“We pay our writers to write,” my Norwegian friend Kristin said as if it was the most obvious thing in the world and enlightened me about the Statens Kunstnerstipend, a “grant and guaranteed income programme with the objective to give creative and performing artists the opportunity to actively pursue their artistic career and to aid younger artists in establishing themselves as artists.” The programme offers diverse short and long-term grants as well as one-off bursaries for travel, study or material expenses for artists based in Norway. I was mostly fascinated by the “guaranteed income” support scheme: established artists can apply for this to provide them with the financial stability necessary for having “artistic enterprise as their primary form of occupation.” And the crux is that the recipients retain the right to this financial stability (paid monthly) until they reach retirement age.
Norwegians seem to take a much-quoted imperative to heart: “If you think culture is expensive, try ignorance!” The objective of their support programmes is to ensure that individual artists are able to contribute “to a diverse and creative wealth of art” in Norwegian society.
Listening to Kristin and reading about Statens Kunstnerstipend, I thought of the many writers I know in South Africa who struggle to make a living while pursuing their creative careers. For most, the situation is not desperate, but almost all pay their bills by other means than their creativity. I decided to approach a few of them to discuss the dynamics involved in being a writer and having an ordinary day job. Their valuable comments were often surprising and opened up many engaging ways of thinking about this topic.
We tend to think of creative people rushing home after long hours of suffering in their dreary jobs to lock themselves up in that special room of their own and devoting the rest of their waking hours to the Muse. What transpired from my interviewees is that, on the contrary, even though it is sometimes difficult to juggle their paid and creative work, they actually enjoy their money earning jobs just as much as they do their creative ones. Only the degrees vary.
Angela Makholwa is the author of the urban thriller Red Ink (2007) and the fresh-off-the-press chick-lit adventure The Thirtieth Candle. When she was fifteen, she decided “quite firmly” that one day she would publish a novel with “an authentically South African story”. Today, she is not quite sure anymore what that means, but she is definitely somebody who knows what she wants and how to get there. She runs Britespark Communications, a successful public relations and events management agency in Johannesburg, and feels fortunate to be “doing something that allows her creativity to flourish”.
Siphiwo Mahala is in a similar position. As Deputy Director for Books and Publishing at the Department of Arts and Culture, he works in his field, which gives him great satisfaction. He has always been passionate about reading and went on to study literature at university, finishing with an MA in African Literature at Wits. When he began publishing short stories, the overwhelming joy of “seeing his creative writing in print” inspired him to pursue this avenue further. He received the 2006 Ernst van Heerden Creative Writing Award for his first novel, When a Man Cries (2007), an incisive portrayal of township life in South Africa. He says that his day job is “essentially the best one that any literary enthusiast could do in the public service”. It includes the promotion of the culture of reading and writing and developing a sustainable book industry that encourages equitable development of all local languages: “The job itself is not too far from my personal ambitions hence it is so fulfilling.” Only drawback: “When a job is a passion it means that when something goes wrong it doesn’t end in the office, you take it home and your family falls victim of a situation they didn’t cause.”
Inspired by their day jobs, Angela and Siphiwo find that they can well manage the two spheres in their lives, creativity and work. However, sacrifices have to be made, as Siphiwo notes, and one has to accord creativity the time and space it deserves. Only then can you also “expect your potential reader to skip their favourite soap opera, miss hot gossip, and let the pots burn while reading your book,” he says.
Would they give up their jobs to write fulltime if they could make a living out of it? An emphatic yes in both cases in spite of the aforesaid. For Angela writing is “an esoteric experience” and she “envies those who can afford to do it fulltime”. Siphiwo considers writing his “first love”, but he is too realistic about making money out of it: “For as long as the culture of reading remains as low as it is currently in the country, we are not likely to have more than 10% of our writers writing for a living.” He might not write for a living, but he insists he “lives for writing.” Financial support from the government for writers would be welcomed by both, although Angela feels that it could make her feel obliged to write “about issues of enormous political or social impact”, while Siphiwo believes that any such support could truly work only with “a national writers’ association firmly in place.”
In their considerations, both authors allude directly and indirectly to an aspect of state-sponsored support for artists about which Sven Eick, author of the socio-critical novel Apetown (2007), feels strongly: “I am firmly behind the notion that artists should challenge society rather than attempt to have society endorse their work.” He also believes “that the tax-paying public should have the right to choose whether or not they want to support writers, i.e. by buying their books, and that it’s not the government’s business to fund writers on their behalf.” Sven highlights the corruptive aspect of making money with creativity: “If writing novels were to become my only source of income, then inevitably I’d begin writing novels to make money, and that would represent a corruption of the creative process for me. I think a 50/50 balance would be about right.” By which he means that he’d also “always want to do something other than writing.”
