Alumni Feature September 2011

Slinging hash: how do writers really earn a crust?

by Diana Jenkins

At the height of 2009’s renewed parallel importation debate, one of Australia’s broadsheet newspapers (I’ll leave you to guess which one) ran a cartoon I shall never forget. In it, two immaculately groomed glamour types zipped along a country road in a snazzy convertible, scarves flying as they laughed and they laughed and they laughed. The speech bubble said something along the lines of, “That would be the end of the second Porsche, darling,” and the caption beneath said, ‘Authors Discuss Lifting Parallel Import Restrictions.’

I’ll just leave that with you for a moment.

No, no, take as long as you need, I insist.

Would you like some water?

There, there – I’ll just give you a nice pat on the back and that should help with the spluttering…

Galling, isn’t it? And so recklessly inaccurate – almost cruelly misleading – that it continues to stun me two years later. Few things occasion a dropped jaw here at the News Desk, but the second Porsche? Now, that really does render me speechless.

Mark O'Flynn But the cartoon raises an interesting point, which is that there is a gross disjunction between the popular perception of the writing life and the rather more hand-to-mouth reality. Although I’m sure we’d all love to be incorrigible bon vivants, most writers I know are of necessity scavengers, scrounging time and money to write from wherever each may be found. As Alumnus Mark O’Flynn says, “I’ve done my share of shit jobs over the years; hash slinging, a phrase I like, in the cause of being able to buy enough time to write.”

That about says it, don’t you think, so who on earth could this cartoon possibly mean to satirise? Wealthy authors make up such a miniscule proportion of the whole that I fail to see how this impression ever took hold, and yet it’s the image that continues to penetrate the collective psyche.

“And how is the lady of leisure?” One friend used to enquire.

I’d bristle, then immediately wilt, because it’s demeaning having the work I do so thoroughly devalued. I mean emotionally and intellectually, but frankly it’s insulting financially too, not having all this difficult, time- and effort-intensive work accorded fair (or any) monetary value. The attitude trivialises our vocation, which I don’t appreciate. But life isn’t fair – sorry chaps, it’s just not – and last time I checked most writers were still only worth about two bucks a year. Maybe one day we’ll be able to pool our savings and spring for that longed for Matchbox Porsche, but looking at the numbers, we can’t afford to get ahead of ourselves.

Matchbox car Now, I’m insatiably curious about how other writers sustain themselves in this business – all the incidental trades, accidental careers and general hard yakka we fall into and trip over as we struggle to construct the occasional decent sentence. I can’t get enough of learning how low we’ll go, how far that sick need to get words down on paper will drive us. I’m going to assume you’re curious too, although what follows is only the briefest glimpse, a whirlwind tour of just a couple of our eclectic Alumni CVs. I include my own shaky trajectory only because I hope you’ll find ample consolation in it.

So. How many times have you convinced yourself that a particularly ghastly job – like, say, cleaning up someone else’s excretions – isn’t really so bad after all, brightly notching it up to anyone who’ll listen as ‘fantastic future material,’ instead of present day purgatory? Mark O’Flynn’s hand immediately goes up, for one. He says:

Even the menial jobs have done their bit and, in their way, can give you something to write about, even if it’s only to add a little veracity to your tome. A bit chicken and egg this, but never mind. Call it research.

(Oh, trust me, Mark, I have.)

He continues,

Fruit picking was perhaps the first job I had that allowed me to do this. Subsequently I tried to write a play set entirely in a cherry tree. (Dumb idea; hard to stage.) I’ve also done lots of labouring, gardening and so on, albeit in a misspent youth, the more menial the better. Raymond Carver did plenty of this.

cherry tree fruit pickers Ah yes, fruit picking: the classic bum steer. It sounds romantic – all that blatant fecundity – plus your brain traitorously scrambles the finer points of the accompanying mental imagery until… yep, there it is, right on time: now you’re being fed grapes by an adoring Adonis in dungarees (one for me) or else you're holding the ladder for a comely maiden in knotted gingham and Daisy Dukes (one for you). That’s the perils of a fertile imagination right there, because by all accounts fruit picking is one of the most miserable, backbreaking and poorly paid jobs going round a youth hostel near you.

Mark adds,

Of course, we’d much rather just be given the money so we could pursue the much nicer world percolating through our wonderful writing. Fat chance.

