For the past two years, I’ve written about how writers make a living. Or, more specifically, how I’ve managed to keep the wolf from the door during that specific year. This year, I think a lot of us have felt that the wolf has been prowling more keenly than usual. Or more accurately, that a whole pack of wolves has been prowling – one of which has been coronavirus itself, baring its teeth and howling at the sanitised door handles.

Extended wolf metaphor aside, we’ve all experienced difficulties of some kinds this year, in whatever form they’ve presented themselves. It’s only natural that those challenges are reflected in the year’s earnings.

So what has 2020 looked like for me?

As you can see, I earned next to nothing during 6 months of 2020. That’s half the year.

Some of this was a planned period of little-to-no income: I was on a residency at Hawthornden in January, and away in South America and Antarctica during the bulk of February and March. I knew in advance that I’d have barely any income during these months, and I planned my finances accordingly. That’s normally one of the joys of being freelance: that ability to measure out the working year in fits and starts if necessary, rather than spreading the work (and income) evenly across all months.

Of course, what I didn’t account for was everything else 2020 would throw at us. Like a sensible freelancer, I had work lined up for when I returned from my trip – and plenty of it. In fact, I had so much work lined up that I’d made a start on some of the planning bits three months early, before I left. Mistake, as it happens, since a fair bit of what I planned for ended up getting cancelled because of Covid.

In fact, most of my work from this year has ended up being cancelled, or at the very least postponed to 2021, or even 2022 in a couple of cases.

Luckily, there were a few months (like June, where I received two bits of Covid support) that helped me to counteract some of the leaner times.

So where did my income come from this year?

This year, I’ve listed 4 categories:

  1. Funding: money from grants. Specifically, this year, it’s been Covid-19 support grants, both from the government and from the Arts Council.
  2. Facilitation: both workshop facilitation and facilitation of creative projects. I’ve put these into one category because often project money will include funding for both the delivery and administration side, lumped together.
  3. Writing: commissions, royalties, ALCS money.
  4. Events: panel events and readings (in person and online), radio and television appearances.

Unsurprisingly, I haven’t earned that much from events this year. This is partly because fewer events have been taking place this year, but some of it is also to do with where this year has fallen in terms of my own publication. My Name is Monster came out last year, which resulted in my doing a lot of events and appearing at quite a few festivals. The original plan was for the paperback to come out this summer, but because of Covid, it’s been postponed to January 2021. Without a book coming out this year (on top of Covid cancellations), it makes sense that I haven’t been doing all too many events.

The same goes for facilitation. A lot of the venues and organisations where I would normally run workshops haven’t been operating in the same way this year, either because of furloughed staff or lack of visitors – or, in the case of schools, open but (understandably) not to outside visitors.

This isn’t universal, of course, as a few organisations I’ve been working with have found ways of creating workshops that don’t need me to physically travel to a school or community group – either through online forums like Zoom, or by creating video workshops that can be accessed independently. These have been few and far between, but they are happening, which is not only a huge help to freelance artists like me, but means that we can still be providing different and enriching experiences in schools – someething which feels extra important after the challenging year so many children (and teachers) have had.

So what about writing? For someone who describes herself as a writer, 11% might not sound like that much to have made from the actual writing bit of the job. But actually, I’m pretty happy with that. That’s because this year, unlike the past two years, I haven’t received an advance. (An advance on a book is usually split into 3 or 4 chunks, which are paid when various milestones are reached – usually: signing the contract with the publisher; submitting the finished manuscript; hardback publication; and, sometimes, paperback publication.) My Name is Monster is already out in the world, so I’ve already received my advance for that, and I’m still working on the next book, so no contracts signed for that yet. This is what I expected from this year, so I’m ok with that.

Which just leaves grant money.

I won’t lie, this year, grant money has been invaluable. I’m sure I’m not the only writer / artist / freelancer who has felt this, and my heart goes out to those freelancers who haven’t been eligible for the government support. It’s the government support that has allowed me to keep working. Because yes, I have been working. It’s just that most of it hasn’t involved getting paid.

What has work looked like in 2020?

As you can see from the graphs above, there has been some paid work. There have been a couple of commissions, and some digital workshops and facilitation work. There’s been the occasional media appearance. And, of course, there’s been my own writing. (I wrote a blog post about writing in the time of coronavirus, and all the extra challenges that brings, earlier in the year.)

