On Saturday, I went along to a Words Ireland talk at the Triskel Arts Centre in Cork. Words Ireland describes itself as ‘an informal grouping of literature organisations which share a common vision of providing a cohesive and comprehensive literature resource service to the sector and its wider community, both nationally and internationally’. The talk was part of a series of meetings that have taken place around the country in recent months to discuss the thorny subject of earning an income as a writer. The hope is that it will spark a national debate on the future of literature resourcing and funding in Ireland.
The Cork panel consisted of novelist Mary Morrissy, poet Doireann Ní Ghríofa and children’s author Kieran Crowley. William Wall was also scheduled to appear, but was unfortunately unable to be there. The speakers were all charming, and incredibly honest about the spoils (or lack thereof) of their work. Unsurprisingly, book sales ranked very low in their respective earnings, while bursaries, awards, advances and appearance fees were the real life savers. But the panel were in agreement that the chances of surviving financially on writing alone were slim.
Interestingly, they all more or less felt that the necessity of having a day job – or, certainly, supplementing a writing life with unrelated work of some kind – was enriching rather than an obstacle. Kieran said that he had a full-time job for many years which only allowed him to write in short bursts whenever he could fit it in. But then he was made redundant, and by a stroke of luck was offered a two-book deal with Pan Macmillan around the same time. That, together with an Arts Council grant, allowed him to totally focus on finishing a draft in a short space of time. However, he wasn’t sure that this intensive method of writing would work in the long term, saying that being free to write 12 hours a day doesn’t necessarily mean you will. Sometimes it’s the very lack of time that galvanises you to use what you have productively.
The conversation also touched upon broader topics, such as what that pivotal moment is when you consider yourself to be a writer in the first place. For Doireann, it was when she first had work published in journals and was invited to read at festivals. It gave her, she said, “that sense of being seen”.
Even seeing his first book in bookshops couldn’t convince Kieran he had arrived, and he still felt it was a fluke. So for him the turning point was the validation of getting an agent.
For Mary, whenever she went through periods of not writing, she would beat herself up about being able to call herself a “real” writer. She said it was about the internal definition rather than the external one.
After a quick break (is it bad that I love a free cup of tea?), the discussion was thrown open for thoughts and ideas from the audience. There were a lot of frustrations, but practical suggestions too. These ranged from smaller grants serving more writers, to the pros and cons of Kickstarter campaigns, to what was referred to as an ‘artist’s dole’. This latter proposal brings with it some potential drawbacks, not least the stigma of being seen as unemployed rather than contributing to the rich literary heritage that is Ireland’s calling card. There was also a very interesting notion of mentoring schemes, whereby experienced writers could be paid (perhaps through Arts Council funding) to help nurture the next generation.
While there were, and are, few concrete solutions to an industry-wide problem – ie. the perception of the arts in general and writing in particular as a fanciful hobby rather than a profession – it was fascinating to listen to the subject being discussed. And it brought home another point – that maybe the mark of a writer is someone who will still put pen to paper even when there’s no guarantee of a reward at the end of it.
Incidentally, there is all manner of useful information on the Words Ireland website, ranging from journal submission opportunities to bursary and grant information. It’s well worth a browse.
Short story competition
This week’s competition news may appeal to writers of dystopian stories. The Storgy Short Story Competition is accepting entries on the theme ‘Exit Earth’. They even have a weird and wonderful film with the details of what they’re looking for:
The first prize is £1,000, second prize £500, third prize £250, and the finalists will be published in an anthology. Stories should be a maximum of 5,000 words and the entry fee is £10. The closing date is May 31. My guess is the quirkier the better with this one.