from BARDO

The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.

Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made

is star-stuff too?

– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.

Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.

Roselle Angwin

Thursday, 8 December 2011

a rant on being unemployable

My accountant rings. 'I have a word for you,' he says, in his Welsh accent. My immediate reaction is delight – sometimes friends and I do this for each other, to take our poetry off in a new way. 'Prevarication,' he offers.

Gob not connected to brain here. Naivety wins out over cynicism, as usual, too (plus in my defence I am immersed in something creative). I have already started to say 'Oh I'll see what I can do with a poem about that –' when the penny drops.

'Can I leave you with that then? And by the way when are you going to come to that rugby match?'

'When you come to a poetry reading, Steve.'

Yes, my accounts are well overdue. He's good, Steve, and we know each other well.

During my longish time living alone with my young daughter, two men became very significant in our fiscally-impoverished (but very rich in terms of lifestyle, interest and soulfood) lives in a rented wooden thatched house up a boulder-edged, beautiful and remote lane facing Dartmoor, quite a long way from a town, and a few miles from the nearest village: the mobile mechanic, Mike, who sorted out for very small sums my succession of interesting and impractical old Citroens, 2CVs and vans; and my accountant, without whom I wouldn't have been able to get by – in those days there was a Welfare State, and my lone-parenthood plus very low income from handmaking garments and footwear and no other kind of financial support qualified me for Family Credit help to feed and clothe E, and help towards the rent; but only on presentation of self-employed accounts from a bona fide accountant. The help much more than paid his bills.

In those days I had to drag in from the adjoining woodland and saw up my own logs before there was any heat in the house; and as I was working all the hours that my daughter was either at school or in bed that meant that it was an endless chore, and, this being Devon, the wood was usually damp. (However the beautiful thing about a Rayburn is that we did all our  cooking on it, it heated the water, dried the clothes and the wet logs, allowed the dough to rise and warmed E's bedroom above it.)

Later, when I moved into part of the old farmhouse on the Buckland Abbey estate (long story), I added to the list of Essential People (obviously topped by friends and family) the local couple who logged and brought us wood, also cheaply; and the farrier: we'd acquired a small pony for E, and my friend Ian swapped hoofcare for human footwear, as I was then making my living through shoemaking.

Even my accountant swapped figures for boots, as did the friends who made my furniture, crockery and some of my clothes. (My doctor bought my shoes, too.)

I love the barter economy. It's not the same with poetry (although my vet did recently swap a treatment – she's also an acupuncturist –  for the two new books).

A lot of my work behind the scenes is unpaid – promotion, admin, enquiries, chasing work, booking, planning, advertising and preparing courses and paying non-refundable deposits on venues never being sure that the course will fill enough as to be viable, submitting poems, essays and manuscripts, and giving feedback to/doing favours for other newer writers.

People tend to think, too, that if you're lucky enough as to be able to do something you love doing, full time, and it's something that doesn't have any obvious commercial value, that should be its own reward; so I am asked a lot, as no doubt many other professional poets and writers are, if I could 'just' look at this manuscript, these poems, give this reading; with no expectation of a fee.

So if I sound grouchy it's because I have finally overcome the prevarication and done my accounts. Depressing. Steve has been telling me for years that I'd be better off on benefits; and, more, that I'm going to be a very poor old lady. (Of course I have no pension, insurance, security, ability – should I wish to have one – to raise a mortgage in my own name; plus anyway my native Westcountry has mostly been sold to people with London incomes.)

I guess it's not surprising in a recession that my earnings are down for the third year running, though I am working as hard as I ever have – often 6 days a week, certainly. Sadly, the expenses, legitimate business expenses, are not down. In fact the two sets of figures are almost identical. The Man looks at the two columns in utter disbelief. 'How on earth did we manage to eat this last year?' (The deal is he pays most of the utilities bills in the house – I do my garden studio bills – and I buy the food.) The answer is entirely courtesy of a very good friend; she who has sponsored this blog this year. Thank God for friends.

Despite media attention on 'success stories' like J K Rowling, and prize money such as that of the Man Booker, a Society of Authors survey showed that almost all professional authors, in the UK anyway, earn less than £20K per annum; and somewhere between 75% and 90% of those less than £10K. I'm one of the latter. Royalties on my several books that are in print, coupled with those books of my own that I sell at eg workshops, bring in a total that usually doesn't quite make four figures.