But there’s also been all that other work. The sort that does pay. The sort that takes up time and creative energy, but without the financial reward. This is the sort of work that has felt more abundant this year.

Things like applying for opportunities (which I’ve felt I’ve had to do so much more of this year). Things like answering emails – a lot of which have been about renegotiating work, or about the potential for work that may or may not happen. Things like re-planning existing work in light of a pandemic. I think a lot of people underestimate just how much administration it takes to be a writer – and this year, admin has felt heavier than ever.

Perhaps it’s Parkinson’s Law: the idea that the work always expands to fill the time available to complete it. Perhaps it’s just that, in the absence of a lot of paid work, I’ve realised just how much unpaid work I usually do. But I suspect that this year has produced its own special brand of administration, which has weighed more heavily on the working week. Thank goodness for the grants that have, effectively, paid for me to do some of that unpaid admin this year.

So what happens now?

It’s all very well looking at the year gone by, but a freelancer (writer or otherwise) always needs to be looking towards the future. There always has to be some kind of plan.

The problem is that those Covid support grants (72% of my income in 2020) won’t be around in 2021 – or at least, are looking like they’ll be at a highly reduced rate. And it doesn’t look as though society will be getting ‘back to normal’ any time soon.

I won’t lie, this scares me. It scares me on behalf of myself, but even more so, it scares me on behalf of my industry. I’m talking about the book industry and about the arts industry. After all, they’re pretty connected.

What happens when that support disappears, and we’re all left on massively reduced incomes?

Quite a few organisations are finding ways of working digitally, or are instigating the slow return of in-person events and workshops (though of course, these present their own access issues, and aren’t feasible for everybody). I am seeing an upturn in the amount of work available compared to, say, in the summer. I’m also seeing more bits of work start to drip into my inbox, which is reassuring. It isn’t up to pre-Covid levels, but it’s a start.

I’ve already talked a bit about my strategy for when it comes to submitting applications in 2021. I was mainly talking about this in reference to creative burnout, but it goes for finances as well. The main strategy? Focus on the existing work, and on the things I don’t have to spend days applying for. Prioritise the certainties. Reduce the unpaid administration as much as possible, to buy myself that time to write.

I’m going to say this again, because it’s somthing that hasn’t happened enough during the administrative frenzy of 2020:

Use the existing paid work to buy myself time to write.

And with any luck, I’ll have an income graph that looks slightly different at the end of 2021.

from the press release in Cumberland & Westmorland Herald:

118 pupils from Shap C of E Primary School and Clifton Primary School have worked with Cumbrian poet, Katie Hale, to achieve Arts Award certificates at Discover level.

Arts Award forms a unique series of qualifications that support young people to develop as artists and arts leaders. The programme develops their creativity, leadership and communication skills, from Discover level to Gold level, up to the age of 25. The Discover Award requires young people to learn about different types of art and how artists work, then to produce and share creative pieces of their own.

Pupils from both primary schools worked with Cumbrian poet Katie Hale to achieve their Arts Awards. Shap School juniors wrote poems on the theme of identity, and learned about close observation techniques to create visual portraits of themselves. Children from Clifton School focussed instead on their surroundings, with the different classes writing poems inspired by their school garden, Lowther Castle, and the fraught history behind Clifton Pele Tower.

Arts Award Discover workshops

Poet Katie Hale said: ‘Working with the children at Shap and Clifton Primary Schools was such a rewarding experience. Poetry is too often seen as something ‘difficult’ or ‘elitist’, so it’s incredibly important that we have workshops like this, which allow the children to overcome mental barriers and write freely. It was such a treat to watch them becoming more and more confident in the poems they created.’

‘Since the project, one of our pupils has started writing poems at home. She’s started taking poetry books out of the school library and coming in desperate to share a new poem she’s read. It’s great!’ – Miss Simpson, Clifton School.

The project was able to happen thanks to the support of three funding bodies: the Arts Award Access Fund, which exists to help remove barriers to the award (such as in rural areas); Shap Community Enterprise, which raises funds for community groups and activities in the Shap area; and the Sam Thorpe Trust, which enables young people in the Penrith area to take part in educational or extracurricular activities.

Manly Beach, Sydney, Australia

Last week on my travel blog, Second-Hand HedgehogI talked about the joy of doing work, and the satisfaction that comes through hard-earned achievement. Today I want to turn that on its head – sort of. Actually, I think they’re more like two sides of the same coin.

