Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Life choices

My day-jobs both involve working for universities, so my employment year is defined not by the tax year or the calendar year, but by the academic year. Universities operate a pretty minimal version of that, too - I've just finished work for the summer, and don't expect to be in again until the very end of September. Factor in the Christmas and Easter breaks, and I only work six months in the year.

And only part time at that - I average about 12-15 hours per week the 26-28 weeks of the year that I work. That makes for a total of barely 350 hours' day-job work in a whole year's worth of employment. (Disclaimer: I'm not a professor, lecturer or permanent employee of any kind - those people do a lot more work than me). Fortunately for me, my jobs pay well enough, just about, that I can make enough to live on this way.

I'm often heard to complain about being poor, but the truth is I wouldn't choose anything else. The rare periods where I have worked something like full-time (mainly summer jobs as an undergraduate) have been really frustrating for me. I hate commuting, hate having to get up on someone else's schedule every morning, hate having such a large chunk of my life given over to things I'm not doing for their own sake.

It makes an excellent lifestyle for a writer, as well - I get six months every year in which to focus on my writing. Last time the PhD didn't get in the way, in the 2010-11 academic year, I wrote five novels in thirteen months (and yes, at least two of them were crap, but they were great learning experiences). Even with the PhD in full swing the last couple of years, I've written and published 250,000 words of The Second Realm.

Since finishing the PhD, though, people have started to ask me what I'll do next, and I'm not sure how much longer 'Keep going the way I'm going' will cut it. My mother insists on referring to my lifestyle as 'Bohemian', which certainly isn't an unambiguous compliment. At what point does it become irresponsible or selfish to live like this?

I take no direct financial subsidies from the state, in the form of benefits or tax credits or anything. I'm not currently paying off my student loan (about £15,000 in total), but that hardly makes me unique. I do have some impact on state- and society-funded infrastructure, of course, but it's minimal. As a young and relatively healthy man, I'm not taking very much from the NHS. I have no dependents who I'm failing to support, but by not having a surplus income, I'm not putting any money aside for the future, which is setting up for problems on down the line.

This isn't a question I have a clear answer for. The cultural pressure to 'get a real job' is a very problematic phenomenon, particularly these days when there are so few 'real jobs' at entry-level which aren't totally degrading and exploitative, but it's also difficult for me to claim that I'm a productive member of society when so few people express any interest in my books.

J.K. Rowling lived on benefits for a couple of years while she wrote Harry Potter, and as I understand it this was in part a deliberate choice. It worked out pretty well for her (which really only means 'but there must be thousands of writers who tried that and failed). My question, really, is at what point would she have counted as having failed, if the strategy hadn't borne fruit?

I'm certainly not going to change my approach to life for another (academic) year. My employers have both expressed interest in having me work for them next year, and, God willing, that means I've got another sixteen months or so of living expenses lined up. If I succeed commercially as a writer in that time, great. If not, I'll probably be writing this blog post again, but with a slightly more urgent and distressed tone, next year sometime.


  1. Hi Rik,
    I wanted to comment on this as a lot of what you've said resonates with my thoughts about the work/life balance.
    I've worked full time since I was 16 years old. Most weeks have been 40 hour weeks, many 60 hours plus. I don't have a degree but I trained within my field and have specialised twice whilst working.
    I am proud of my achievements but my lifestyle is one of waking up, working, and going to bed. I get 4 weeks of holiday a year, for which my requests generally get turned down and I take the extra pay at the end of the year.
    Now, after 10 years, I've finally had enough. My time as a young adult is running out, and there's so many things I've not been able to do because of my commitment to faceless corporations (my boss doesn't know my name, incidentally).
    So...I'm starting my own business. It's taken some years of saving but I long for the day when the effort I put in is for me, and not for the ultimate benefit of someone else. If it takes up even more of my time? So be it.
    I guess this is my roundabout way of saying don't change. If your part time job allows you to write more, which is for your benefit, then don't feel pressured to work full time. Too many people kill themselves doing it, and to what end.
    I'm not a writer, as you can tell, but those are my jumbled thoughts.
    An old friend :)

  2. Good post, particularly the point about 'real jobs' at entry level being exploitative. Though I think it depends what your aiming/if you're willing to sell your soul to the man made disciplins like law and financial sectors. I suppose the only real answer is to do what you love and to hell with the consequences Although so few people truly know what they love.

    Im also impressed you managed to stay away from politics but perfectly hit the nail on the head with the previously mentioned point. I worry that this government and the message it has been fostering for the last few years has really sunk into the public, that the working class is lazy and should be grateful for any job they have. I could go on but that wasn't the point of this post.

    Good stuff anyway.

  3. Thanks for commenting, both :) Quentin; I'm not sure it's entirely fair to blame the current government for the 'get-a-real-job' narrative, since it was definitely there before they came to power, but they've certainly milked it for all it's worth.

    Old friend, whoever you are ;) : Good luck! More power to your elbow.

  4. Bohemian is a description. Neutral. Neither compliment nor the other. But I fully support your choice. Go for the freedom. We can think about the manacles another time. Mum.