It’s a real shame, that. I’ve always been quite open to sponsorship and/or benefaction, but I just can’t find the lucky investor prepared to park their pot at my feet… Oh hang on, what’s that indignant ruckus stage left…? Oh look! It’s my husband! Appearing to have some sort of fit! And of course he’s right. I do have a benevolent donor of sorts; indeed, I married him.

You know, I always believed a sufficiently motivated writer would get the writing done no matter what, that no shortage of time or money could ever drive that effort asunder. Mark, still bearing a few cherry stains on his soul, is of a similar opinion.

Sometimes I think it is a bit like the old principle where the ratio of effort and energy required to complete a task is relative to the time available. Thus if you have to lick a thousand envelopes, as I once had to, for some Victorian Mathematics Society in the space of two days, then that is how long it will take. If you have to do it in a month, or in two hours, you’ll probably get it done. My friend got it done and also got pretty sick.

Yuck. Envelope glue. My own tongue feels furry just thinking about it… and it’s not as though anyone’s paying you well for doing that job, are they?

(And while we’re about it, why don’t the really vile jobs pay more…?)

Mark continues,

Similarly with writing, no matter how little time there is, if you’re driven, you’ll still find a way to get it done. Touch wood. Me too. I don’t like it, but choice is a luxury most of us can’t afford. If you are not that driven to get it done then perhaps it wasn’t meant to be. And because the time is so short I find this is reflected in my output, namely short forms, fleeting ideas that I can seize in a moment, make a note, and then work on later. The coincidence of idea, sixty seconds and pen in hand.

Perhaps Mark is right, but having become a mother 10 months ago, I have humbly revised my opinion. As wretched as not writing makes me – and I feel it as an omnipresent gut misery – I am currently finding it very difficult to produce anything but the words you find here each month (and as you’ve probably noticed by now, some months I don’t even manage that). Truth is, I’m stuffed, so knackered at the end of each day that I can’t stay awake long enough to read a page of prose, let alone write one. I’m motivated, I’m disciplined, and I’m a worker by nature, but once I have directed these energies into the priority at hand – my son – I seem to have nothing left in the tank except the monstrous need of a gigantic glass of red wine. And the second I do claim some small ‘time out’ for myself, well then, what do you think I do? Pick up a book, of course, or take up a notebook and pen, or turn on my computer and open a Word doc. Drive is not my problem. Exhaustion is.

But hey, it’s all FANTASTIC FUTURE MATERIAL, right?

Right...? (Sobs.)

There’s great solidarity and comfort to be found among writers, thanks to most of us rummaging life’s skip bins forever hunting opportunities and ideas, kind of like super literate hobos. And occasionally out of all this sweat and filth emerges a great work, and what was once just an awful job becomes a cherished part of literary mythology. Mark adds:

I love the story of Faulkner writing As I Lay Dying while working as a night watchman. Most of us probably love that story. Nowadays I think I’ve managed to create my own version of it, over and above my comments that hash slinging will invariably feed your novel about hash slinging.

Now here’s the juicy bit, because guess what Mark does to earn a crust?

He says,

For too long now (yes, I’m feeling jaded), I’ve taught English as a second language to a bunch of adults whose only experience of Australia has been Sydney Airport, then gaol. Where would we be without teaching?

prison cell “Menial? Tedious? Often. Give me a cherry tree and my misspent youth. Literacy in the name of rehabilitation: my students hate it, the guards hate it, but if I go into that strange environment wearing my writer’s hat then everything seems charged with narrative. ‘You did what?’ ‘You’re here for how long?’ As Joyce said: ‘I never met a bore.’”

Wow. Cell Block D – imagine that! Sure, I’ve driven past Long Bay, Sydney’s maximum-security lock-up, but that’s as close as I’m getting to what Mark does. I’m way too yeller, despite the narrative lure of the nefarious – rare reading when does as well as Truman Capote’s nonfiction classic In Cold Blood. I can’t help thinking it must provide reams of fantastic future mat– … oh, shut up and just give me my cheque.

Mark says,

Perhaps I am merely making the best of a bad lot. I don’t think I am a do-gooder. I don’t think I am a tub-thumping vigilante with a noose in my pocket. I have been doing it so long I no longer feel exploitative. I never felt that. I just like listening to people, and by golly some of them have a story to tell. I don’t really have anything to add to the field of prison literature that has not been said before, suffice it to say that of course, while I’d love to write full time again (a residency at Varuna is always a nice reminder), I have to make do with devious necessity. Licking envelopes is not for everyone. You’ve just got to make it work for you.