It’s all very well forcing yourself to do the work that deep down you know you need to do, but it’s quite another thing to do it constantly, and it’s easy to wear yourself out. I’ll hold up my hand as guilty to this – sometimes, I just need to learn when to stop working and rest.

This is probably partly why the travel bug first bit me so hard. I’ve always been a busy person (I was that girl at school who was in every lunchtime club and after-school group going), and I used to fill up my school holidays with camps, courses, projects and, later, with paid employment. Going away on holiday took me away from all of that, and just let me rest. I would sight-see, read books, lounge by the pool or in the sea, and not really have to think about all the things I would normally be thinking about at home.

And this has only become even more pronounced as I’ve got older. At university, I took a year out of my degree to study abroad in Melbourne: a fantastic experience that also meant I was less stressed and more prepared to take on my final year of university. (And come out with a fairly good mark – though of course I don’t like to brag…)

Now I’m working two jobs, plus the odd bit of freelance work, plus trying to find time to write, plus blogging, plus trying to run a house (though I’ll admit the housework does tend to take a back seat – as in, really far back).

Travelling to get away has become essential.

Suitcases on a boat heading for the horizon, Yasawa Islands, Fiji
~ heading for the horizon: Yasawa Islands, Fiji ~

But my problem? I can’t switch off.

This is partly literal: I have a smartphone and everywhere has wifi, so I’m constantly instagramming my travels / updating facebook / tweeting / responding to emails etc. etc. But it’s also a mental thing. I can’t seem to switch off this feverish part of my brain that always insists: you should be working, not idling about enjoying yourself, because goodness knows you’ve got SO much to do, and it isn’t going to happen by accident, you know, and what happens when you suddenly look in the mirror and realise you’ve reached your dotage and not achieved anything you wanted to achieve in life…?

Let me give you an example: a few months ago, I went down to London for a long weekend to visit some friends. I arrived in the evening, stayed overnight with one friend, and then had about 8 hours in the city before meeting up with the second friend. I planned to spend those hours in galleries and museums, soaking up some culture and and enriching my mind / soul / whatever.

This went fairly well for a few hours. I spent some time in the V&A, admiring the sculpture and following their Shakespeare Trail, then having a picnic lunch in their courtyard while watching the children playing in the fountain and splashing their parents.

Then I felt that familiar niggle at the back of my mind. Maybe it was the presence of all this great art, reminding me that I should probably be working towards creating something of my own. Maybe it was the constant bustle that a gallery (and a city) provides, reminding me that I ought to be busy. Maybe I’m just no good at stopping and relaxing.

I left the V&A to see if the National Gallery could hold my attention for longer, but no: I’d barely been in there fifteen minutes when I started to feel restless.

The result? I spent the next two hours sitting in a coffee shop overlooking Trafalgar Square, working on my writing.

Beach Cafe, St Ives, Cornwall
~ a bit more relaxing than the cafe in Trafalgar Sq: St Ives, Cornwall ~

I’m not saying that’s necessarily a bad thing. Generally, any time I spend writing I see as time well spent. It’s definitely something I’d like to do more of.

What worried me was my absolute inability to relax. It was like an addiction: twelve hours without working and I was getting withdrawal symptoms. I couldn’t concentrate on anything, I felt restless, and the weight of my notebook in my bag was like a constant pressure on my mind. As much as I promote living a life of creativity, that can’t be healthy – can it?

Probably not, but after I’d done those couple of hours of work, I felt much calmer, and enjoyed the remainder of the weekend far more.

Let’s contrast that with a slightly more recent experience.

A couple of weeks ago, I spent about ten days working intensively and (almost) solidly on a writing project with a collaborator. We created tons of material, pretty much draining ourselves of our creativity by the end of it. That’s ok – we had a limited amount of time together and needed to get the work done before we parted ways.

But at the end of it, I forced myself to take a day off from the project. It might not seem like much, but that day allowed me to recharge my creative batteries, and get the project back in perspective.

Yes, I missed the intensive writing I’d been doing on the previous days, but actually, it felt like a bit of a relief to take a day to myself. And for me, that’s where the difference lies: do I have a burning desire to create, or not?

If that burning desire is there, then maybe the break from working can be postponed. After all, nobody wants to shut the door in the face of inspiration.