Sven was working on cruise lines when he realised that he was destined to become a writer. He wrote regular updates of his experiences which attracted “a small, but dedicated following.” He knew then that he should invest more “energy” into writing. Today, he earns his living as a copywriter for a network of sports websites: “I find many aspects of the sports I cover interesting. Sport is really about narratives, and despite being somewhat saturated by the amount of sport I cover I still find these narratives interesting and engaging.” He wants to continue with a similar but more creative line of work in the future: “I’m interested in the business aspect of the internet, how to keep content free and informative whilst still generating revenue using non-intrusive and targeted advertising. However, I’d obviously prefer to write more creative content than the grunt work that occupies a lot of my time.” And even though he would not accept financial help from the government as a writer, he wouldn’t mind making money out of books, so that he could continue to write at leisure. “I guess this is any writer’s dream,” he says. “I just don’t want to become a book-a-year Wilbur Smith type.” He also suggests that “instead of governments paying writers it might be useful to fund initiatives like the Boekehuis in Calvinia, or other low-cost writers’ retreats where we could go away to write at no expense.”
Other writers would endorse state-funded grants, but like Sven, they cannot imagine giving up their other occupations in order to write fulltime. Multitalented, with degrees in drama, journalism, and creative writing, Willemien Brümmer always knew that she wanted to be “An Artist”, but it took her a long time to find her individual path. She published her debut short-story collection, Die dag toe ek my hare losgemaak het (The Day I Let My Hair Down) in 2008. She actually writes for a living, writing feature articles for By, the Saturday supplement of Die Burger, Beeld and Volksblad. Almost stumbling into journalism by accident, Willemien felt in the beginning that it was not creative enough; “it felt like stealing,” she remembers, and the wrongly perceived lack of creativity made her ashamed to call herself a “journalist”. She realised how inseparable journalism and creativity were only fairly recently. A few years ago, while completing her MA in Creative Writing, she wrote profiles of people “in the news” for Die Burger’s weekly column Oop Kaarte and recognised how similar the methods for writing articles and writing short stories were. The only difference is that “reality is often far more interesting than anything I can come up with,” she admits.
This dimension of her work is decisive. She draws inspiration for her fiction from the stories she encounters in real life: “In my next book, fiction and journalism come together closely.” Still, writing fiction feels like “chocolates after dinner”, like “spoiling yourself,” says the Calvinist in her. As a perfectionist, Willemien invests a lot of time in each journalistic article, and despite having a lot of freedom in what she writes about, she sometimes feels torn between having to write about yet another subject and wanting to engross herself in the one she is currently working on. “It’s simply not enough to have only one week to write about somebody like Sindiwe Magona,” she laments about a recent assignment. “Nor is it easy to distance oneself from a story one is working on for a couple of months. It’s like falling in love; turning away can be a painful experience which also poses a lot of ethical questions. It’s not a natural situation; one has to become calculatedly distant and that’s not the kind of person I really am.” In this respect, Willemien would not hesitate to accept a grant to support her writing, journalistic and fictional: “It would allow me to concentrate, work in-depth, on both. In an ideal world I would write a book about each subject.”
Similarly, in an ideal world, the talents of Helen Moffett would not go to waste. “I wear many hats,” she writes on her blog. It would take an entire walk-in cupboard to display all, or at least some, of them: academic, copyeditor, mentor, teacher, cricket expert, and most recently the co-author of Bob Woolmer’s Art and Science of Cricket (2008) and author of the sensual poetry collection Strange Fruit (2009). With four academic degrees and thirty years of experience, Helen does not have a regular income because her health dictates that she work as a freelancer. Academic editing for clients all over the world pays the bulk of her bills. There is also fiction editing, manuscript assessment, training (writing workshops for academics and NGOs), copywriting, ghost-writing, and occasionally a life-saving royalty cheque courtesy of one of her prescribed academic titles.
As for Willemien, creative writing feels to Helen like “sitting down to pudding”. She has her notebook always at hand, because “poetry happens anytime”, and she has enough notes for stories, novels non-fiction to keep her busy for the rest of her life, if she could only afford to give up her bill-paying activities, especially academic editing. “If I have any kind of break, I write like mad,” she says with a dreamy smile on her face, “and I eagerly accept commissions for fiction. This means I get a deadline and the piece must be finish on time, allowing the work equal value and importance. It always feels like a holiday.”