Alumna Patricia Bernard occupies a very different space when it comes to earning dem beans, making it work by taking public speaking engagements.

Wish I could say I am doing lots of interesting things to keep the wolf from the door, but what I do is talk. I talk at Probus, Rotary, View and Kiwanis clubs, then offer my books for sale. I get quite a good turn up. I speak in schools (arranged by an agent) and that is a great help, although the dates are limited to mostly August and September. I have [also] spoken in schools (holding workshops) in Papua New Guinea and Indonesian West New Guinea.

Well, I must say, despite Patricia’s disclaimers, that all sounds pretty interesting to me, plus you’d have to think professional speechmaking is an increasingly canny option now writers are expected to perform as talkers once their work is published. Thanks to the rising popularity of literary festivals and the shrinking budget of marketing departments, if you want your miraculously published book promoted these days, chances are you’ll need to get out there, clear your throat and spruik the damn thing yourself.

But Patricia hasn’t always worked the lectern. No, no. It gets better.

She adds,

In the past whilst writing I was a carer to an ancient millionairess (Tip-Top Bread); I assembled bathroom plugs; I baby-minded; I ran a small kindergarten in my home; I oil-painted portraits and landscapes and I tutored Shakespeare.

Now back up a second there, Bernard – did you say you cared for the Tip-Top heiress? Come, come, Patricia – there’s a story in that, surely? Out with it, woman.

There is a story. The millionairess was blind, and had lost a lot of her memory, refused to sit to eat, refused to eat anything hot, disliked cooked food, didn’t want to bath, spent half the time on the toilet and the other half remembering her mother, who had started off as a baker in Kings Cross. Yet my millionairess had been a trilingual lawyer who never had children because her German husband refused to consider it. Half the time she kept asking 'Why don’t I die?’ and the other half telling me she didn't want to die, and waking me up to make sure she wasn't dead. Sad. Sad. I want a pillow over my head when I get to that stage yet I became very fond of her, as did all her carers, and when the government put her in a home and sold up her assets, we all told them she would die, and she did 3 months later.

Surely I am not the only one riveted by this story…? Confession time. I was sorely tempted to keep Patricia’s heiress to myself – she sounds like such a fantastic character in waiting – but doesn’t that snapshot make you want to race to the nearest blank page and start scribbling? It does me, although incredibly Patricia’s never been tempted. Sigh. But there is something worth writing there, so I do hope someone, somewhere, someday seizes upon it.

Well. After prisoners and heiresses, I’m really not sure there’s much of interest in my own tale of slinging hash… it’s a pretty pedestrian tale, and some of you have already heard it (is that a collective yawn I hear?). But here it is. I’ve done so many jobs over the years in part because I’ve always struggled to understand what manner of writer I am; it’s meant a lot of turning round and round in circles scratching my head, and here I am, newly 39 years old, still flailing. After studying English and Philosophy for 4 years in the early 90s, I ended up in ad sales at The Australian thanks to a dumb miscalculation. I thought I’d get a foot in the door and simply cross over to editorial, as easily as one changes lanes in traffic, being entirely ignorant of the mutual antipathy until it was too late. At least I wasn’t on the appalling slave wage of the cadet journalist, although the 1996 grad salary in sales wasn’t much better: $25,000 a year, barely enough to survive in the Emerald City and certainly not enough to prosper. In order to save enough to go overseas and write, eventually I had to move in with my grandfather.

I had one small but encouraging publishing win during this time: an editor on the other side of the wall accepted a humorous piece I’d written about Star City casino for the now defunct Observer column, although not without first expressing emphatic surprise that, gee whiz, it was actually well written! In-house prejudices aside, he published it, the editorial department paid me rather well for it, and my advertising colleagues laminated it and stuck it on the wall above my desk.

Scene II: Wandsworth. I wrote my first fiction manuscript while working in a pub for £3.65 an hour. I had no money, no life, and the MS was 12 shades of unspeakable shit. I slunk back to ad sales, deeply chastened. On the upside, London was transformed: with a decent Shaftesbury Avenue salary hitting my account every fortnight, I could actually live in the city for the first time, not to mention travel on weekends. Flogging full-page ads had never looked so good.

