“You’re self-employed and you don’t know where the next bit of money is coming from.”
That’s the reality of the professional writer’s life – as summed up by Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin, crime writer (as Sam Blake) and founder of writing.ie.
Since October, I’ve been asking writers on this island about the practical side of life as a writer as part of the Irish Times/Words Ireland Writing Lives series.
I’ve interviewed health and social care workers, university lecturers, mentors, journalists, PR agents and workshop facilitators – and one or two individuals who even make a living solely from their pens.
As the president of Publishing Ireland, Ruth Hegarty, puts it: “Most people earn their income from other things but they are writers.”
Inevitably, the varied but uncertain nature of many writers’ employment can create challenges as well as opportunities – not least when dealing with the social welfare office.
The Social, Economic, and Fiscal Status of the Visual Artist in Ireland – a 2016 report by Visual Artists Ireland – found “a steady increase in artists being required to retrain for other jobs and a lack of understanding of the professional visual artist”.
While there is no comparable survey of Irish authors, the experiences they recount are shared by many writers.
“I was told art wasn’t a realistic source of income and I must find work outside of art,” said one artist.
“Being an artist is never seen as a valid career choice, so the discussion is always about looking for an alternative job or form of income,” wrote another contributor.
“Despite the fact that my income as a visual artist is very low, sporadic and unreliable, I was still treated and tested as a self-employed business owner,” added another.
While some respondents have had good experiences – “once the local office saw my pattern of part-time employment they treated me in a consistent way, paying a portion of social welfare payment without further interviews” – the need for a definition of what it means to look for work as a writer has been one of the issues raised at the nationwide series of public meetings for writers and illustrators that has accompanied this series.
“The idea of looking for work, and what that means to a writer, is something we’d like to tease out,” explains Hegarty.
“For example, if you’re a writer, is submitting work to short story competitions or pitching to literary magazines acceptable evidence of looking for work?
“It’s difficult, because if you go into the social welfare office, the rules are that you must have evidence that you are actively seeking work.
“If work hasn’t been done by somebody like Words Ireland to broaden the understanding of what is acceptable evidence, why shouldn’t a social welfare officer encourage you to go out and look for a job – any job?
“I think Words Ireland has a responsibility to do this kind of work and bring it to people like the Government and the Arts Council and to facilitate the conversation and see if there are measures that wouldn’t be difficult or expensive to implement but which would make a big difference to writers.”
The launch last month of Creative Ireland – the Government’s five-year programme which aims to build on the legacy of Ireland 2016 by improving access to cultural and creative activity – contained within it a commitment that the Department of Arts and Social Protection will “devise a mechanism to assist self-employed artists who have applied for Jobseekers Allowance”.
While this is still a pilot scheme – and it remains to be seen how it will be implemented – it is nevertheless to be welcomed.
Indeed, its greatest significance may lie simply in the official acknowledgement that such measures are needed – and, implicitly, that writers have a valued place in Irish life.
Visual Artists Ireland goes further, suggesting in their 2016 report that primary legislation be introduced that recognises the status of the artist in Ireland.
“If your work is recognised as valuable, it gives you the confidence to keep going,” says Hegarty.
Of all the accolades Ireland gives its writers, among the most respected must surely be membership of Aosdána.
Limited to 250 members at any one time, it seeks to honour artists who have made an outstanding contribution to the creative arts in Ireland.
Members are also entitled to apply for a Cnuas – a five-year annuity valued (in 2015) at €17,180 per year and which is designed, its website states, to help artists “in concentrating their time and energies in the full-time pursuit of their art”.
“It does recognise that writers need space to think,” says Hegarty, but adds that the number of writers it benefits is extremely limited.
“I think there are a lot of people who aren’t members of Aosdána and could be. Does the Cnuas need to be extended – and could it be extended?”
Inevitably, the need for financial stability becomes more important as writers get older.
“It’s one thing being poor in your thirties, but it’s a different thing being poor in your forties,” says novelist Mike McCormack. “An incredible exhaustion sets in. I’m 51 now, so you begin to get worried. I worry about artists in their 50s and 60s, people who have been plying their trade for years and who are still fretting and worrying. That’s when your health becomes an issue, and you’ve got no security, you’ve got no pension, you’ve got no nothing.”
This lack of a pension is a concern for many writers.
“I will have something,” says former teacher and now full-time writer Sheena Wilkinson. “I do sometimes worry because I haven’t made any extra contributions, so I know my pension won’t be great, but my Dad worried about his pension and he died when he was 62.
“I hope that won’t happen to me – but I don’t think worrying about his pension made his life any longer.”
Fox O’Loughlin agrees. “My pension is in tatters at the moment, but it is something writers do need to think about. It is very hard when you’re trying to scrape by, but pensions – and the writer’s tax exemption – are something you absolutely should be looking at. It’s about making the most of what you get.”
The Artists’ Exemption allows the sale of artistic works by artists, writers, composers and sculptors in the Republic of Ireland to be exempt from tax (subject to certain criteria), up to a cap of €50,000 per year.
“This is a good Revenue measure, in that it allows you to apply for tax exemption if you are earning income from your creative work,” explains Hegarty.
“What we are hearing from writers is that, if Words Ireland can help develop respect for writers and for what they’re doing, it could change the way in which they’re supported.
“Writing is a wonderful career but it is not one that should necessarily be pursued in poverty. You don’t need poverty to create, you need security.”
“I don’t think I’d have the energy to be doing school visits when I’m 65,” says Wilkinson, “but the nice thing is that when you’re a writer you don’t have to retire.
“PD James and Ruth Rendell were writing into their 80s and 90s. Obviously that depends on you being successful enough and still being able to write something half decent, but writing doesn’t fit into that ‘work for 40 years and then retire’ model. Working life has changed.
“Just make sure you keep your receipts.”
The Irish Times Writing Lives series is an initiative of Words Ireland. The Words Ireland Writers Series of nationwide meetings for creative writers and illustrators continues in Dublin on January 25th with a special event for illustrators, and visits Limerick in February and Dublin and Cork in March. Admission is free but booking is essential. For more information visit wordsireland.ie
Freya McClements is a writer and arts journalist