had much creative freedom, and I loved the challenge of writing quickly and persuasively. Sometimes I would weasel in a little poetry:
The blue of a northern lake … The shine of a first kiss … The tulip yellow of reunions … raspberry … carrot … plum … The vermillion of surprise … hoar frost and winter white, and their quiet sister: Peace. Bold … dramatic … placid … colour …
Sets the tone. Benjamin Moore Paints … For those who experience the world in spectacular shades. Benjamin Moore. Painting the world since 1883. Twelve locations in Edmonton.
The radio station paid well. I cut back to part-time, and they let me work from my home office, or wherever else I happened to be every Tuesday and Thursday morning. I worked eight hours a week, lived with my partner, and was able to keep myself stocked in paper, ink, and friends’ newly-released books.
Hell, as it sometimes does, broke loose. (Damn you, heart.). I left stability and jumped into the fire. After four months of living with a new man—who chastised me for raising my eyes (“it puts lines in your forehead”)—I packed up my office and little more, and landed in Ladysmith for a fresh start. I had the security of the radio job. Just enough. What does a middle-aged, post mid-career, multi-genre writer do when she moves to a new community where she knows no one? Firstly, she hits the woods to walk out the demons. Then, she integrates: joins jam sessions, plays guitar or reads from her work at open stages, befriends neighbours, plays cribbage at the Legion, talks to strangers. She brashly calls the local newspaper editor and lands a full-page spread: accomplished new author in town. She hands out business cards: name, address, and TWUC (Writers Union of Canada) web-link on one side, titles on the other. She sells books at yard sales and craft fairs.
Then, she loses her radio job: the company sells, there are cutbacks. Then, she panics.
The rate for a solo TWUC-sponsored reading is $250. The Saskatchewan Writers Guild pays $175 for the same. Those outside the literary world may think this extreme; those inside know that these reading opportunities rarely arise for most of us, and in my case, ironically, far less often as my list of titles has grown. It is gorgeous and important to be paid well for sharing work that may take years—ten, twelve, even sixteen—to write and hone. It’s a validation, as are the grants that are few and far between, and certainly never anticipated.
Another side-effect of province-hopping; with residency requirements unmet, one is often not eligible for provincial grants and book award competitions. Opportunities narrow.
Yes, the going gets tough. Then tougher. Now, with the essays just out, an illustrated children’s book forthcoming with a respected Ontario publisher, and a curriculum vitae a juror once described as being “as long as [her] arm,” I’m facing poverty unlike anything I’ve known since the 1980s, when I lived with my little family in a low-income duplex in Saskatoon.
I’ve been willing to do anything for work in my adopted, coastal community. My first position—which I was completely unqualified for—was as a one-month live-in companion to a senior with early-stage dementia. My wages covered my taxes. My second job—again, unqualified; I was hired because of my literary cv—involved “teaching” leadership and ESL to teens at an international private school. I lived on campus and worked 14-hour days. My co-leaders were 18 to 21-ish. The job nearly killed me.
Since that summer contract ended, I’ve applied for three to six jobs daily. I tell employers that I’m a professional writer, and try to explain why that necessitates supplementing my income. I show them my books, and their expressions tell me they think this situation is ludicrous.
Competition for even the most menial jobs is fierce. I’ve applied up and down the coast, Victoria to Nanaimo. Colleges, pharmacies, hardware stores, hospitals, clinics, tourist information centres, campgrounds, airports, BC Ferries, administrative positions, landscaping companies, a paper-shredding business, liquor stores, a bookstore, consignment clothing shops, homestays, magazines, ad agencies, radio stations, newspapers, and technical writing positions are a few that come to mind.
I quality for Welfare Wednesdays at the special store where on the last Wednesday of each month, food’s sold at extra low prices. I qualify for Income Assistance (aka Welfare) but have been too determined to support myself to apply. After all, I do have a career. It just doesn’t pay.