But unfortunately I’m an incurable, so I began searching for a way to combine writing with something other than the poverty line. I’d been inspired and enlivened by Don DeLillo’s Underworld, so I hit upon the idea of a PhD analysing his work. Academia: it seemed so perfect. I cultivated enticing visions of myself as a Rock Star Writer in Residence – no dull lectures, bell curves or dispiriting piles of unmarked essays for me – I’d be dazzling, an adored professor of the subject I loved!


I stuck it out – regrettably I am a prideful, stubborn fool – but I couldn’t get an Australian Postgraduate Award (I always say my 1995 Honours degree better resembled a much-abused dance card), so I was in scavenger mode for the duration, working multiple part-time jobs including as a cashier/waitress in a café in downtown Sydney, a course tutor at UNSW, a high school English tutor in Bondi Junction, an after-hours receptionist in Edgecliff and a resident academic tutor of one of the residential colleges on campus. I had a few articles run in the campus magazine during my candidature, but of course none of these paid a bean.

Straight out of university the second time round, I had two Heckler columns publish in The Sydney Morning Herald; they didn’t pay either, but they did lead to my first freelance job, when along with a cover letter, I sent them to a magazine editor, asking her for work. This was through the post, a medium I happen to think still works. It took months, but one day, out of the blue, she called me, and just like that, there I was: a jobbing writer. And that has never, ever stopped feeling good.

Scene III: I’ve been working as a freelance writer and unpublished fiction hopeful for six years now, and I’ve only earned a living wage for about 4.5 months of that time. Since 2005, my husband has supported my compulsion to write – he knows I can’t help it – his salary covering the shortfall in mine while I have strived to find my place – or a place, any place – as a writer. Work arrives and I do it, but the closest I’ve come to some sense of fulfilment is in this role right here, writing these monthly features for Varuna, so it’s unfortunate doing this won’t pay the bills. I’ve had six years of trying, a long chance, but with no success getting a single piece of fiction over the line, I can’t justify the salary sacrifice any longer. We simply can’t come close to living on what I earn.

Scene IV: No one knows what the future holds, but I assume just about every writer struggles with this, justifying to themselves and others the practice without the payoff. These days I am clearer and more pragmatic about my own responsibilities. Like so many women writers (nearly typed ‘warriors’), I’m a full-time mum at the moment, snatching seconds to write like a bloated frog catching flies, but as my son grows and the timetable changes, I’m going to have to find a way to earn a living wage from what I do. Whatever your own circumstances, oh, how I wish you well, and let’s just keep reminding each other, while we’re cleaning out the slops bucket, flipping burgers, folding laundry, stacking shelves, chasing ambos, wiping ashtrays or cleaning arses: stay the course. Stay the course.

Review: Fall on Me, a novella by Nigel Featherstone

by Helen Barnes-Bulley

Fall On Me cover Nigel Featherstone When the author of Fall On Me, Nigel Featherstone, was at Varuna recently on a LitLink Fellowship, he mentioned that he had written a novella, something many writers might wish to do but rarely accomplish. The novella is often seen as a very specialised form and one that publishers are reluctant to embrace, for obvious commercial reasons. It’s too long to be a short story and too short to be marketed as a novel. But there have been many successful examples. Certainly David Malouf’s An Imaginary Life and his more recent book Ransom could be defined as novellas, as could Helen Garner’s The Spare Room. Further back in literary history writers such as Henry James, Herman Melville and Virginia Woolf produced some fine examples of the form, and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Nigger of the Narcissus continue to be found on student reading lists.

The Oxford Book of Literary Terms defines the novella as “a fictional tale in prose, intermediate in length and complexity between a short story and a novel, and usually concentrating on a single event or chain of events, with a surprising turning point.” Called in German a “novelle” it became an important literary form in the eighteenth century when Goethe adopted it, and other German writers, including Heinrich Von Kleist and Thomas Mann, also embraced its possibilities.

Fall On Me, a title taken from the name of a song written and recorded by REM, centres on a family of two, father and son, who are faced with a crucial artistic . and moral choice when Luke, the son, makes an art installation that could expose him, and his father, to public condemnation. At the heart of the story is the relationship between Luke and his father Lou, which is one of love and respect, and all the more intense for the absence of Luke’s mother, who died when he was only a month old. The emotional temperature of the story is warm, and the narrative drive sustained by the crucial sense of what might be lost between these two people. They are easy characters to like and care about, as is the other major character, Anna Denman, who shares the house with them and who, unbeknownst to Lou, has fallen in love with him.