Having constantly to worry about making a living, diminishes Helen’s potential as an academic as well as a creative fiction and non-fiction writer. She says an unambiguous yes to any grants for writers, however modest. Many wonderful opportunities slip by her because she cannot afford to invest her energies in them. In the last seven years, she has been trying to write a book on gender violence, a crucial topic in contemporary South Africa, and one that Helen is an expert on. “It’s tough to write; I’m only able to make any progress when I get a bit of funding for the project, but I still have some way to go.” Asked what she would do if she didn’t have to worry about the end of the month, she says she would write and devote more time to teaching: “I love teaching, but there is so little pay in it. Yet, I feel that it is my moral responsibility to transfer my skills. I just can’t lock up all that education and experience I’ve been fortunate to acquire over the years; not being able to pass it on is terrifying, but I have very little choice.” Even so, she insists on teaching a few courses a year, however poorly paid.
In comparison, Alex Smith fully intends to “make a living out of creative writing”, but she also wants to continue working in other areas as long as they do not sap her creativity. At present, she is a tutor for a novel writing course and a bookseller at Exclusive Books. “Working with books keeps me grounded. I’m a story addict and seeing the dozens of new titles arriving every day is heartening, but it also doesn’t allow for any illusions of grandness about writing. I feel writers and booksellers are readers’ servants.” Alex’s grandfather was a dedicated book collector, travelling to London to buy everything from antique tomes to rare first editions. She grew up surrounded by books and being around them makes her “immeasurably happy.” She has authored two herself, the novel Algeria’s Way (2007) and the travel memoir Drinking from the Dragon’s Well (2008). A third, Four Drunk Beauties, will be published next year. Talented and prolific, with a Creative Writing MA under her belt, Alex wouldn’t say no to financial support for creativity, but doesn’t feel anybody owes her anything. Having studied business science, for some years Alex earned a good salary as a successful creative and marketing director of a textile company. “But I always wanted to be a storyteller,” she stresses. “The way things are now, I’m free to write, and the price is debt, but it is my choice to be in this position. My heart’s desire is to explore real and imagined places, and play with turning those into stories.” Knowing her literary output and determination, one cannot help but feel assured that she will succeed at what she does with such unmistakable passion.
One author who has managed to write himself out of dire poverty is the inspirational Zanozuko Mzamo, or Zyd, as many know him. He is the author of a motivational book called A Year of Staying Positive (2007). Zyd grew up in Johannesburg, went into exile in the 1970s, studied economics in Zambia and Bulgaria, and returned to South Africa in the early 1990s to work in commerce. He was deeply unhappy with what he was doing, struggled to keep working, and eventually ended up broke and homeless. It was devastating, but the experience set him out on a journey of “soul-searching and gift finding”. He asked himself, “Who am I? What am I here for?”
To find answers, he visited libraries, fell in love with self-help literature, and discovered writing as a way of encouraging people. In 2005, he applied for a job at the community newspaper City Vision and even without pay persisted in publishing a weekly motivational column that garnered him a lot of recognition. He received so much positive feedback from his readers that with the help of Colleen Higgs and the Centre of the Book, he decided to self-publish 52 of his articles in book form. “A couple of publishers turned me down, but I wouldn’t be deterred, not even by the initial scepticism about the book in my community.”
His persistence and initiative were recognised by Carl Wesselink of the Kuyasa CDM Project (developing energy efficient housing in Khayelitsha). Carl Wesselink saw that Zyd’s book could inspire people and offered to buy two thousand copies of it to distribute in Kuyasa as well as to pay Zyd’s salary for a year. Today, Zyd coaches people in personal development and self-improvement in Kuyasa. He considers reading an indispensable ingredient of both. His latest initiative is the Teach a Child to Read Campaign, and he has two more books on the way. He finds the idea of state-funded support for his writing intriguing, but is scared that it would make him lazy: “I like challenges,” he points out. “When I was about to drown, I found my calling,” he says, relaxed and confident. “I hope to sell a million copies of my books.” His mere presence inspires. It’s easy to believe that he will make it.
All seven authors I spoke to seem to have found the right niches for their many talents. Financial support for their creativity wouldn’t drastically change their lifestyles, just utilise their talents in more efficient and rewarding ways. They all seem to have discovered what Zyd writes in one of his essays: “Life is what you make it.”
First published in WORDSETC 6 (September 2009).