The rest is courses and mentoring, an occasional (paid!) poetry reading.

Thing is, I don't really value money, so don't pay it the dues it might need to grow. What I value is living somewhere that inspires me, and living simply with as little impact as possible (which is just as well), doing something I was born to do; something I really love, that feels authentic and true to my vision and values; whose worth isn't measured against dosh in the bank – wrong 'language'. What's more, feedback seems to suggest that this work, in its small way, is valuable; and it also doesn't add to the sum of harm on the planet. But this is not part of the capitalist ethos.

Each year I come to this same place: how is this sustainable? Will I still be giving workshop in my 60s, my 70s? Will anyone come? Will schools want an elderly woman giving supposedly-inspiring workshops on poetry and the environment? Can I continue to get by on so little?

And then is the thought: what anyway is the alternative (short of writing the bestseller – but my interests are too non-mainstream, and I also know I'm not a top-flight author)? I have few marketable skills, and am, after all unemployable after 30 years of this!

So here's to the strange kind of freedom of the self-employed. My English A level teacher once yelled at the group of 17-year-old boys messing around at the back of the class: 'What you don't realise is that when you leave here you'll be finding, one way or another, that life will imprison you. What I have is the thankless task of at least trying to give you the means to choose your own prison!'

Mine's pretty good, thank you Mrs W. There are fields and birds and trees through the window; and if I choose to get up now and take the dog out into the wet gale and enjoy it, and make up for it later, there's no one standing over me and watching the clock. And – you know – I think I might just, pressure of work, grief over my recent bereavement and lack of money notwithstanding, take this afternoon off to go and see 'Wuthering Heights' before the arts centre cinema stops showing it. I could do with a treat; and right now its dark moodiness will do me fine.


A plea: support an author, or poet, this week – not necessarily me – and buy a book! And if you do want to buy a book from me (Christmas coming up and all that) I have a special deal at the moment – see back to the Fire in the Head programme post a few days ago. And then there are those courses – buy a loved one a bit of a course? :-)


  1. Talk about timing, Roselle. I was just wandering around my office (erm, living room) wondering how the h... to find a model for living of my creativity that was sustainable and 'felt right'. Then your blogpost dropped into the feed reader. It was good to read.

    It made me feel as if I'm not alone in my quest 'to make it work' - "it" being the way to monetise my creative output in a way that's sustainable and which resonates with me, emotionally and perhaps on a deeper level as well. (I hesitate to call it spiritual since that could come off a bit awkward but you seem to be a very spiritual person yourself, so I suspect you won't be scared away by me adding that with no further expla.)

    As one way forward, I've long considered digital publishing, but since I have a (rather economically suicidal) drive to put up a lot of my short stories for free, I'm not sure exactly how to balance this income model with that drive.

    Well, it's a longer chronicle about my career and life which I shan't bother you with here, but suffice to say that I feel driven to experiment with new forms of sharing stories that have become possible with the emergence of the internet.

    My Shade of the Morning Sun stories then, I guess you could say, are to be part of a 'hyperfiction'. I feel attracted to the notion of making them part of what could grow to be a vast network of interlinked stories that a reader can continually 'journey deeper' into depending on mood, need, etc. That's the vision anyway. So far I've only written about 30 shorts, but hey I have no plans to stop anytime soon. :-)

    No, how to earn money from my output and balance it with this particular creative vision is the question for me ... Fortunately, I've found, there are lots of possibilities, and I'm sure I'll find the right model in time. It's just a matter of choice - and more experience and experimentation.

    But even though *I* have not decided how to go about it, it just struck me that digital publishing (ebooks, etc.) might be something for you!

    The topic of ebooks and digital self-publishing can seem a little overwhelming, though, esp. if one is only just starting out; and there's still a lot of bias about it amongst traditional publishers and people who have made their living from print for a long time: People who will tell you that it 1) can't be commercially or creatively beneficial or 2) that it's for less worthy creators (i.e. those who have not been vetted by a publishing company).

    Anyway, if you feel like exploring *that* option, too - and haven't done so already - here's a link to a very good, accessible and friendly no-chest-banging overview of this whole new world, courtesy of a good writing colleague of mine, David Gaughran:

    The pdf-version is for free (scroll down a bit) ...