The setting is Launceston, where Lou runs a café and Luke is in senior high school. Luke is a rather self-sufficient young man, without the usual crowd of school friends. He is an artist. Influenced by the visit to the community of a professional artist called Marlow, he becomes passionate about his own creative work and the possibilities offered by a variety of forms. Out of that relationship with Marlow comes an installation Luke puts together using volunteers and the river to create a “serpent”, an event that draws praise from his community. The experience is a very positive one, and he follows it with another innovation, [this time] using the Internet. However, his latest installation is a series of nude photographs of himself, the centrepiece of which is a horse’s heart suspended in liquid, while the main photo shows Luke holding a bunch of red roses. (The significance of these objects becomes apparent as the story unfolds.) He puts this together himself in an unused hall and he plans to open the exhibition to the public. Lou is horrified, realising all the possible implications, and tries to persuade him not to do it.

Luke’s artistic integrity, and indeed his motivation for the work, is what’s at stake; for Lou it’s is the damage that might be done to his son by showing the work to the public. There are interesting echoes here of the Henson affair in Sydney, and the age-old debate over what constitutes art and how much power an artist might have over the way in which his or her work is received. This is especially true in relation to the presentation of adolescence in art, that tension between innocence and experience, between knowing and not knowing. And we find that Anna has been involved in Luke’s installation as well; as she is gradually drawn more prominently into the story, we see how these three people make a natural “family,” and in the process we learn what happened to Lou’s wife Katelyn.

When we first meet Lou he has just completed a renovation of his café after thirteen years in the business. He is very keen to attract more customers; he wants to be able to buy a house and create a more solid family life for himself and Luke, another manifestation of the novella’s thematic emphasis on the importance of family, no matter how small or how differently it might be constituted from the more typical family structure. Family is an emotional space as much as a biological and social imperative. The painstaking work Lou has put into his café also comes under threat from the mindless prejudice of various members of the community.

“You’re going to have to be brave,” Luke tells his father.

Bravery of various kinds is one of the important themes in this fiction, along with family, the struggle to express one’s individuality, the consequences of stepping outside accepted social boundaries, and the grief that those who’ve suffered a great loss must learn to live with. We discover as we move through the story that Lou has once had a brief sexual encounter with an old and dear male friend. The sexual orientation of the characters is less important than their emotional lives and their ability to love and care for each other. This is central to Featherstone’s intentions, this ability to connect to others and to be concerned about the perceptions and feelings of those close to us. He creates his characters with a fine sensitivity and a language that enables him to achieve an affecting engagement between the reader and those who people the world of the story.

Fall on Me is published by Blemish Books.

Please be encouraged to comment on this feature.

NEXT MONTH: Check out the next Alumni interview in the October issue of the Varuna Monthly Feature.


Katoomba-based author Elaine Kennedy's new book Wide Horse Sky is to be released this month by Transit House.

Affirm Press will be publishing Irma Gold's work Two Steps Forward in September as well.

Varuna Books.

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  • Fantastic article. Horribly true. Glad to know that cartoon got up someone else's nose too. And good luck getting through the next year of motherhood when time should then start opening up a little. Keep up the excellent work.

    Edwina Shaw Friday, 12 April 2013 10:32 Comment Link
  • Thanks for the great piece. It's 3am and I couldn't sleep. My mind was racing and stressing about the eternal dollar. Maybe you're up too... and it's a writing day tomorrow and I don't want to be tired but I can't sleep. Grrrr...

    Anne Myers Friday, 12 April 2013 10:34 Comment Link
  • I didn't know our rate had increased to two bucks a year - I've been ripped off...I feel so exploited!

    Lynn Slipper Friday, 12 April 2013 10:35 Comment Link
  • Edwina, Anna and Lynn - I'm so sorry I'm only just seeing these comments now (Wednesday 18 March 2015); unfortunately I don't receive an alert when someone posts a comment on an old feature and I usually just keep checking the current one. I might talk to our wonderful web master about this and see if there's some way I can get a little jab in the arm when this happens. Thanks so much for responding - Anne, I probably was up and I am certainly doing a lot of 3am time these days thanks to baby #2. Edwina, thanks so much for the encouragement. Nearly two years since you left the comment, it still cheers me no end to read it.

    Diana Jenkins Wednesday, 18 March 2015 14:01 Comment Link

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