But if you’ve drained yourself of all your creativity, if you’re just bashing out words for the sake of it, then that’s the time to stop. Take a break. Go for a walk and admire the landscape, or head to a coffee shop and people watch for an hour or so. Take a day to do the housework and ignore your creative projects. Spend a long weekend in a city you’ve never explored. Relax for a week or two on a tropical beach.

The most important thing I’ve learned is to listen to myself: my body / mind / soul / whatever bit of me it is that does the creative thinking. If it’s exhausted and in desperate need of a rest, I humour it. It’ll work that much better once I start again.

Sunset on the beach: Jake's Point, Western Australia
~ relaxing with a sunset on the beach: Jake’s Point, Western Australia ~

BUT I will be setting myself an alternative writing challenge this April.

Katie Hale, Cumbrian poet and writer

I’ve done NaPoWriMo a few times before. I’ve never completed it, but it’s always been a success.

For those who don’t know, NaPoWriMo (National Poetry Writing Month) encourages you to write thirty poems in thirty days – in other words, one poem for every day in April. I’ve never managed this, but last time I attempted the challenge (2013), I decided that this didn’t matter. I wasn’t a failure because I didn’t write thirty; instead, I was successful in writing ten poems. Had I not been doing NaPoWriMo, I probably wouldn’t have managed that.

In this way, the pressure to write that you get from attempting something like NaPoWriMo (or its novel-writing counterpart in November, NaNoWriMo) is helpful. I just find that I tend to lose heart with the project around Day 11 – not because I don’t want to write, but because there’s a pressure to keep producing completed poems every day, and quite frankly, that’s draining, especially if you’re sharing them with others.

So this year, I’m giving myself a new challenge. To alleviate some of that pressure to create perfectly formed poetry on a daily basis, I won’t be writing poems.

Every day in April, I’ll just be scribbling something down in my notebook.

It could be utter rubbish, or a few minutes’ freewriting which makes absolutely no sense. It could be the nugget of an idea that I want to come back to. Or it could become a perfectly formed completed poem.

In a way, it doesn’t really matter. I’m a great believer in the importance of process over product when it comes to art and creativity, and this is wholly about process. It’s a month where I’ll be forcing myself to scribble, to play with words, and to experiment, with no pressure to turn those scribbles into anything other than illegible squiggles for my eyes only.

And you know what? I can’t wait.

‘The excellence of every art must consist in the complete accomplishment of its purpose.’ – Alfred Drury

~ Writing advice from Alfred Drury: V&A, London ~
~ Writing advice from Alfred Drury: V&A, London ~

This is the quotation that soars above the entrance to the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. It is. as you would expect, rather fitting. The V&A houses thousands of items, each beautiful and noteworthy in its own way.

It’s also a philosophy I try to follow in my own practice.

I tend to write vary varied material: poetry; blog posts about travel; press releases and publicity material for my jobs. I’m even attempting to write a Mills & Boon-style romance!

But what matters to me isn’t what I’m writing – it’s how I write it. And I know that sounds slightly corny, so let me explain:

When I’m writing poetry, I focus very closely on the language I use, on the images it creates, and on the sound of the words when spoken aloud. I pay attention to meter and cadence, and think actively about rhyme. The result is usually less than a page, but that doesn’t mean it’s a quick process. Instead, it’s as though the writing process has been condensed and strengthened, like that double strength fruit cordial that you somehow always end up using too much of.

When I’m writing for my romance, however, the process is entirely different. Partly because it’s all just a bit of fun, although I do still want to do the job properly (heaving bosoms and all!). So I focus on the story: how events shape emotions, and how to get characters from A to B. I don’t focus too closely on the language: it’s more like impressionism, with broad brush strokes just intended to convey feelings, rather than meticulously engineered imagery and sound.

Totally different ways of writing, but they do have something in common: in both situations, I’m trying to achieve a purpose. Whether that purpose is the precise conveyance of an exact emotion, or the deep desires of two characters with sexual tension so thick you couldn’t slice it with an electric carving knife. What matters is achieving your goals.

‘The excellence of every art must consist in the complete accomplishment of its purpose.’

I’m not assuming my work is excellent – although that’s obviously what I strive for. And I strive for excellence by striving towards the various purposes I set out to accomplish.

Now excuse me, I have a romance to write…


This post originally appeared on my travel blog: Second-Hand Hedgehog.