    If it's not useful to you, then no harm done. But I hope it might be of some benefit to you, at the very least as regards giving you more options to expand your livelihood by your own creations, while at the same time being wonderfully and proudly unemployable :-)

  2. Thanks so much for taking the time to share all that, Chris,and it was interesting to hear that. I like the idea of your network of interlinked stories.

    I've published your comment as I think it might well be of interest to other readers.

    I have investigated at some length (and run courses on!) both e-books and self-publishing (in fact my 'Writing the Bright Moment' was self-published with an Arts Council grant as a hard copy to supplement my courses).

    There are a number of problems that I see; the main one with both options being how you get people to see and buy your work. Unless you are already really well known, that's tricky.

    Another one is that you have to also be a really strong editor/copy editor and proofreader in order to see what works in your own work, and to make it the best it can be before it goes out into the world (as it happens I am also an editor and proofreader, but still had a pro go through my book mentioned above as of course the author will be biased and not the most effective judge).

    In relation to the e option, I also am yet to be convinced that the Kindle will take the place of actual books. I have sold e-book rights to my current publishers but the deal is never very good, especially considered that the costs to them are minimal (no printing/warehousing/distribution costs).

    in relation to self-publishing, it's rare for me to find a book that I really like, rate as good work and see to be properly edited and proofread. It does happen; and indeed a former student of mine self-published his novel 'Cursive', which is good, well-written and has a really appealing cover - another issue! - and that novel has since been bought by a publishing house. So there are some good-news stories! - and considering how hard it is for anyone, no matter how good, to find a publisher or agent these days, these are both options I do suggest are explored further to my novel course students...

    So if you take it further and are pleasantly surprised by it, let me know! And good luck, Chris, with your own creativity and earning from it.

  3. As a pro-published author, I have been slowly republishing my out-of-print (rights reverted) backlist books for Kindle... this is not riches by any means, but it's more than those books would have been earning me if they'd stayed out of print! And the beauty of a backlist title is that it has already been through the editorial process, though I have taken the opportunity to update the stories and proofread again, correcting a few things that slipped through the first time.

    You can catch more UK authors e-publishing on the group blog

  4. Oh Katherine that's really helpful. Thank you so much for adding to this discussion; and as I have a backlist of o-o-p titles now that might well be a route to consider. Very useful info. I shall check out that link; maybe Chris who posted above might also find it useful.

    And Katherine I know you also have a loyal following and a very active blog; this must help?

  5. Roselle,

    The book - "Let's Get Digital" - which I linked to discusses the concerns you raise, which are very common indeed. I've had some of them myself for a long time ... ! So I can only recommend at least skimming it, if this option (digital) feels just the slightest appealing to you, or anybody else reading.

    In the summer Amazon for the first time sold more ebooks than pbooks (105 vs. 100), up from virtually nil in 2007 when the Kindle was introduced, so the market is growing explosively.

    And if one self-publishes digi - no publishing house involved - 35-70% profits are shared for each sold unit.

    I'm a bit annoyed with myself therefore that I haven't really tried it yet, but as I mentioned ... creative considerations have made me stall.

    But I have at least been thinking really hard this winter about what kind of monetising model that would 'fit' this hyperfiction that I seem driven to do, and I'm committed to finding a solution for myself.

    However, I just felt that my own hesitation shouldn't hold me back from sharing a little bit about what I've learnt so far in the process, ... and that's really all the first comment was about.

    So thanks for putting up the comment.

    All the best,


    P.S. Re: Katherine's comment - Very good to hear about the renewed profitability of the backlist! It's the same message I've read from writers who do *both* indie and trad publishing, like Kristin Kathryn Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith - who have been prominent in the blogosphere for some time, discussing many aspects of publishing and agency.

    I'll check out the blog, but as I'm based in Denmark I probably won't show up for the Thursday afternoon tea :-)

  6. Chris thanks too for this message; and the two of you combined have persuaded me that I need to rethink my (unclear and prevaricating!) position on e-books. This is really valuable.

  7. :-)

    Keep us posted, Roselle. I think you deserve more success *and* to make a better livelihood from your beautiful writing - both of
    which implies that you must reach a wider (paying) audience. Adding self-pubbed ebook versions of your already very good portfolio of printed works surely can only be a help for this journey.

    But, as with me, it has to be in a way that works for you!




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