Poet Lemn Sissay and author Tiffany Murray on being creative, the challenges of financing a creative career and advice for aspiring writers.
STARTING OUT AS A WRITER
“I always wrote poetry, and so I got involved in the literary world because I was born a poet.
“Confidence is something that builds. You have to use a certain amount of intuition. Is this really what you want to do? Why do you want to do it? I write because I can’t not write. Each step makes you more confident about the direction you’re going in. It doesn’t necessarily get any easier.”
“I came to writing quite later on in life. I started off as an actress, I tried to be an actress for four years in London. Then I moved to New York to study an academic PhD. It was within that, that I realised academic writing wasn’t my voice, wasn’t for me. That’s when I began to write.
“I didn’t just sit there and think ‘Oh well, that’s it, I’m going to be a writer and I believe in myself’. No, I applied to University of East Anglia and I did the MA and PhD there. That was my apprenticeship.”
Financing a writing career
“I am a senior lecturer and that’s what pays my bills. The Society of Authors will give a sum, the average yearly earning for a writer, and mine is about that. But I’m only two novels in. Once I have five novels, then perhaps that’s something I can sit back on.
Average annual earnings of a writer: £16,531, Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society, 2008
“But also there’s the other side of that. It’s not ‘Oh, I have to have another job and isn’t it awful?’ I think it’s important to have another job.
“I worked with a poet recently and he said other friends of his who were poets and they stopped working, they just had the poetry and that was it, their work suffered. You need something to react against. You can’t write all day, you’ll go crazy, you need to engage with the world.
“It is about realising how much hard work is involved. It could happen with a first book, there are those stories out there. I know people, first book, sold the film rights, sold it across the world, lovely.
“But there’s a difference between wanting that and wanting a career that lasts until you die. You can write until you’re 94 if you’re lucky enough to get that far. It’s a daily routine.”
“You can be a doctor and a poet. You can be a teacher and a poet. You can be a builder and a poet. Don’t think that just because you have chosen a particular career path that you do not have to develop your creative side.
“Develop your creative side as well as becoming a doctor. You don’t have to sacrifice one for the other. And what you’ll find is that later on in life or at some magical point, the two will meet, and the creativity that you employ will benefit you as a doctor, as a lawyer, as a teacher, as a mother, as a friend.”
Advice for a writing career
“I would say focus on the work first. Don’t talk about it, do it. I know that sounds terribly schoolmarm-ish. Do a writing course, join a writing group, if you so wish, but don’t overdose on that. People need that as a crutch and I think that they do overdose a little too much, so focus on the work.
“Take in everything. Schlocky TV, schlocky movies, beautiful high art movies, very very long French films that seem to have no plot but look pretty. Take it all in. I don’t believe in high art, low art. It’s all something that’s going to be digested by you somehow, and everything is worthwhile. And also go for walks. I couldn’t write unless I went for a walk every day.”
“Don’t think that, just because you have chosen a particular career path, you do not have to develop your creative side.”
“You have to dedicate time to learning about the industry and your own creative processes. And dedicating time means going to workshops, means presenting your work, means being criticised and developing critique. These things don’t just fall out of the sky, you have to go and look for them.
“Practical places you could look are you local regional arts board. Every area has a regional arts board, they will have lists of writers’ workshops within your area. You have to go to those workshops, you have to meet strangers, you have to face your fears if you’re going to get involved in this industry.
“And it’s facing the fears which builds your confidence. You can sit in your own little room saying you’re a great writer and you’re an artist and an inspiration, but not engage. You must engage, and there are practical ways to do that.
“Society often tries to account for us in very structural ways, and treats the anarchy of creativity as if it is some foreigner. Whereas actually it’s the reason that structure gets built, that we are all expressive by our natures. It’s a beautiful thing.”.
The Emperor’s Butterfly Maker
poem by Lemn Sissay
I work at the butterfly-making factory on Butter Lane,
in a town called Flower, near a city called Sun.
Every single day I stick on their wings.
Their wings sound like cats purring as they lilt and loop away.
Maybe I’ll try the wings myself one day.