The Reality of Being a Writer in Poverty

Photo by Steve (via Instagram)

These past two weeks have been really difficult and, honestly, I’m feeling really low right now. You would think I’d still be top of the world since the wonderful news of my last post but, as often happens in life, good news was followed by bad. But let me rewind for a second, in case you’re still catching up:

Just over two weeks ago, I shared the wonderful news that I’m one of the lucky applicants to receive a grant from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland to help support me as I write my second novel.

As of today, I’m still waiting on that payment. What has happened in the meantime is that our dog got sick and needed to go to the vet, the vet fees used the last of our food money, we struggled to cover the basics of just bread and milk for four days, in the middle of which, my laptop died. As in completely dead. Unrecoverable.

Needless to say, not only has my attempt at NaNoWriMo stalled, but writing in general is not exactly going well.

I know things are not as bad as they could be — after those particularly bad four days I mentioned, my husband received a welfare payment, taking the pressure off again, and my dog is mostly better. Steve has been lending me his laptop, and the Arts Council money is still coming (I dread to think what I would do if t wasn’t!) — but, even so, I’ve been in a bad headspace.

There’s still a fairly prevalent stereotype of starving artists, and how they almost need difficult circumstances to help fuel their creativity.

Well, I say bollocks to that. 

I was actually in the middle of writing when my laptop died. I was in the flow and I have not, so far, been able to get that flow back.

Don’t let anyone tell you poverty does wonderful things for art. It’s a cruel insult.

I know Anna Burns, another Belfast writer who just won the Booker prize, has been in the news lately with similar sentiments. I’ve read the reports from the Society of Authors saying working-class writers are under threat from Universal Credit.

So, excuse my french, but I’m finding it really fucking difficult to feel inspired right now. Point of fact, I’ve been trying to write this blog post for a fortnight and have had the most terrible mental block about it. I was going to make it nuanced and far less personal, but all this of course is personal. Talking about such things in a detached, objective way is a little beyond me right now for obvious reasons.

As I said in my previous post, I was waiting to hear back about some other opportunities I’d put myself forward for. Well, I didn’t get the residency in question, and that was disappointing from both a professional and creative point of view, but what actually hit me harder at the time was that I wouldn’t be getting the small amount of money that would have gone along with it. That money would have meant we could have avoided those four days of me skipping breakfast or my husband’s stress-related illness getting worse.

I know this is coming across very angry and I don’t really want this blog to be a place of negativity, but the truth is that I am angry and justifiably so, because the system is so broken and it’s caused this situation of choosing between heating the house or paying for electricity that no one should have to face.

Last week I was due to have a job interview for just some part-time hours coming up to Christmas, but I had to cancel it because I called up the welfare people in advance, just to double check how many hours I’m allowed to work before they start penalizing us, and they basically said that any money I would get (less £10 per week) would entirely screw up my husband’s claim to anything.

We would be reassessed, meaning our payments would stop while they go through our finances with a fine-tooth comb — again — and we’d almost certainly be worse off at the end of it, with the reassessment having triggered our early switch over to Universal Credit that everyone’s dreading.

Let me put that another way: we are too poor for me to afford getting a job. You can’t tell me that’s not madness.

I’m gonna leave things on that note, because I honestly don’t know where to go from it except to say that I know good news will come along again soon. Until then, this is where I’m at.

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