I must be doing something wrong; I can’t get a job. I see an employment counselor. “It’s the island,” she says, “paradise is tough.” I know this. I’ve heard of former CBC writers\producers taking jobs as hotel desk clerks and truck drivers. I share that I’ve applied for a job at the local printing company. I’d be stuffing flyers into newspapers. It’s impossible not to laugh when I tell her that I likely won’t get the job: “I’d need steel-toed boots,” I say. “And I can’t afford them.” She says: “Shelley, if you get that job, we’ll buy you the boots!” Two days ago I applied to be a “rabbit sitter.”
Did I mention the new book? Sure, I wrote it simultaneously while working on other projects, but I Wasn’t Always Like This was sixteen years in the making, all told. Yes, I do love the act of writing, but have I been well and truly crazy?
Here burns a more pertinent question: if I am succeeding professionally, as publication credits would imply, why the devil am I having such a difficult time financially?
Well, the heart, for sure, is partly to blame. It’s brought me to a land where a) I am literarily unknown and b) every other person (or so it seems) is a writer, and the general public does not (or so it seems) distinguish between amateur and professional, between the coil-bound and unedited and sometimes terrific self-published books, and those published in the old way, by traditional publishers after a writer’s built a career via journal and anthology publications, attending (then leading) workshops, literary volunteerism, contest wins, etc. It was a painstakingly long and difficult process to build that cv and demonstrate my work’s worth to professional publishers based upon it—just saying.
True, I’ve also not had a “break-out” book, have won no major awards, nor do I possess a Masters in Creative Writing, or anything else. Somehow, though, there seems an injustice. The dedication. The decades. The financial (and other) sacrifices. Some of these books are taught in schools across the country.
And my story, I suspect, is a common one.
I have hope, people. My interview for a three-month position as a “merchandiser” (shelf stocker) at Home Depot went well. (The woman who interviewed me is the niece of Saskatchewan writer Lois Simmie; she gets it.) I’ll wear a smashing orange T-shirt, and I’m banking on that employment counselor to come through with the steel-toed boots. I’ll need them.
Three months will bring me my two-province (Saskatchewan-Alberta), self-arranged and non-funded tour with the new collection. I’ll have a traditional launch at McNally Robinson in Saskatoon, but I recognize that we must approach marketing differently now. With this book I’m offering to present at home-based “salons.” I’ve emailed everyone I know and asked if I can visit. If they have ten or twelve friends they can invite for what I’m calling an “interactive” reading and can provide me with B and B, I’m there.
This is a wing and a prayer.
Reviews. When one’s had a relatively modest career, especially, publishing with small literary presses, he or she is lucky to receive even a single review. What to do? Post, with friends’ permission, their personal reactions to the new book. Smear these comments all over Facebook, Twitter, my blog. Try anything. Everything.
I was at a launch in Victoria recently where an author read in a T-shirt printed with his book cover image. Writers are making book trailers. I’ve read in an organic food market, with fruit flies buzzing around my head, and was damn glad to have the opportunity. Time to go where the people are—not just to libraries, and bookstores. It’s the hour for new audiences, and new sales’ strategies.
We try and we try. It’s exhausting. Honestly, I feel that if this book doesn’t make even a little stir—and frankly, earn me even a modicum of income—it might just be time to stop scribbling.
Late-breaking: another job interview… tomorrow, the Liquor Barn, in Ladysmith. The shift is 3:00-11 pm, and I’d earn $10.25\hr. Maybe I can get the Home Depot job (6:00 am- 2:30 pm) and this one.
Later-breaking: the rabbit owner just emailed. Jupiter is a fixed male and four years old; Roxy is female and three years old. Jupiter is super sweet and friendly, while Roxy is a little more timid.
My friends, this is what my writing life has come to. It wasn’t always like this.
Shelley lasted eight days at the Home Depot job. She continues to review books, and sells her own at the Ladysmith Farmers’ Market in Ladysmith, BC on Tuesdays. Her most recent book is I Wasn’t Always Like This (Essays, Signature Editions). The Moon Watched It All (illustrated children’s book) will be out in 2016 with Red Deer Press.
Enter here for a chance to win a copy of Shelley A. Leedahl’s latest book, I Wasn’t Always Like This