Friday, 13 April 2012

Part-Time Poet

I was invited to a book launch last year - not one of those common-or-garden, room-above-a-pub affairs, I'll have you know, but a proper book launch by a major publisher with a budget to waste on cardboard cut-outs as well as wine and nibbles.  While in attendance I was forcefully encouraged by a well-meaning friend of mine to network.  This could only end in disaster.  I'm a mediocre networker at best if I'm promoting the wares of a charity or organisation I work for, but when it comes to my own writing, I manage to put even myself off my output.  This evening was no exception, and one person after another quickly found an excuse to find the ready salted crisps fascinating (one person even tried to politely terminate our conversation by asking what the crisps were like.  This was a difficult question to answer in an interesting way.  They were like crisps, obviously).

Perhaps, then, we shouldn't judge a couple of the attendees for their reactions towards me too harshly.  Upon being asked the usual questions about who I was and what I did, I noticed a visible freezing of goodwill as soon it became apparent that I was not a "full-time writer", nor anyone in the media who would be immediately useful to them.  At one point, I'm almost ashamed to admit that I actually tried to explain why my work was good to somebody who already seemed a quarter of the way across the room in her rush to get away from me.  She'd spun on her heels and had begun to walk off before I could even finish the word "But", nodding and smiling knowingly as she went.

It's something other friends of mine have noticed as well.  There's an indignity to being a part-time writer.  Part-timers are not "in the club".  It signifies either amateurism - which is nothing to be ashamed of in my opinion, but is a deep insult to many - or a lack of courage to just quit the rat race and take a proper risk with your work.  Never mind the fact that most of us probably would quit our dayjobs to spend a year solely working on that great novel if we had sufficient savings to do so, there's an attitude that unless you devote your entire life to your art living under the most trying poverty as you do, you are somehow not being entirely serious.  And of course, I can't discount the idea that at events where people are keen to network, they will tend not to waste too much of their evening on somebody who doesn't appear to be of much use to their own ambitions.

The networking problem is obvious, but I'm not too sure where the other attitudes come from or even how loose the definitions of "full time" are.  A magazine article recently boasted that there were more "full time poets" in the UK than at any other point in recent memory, quoting wild figures to back up its statistic.  This made no sense to me at the time, and still makes no sense now.  I don't know any full-time poets.  It's true to say that I know people who make a living from poetry, but that's an important distinction - these are writers who tour and go from workshops to inner-city comprehensives to universities teaching their trade and explaining themselves to others.  This is a very liberal interpretation of the idea of "being a full-time poet".  A more accurate description would be that this is finding a way of continuing your craft with the minimum of off-topic distractions and disruptions a proper job would bring.  In the dictionary definition of "poet", teaching classes does not feature.
Full-time writers - as opposed to poets - are more common, but given the pathetically low advances offered by publishing houses for many novels, still not necessarily that easy to come by, and they're getting rarer all the time.

"Part-time" is often used as an insult, and I'm wondering if it's time to reclaim the term.  For instance, it's often used to describe non-serious, supposedly frivolous members of underground music movements.
A "part-time" punk was somebody who didn't live their life according to the punk ideology to the full, and similar "part-time" insults are still bandied around for goths and mods.  But here's the crunch - the part-timers are usually the people with sufficient flexibility and awareness to take the experiences of their mainstream life and weigh it up against their weekend activities.  Whilst the full-timers forever wear their uniform, rigidly sticking to the ethics, beliefs and codes of a restrictive system, the part-timers know the alternatives and tend to have a wider life experience.  Part-timers do not constantly put up walls or wear tribal markers which, subconsciously or otherwise, are designed to exclude the straights.  In this context, part-timers are experimenters and travellers, whereas full-timers are the social equivalent of people who still cling on to childhood safety blankets and never quite got around to moving out of their parent's house to brave the wider world.

I wouldn't choose to insult full-time writers in precisely the same way, but the attitude some of them have towards part-timers is similarly unenlightened.  If somebody has been writing part-time for over a decade, cramming their work around a dayjob, a relationship, and possibly bringing up their children, that shows a seriousness almost beyond the often badly paid but still luxurious life of a full-time sprawl.  If somebody carries on writing until early in a weekday morning before commuting to work the next day, doing so fully in the knowledge that what they've written probably won't earn them much if indeed anything, that to me suggests a dedication some full-timers may find they don't possess.  And more to the point, rather than sticking around fellow writers and media types in London and increasingly feeding their work with experiences from a shallow pool of reference (I've read two stories with main characters who live in desirable flats in North London in the last fortnight alone) part-timers are often likely to have jobs which can help them to create much more worldly work. Some of the best observational writing I've heard on the poetry circuit comes from teachers, social workers and labourers.  And let's not forget Magnus Mills, a part-time, award-nominated writer with an enviably sharp sense of dialogue who drives buses for a living.

We've all met people who claim they're writing a novel or theatre play who in reality have only produced four poorly thought through sides of A4 in the last two years.  The arts and media world is full of bluffers, dreamers and fakers, people who have killed more trees printing calling cards than they have through the use of notebooks.  This makes the life of the part-timer no easier, but if you're a full-time writer and you're reading this, please don't assume anything the next time you meet one of us.  Kafka was a part-time writer.  Larkin was a part-time poet.  Literature shouldn't be about competitions to see who is the highest earning or has the best social status, and if a writer does take that attitude, it will always arouse my own suspicions about what they're doing in that world and how their attitude is likely to be reflected in their work.  For example, I did take a look at the work of that woman who span on her heels and walked away from me rudely.  It may have had a major publishing house's muscle behind it, but it wasn't particularly good.


  1. This post is great Dave! shared totally by a part-time writer!

  2. Thanks Sunshine! (And yay, you are the first person to comment on this site!)

  3. Excellent piece Dave. Part timers unite!

  4. Thanks Ray! Soon we'll all be part-timers, I think...