A year ago, I was a digital poet, freelance arts consultant and self-published writer. I had also been helping make other writers’ dreams come true for more than a decade, as a writing tutor, editor and former Director of Writers Victoria.
Over the last year, however, I transitioned from literary-helpmate to trade-published poet. Suddenly, many of my own writing dreams have come true. Seeing my book in a bookshop. Launching it at my childhood library. Hearing authors I adore say nice things about my work. Doing so surrounded by friends, colleagues and writerly comrades from all parts and paths of my life.
This has been both an extraordinary privilege and a sobering induction into the realities of writerly life, much of which I had previously experienced only from one step removed – from the industry’s reliance on an author’s personal ability to hustle to the level of work versus the level of (financial) reward.
Debut writers may not really expect to immediately retire to the writerly garret of our dreams on the proceeds of one book. But how can we build and maintain our resilience if the ‘writing life’ we imagined is not only hard, but potentially fictional?
My time within the literary sector had, at least, prepared me in theory. Going in, I knew (if I was lucky) I could hope to earn just under $6,000/year from my poetry, the lowest average of all Australian authors (whose average income rose to $18,200/year in 2020/21), a very modest ambition that 66% of us still won’t achieve.
I knew writers have amongst the lowest incomes and receive the smallest proportion of public funding of all Australian artists, even though reading is the second-most popular way we engage with the arts (after listening to recorded music). And that writing was one of the most time-intensive artforms, with books often taking years to complete, let alone publish (perhaps explaining why writers are, on average, much older than other artists – with our only saving grace being we also have the lowest direct costs associated with maintaining a creative practice – other than our time).
More than 20 years in the arts had also taught me that hard work and talent were not the sole requirements for success. In fact, so much of a successful publishing pathway is based on being the right person telling the right story in collaboration with the right partners with the right priorities at precisely the right time.
The success of Maxine Beneba Clarke in every single genre she turns her hand to, for example, is – first and foremost – testimony to her extraordinary talent and work ethic. But also, to a moment in time in which Australian and international readers have lost appetite for our publishing industry’s prevailing monoculture and are actively seeking out authentic and equitable representation of their diverse lived experiences.
The other side of the right-place, right-time equation is perhaps epitomised by Harry Cole and James Heale, the biographers of (brief) UK Prime Minister Liz Truss. In spite of writing and rushing their seemingly timely and topical book to print last year, they were still struck down by circumstance when Truss quit eight days before publication – after a mere seven weeks in a job that no longer warranted memorialising.
As writers, we have almost zero control over whether our book will find an agent or publisher. We can’t predict if it will find readers, or whether publishing it will provide us with any sort of livable wage. Many of us even struggle with merely calling ourselves a ‘writer’ in the first place, even when we’re writing all the time. (I found ‘poet’ even harder to claim, taking years to shrug off poetry’s bad PR and my own internalised snobbery and imposter syndrome to be able to self-identify that way.)
And yet… we hope, we dream, we write, and part of us imagines that we might beat the odds – even when we know they’re not in our favour. Which is a wonderful and radical act of optimism, commitment and care. But many of us also have a destructive inner critic that beats us up when our dreams and realities misalign.
In his 2023 memoir, Love, Dad: confessions of an anxious father, Boorloo/Perth author Laurie Steed writes how the criticism of his never-sleeping ‘inner critic, who has in time become an inner arsehole’ can feel like a block to enjoying the good times – which are vital to hold onto in the midst of this precarity.
I am forever in awe of the toughness, resilience and generosity writers display again and again on this journey. But how can we build this resilience?
For me, this starts with taking ‘success’ out of my dream-states and grounding it within my real-life context and communities.
Doing so can help redefine what success means to each of us on an individual basis. It’s clear, as I wrote recently for Fremantle Press, that most of us don’t get into writing for the money. We do it because we have to, because we love it, because it’s how we think or communicate or make sense of the world. Success can also be about finding a tribe or an audience, sharing and developing our ideas, or seeing our words come to life on the page, stage or screen.
Finally, if my recent path to and through publication has taught me anything, it’s the importance of building and maintaining a writerly community as an essential and strategic tool for my own writing and wellbeing (as well as part of being a good literary citizen).
Writing is a solitary occupation, but it takes a village to make a book, and to traverse the hopes and disappointments of creative practice. Over these last few difficult months and years, our connections and communities have been stretched and exhausted by multiple, ongoing, global crises. It’s been hard to do more than keep going, let alone connect with our networks – particularly for us writers, who are often socially awkward introverts, who often turn to writing because we’re more confident on the page than in person.
But while there is much we can’t control, we can control the community we build around our writing, and that can make all the difference. As Naarm/Melbourne author Alice Robinson wrote for this blog: ‘if I can impart any advice to emerging writers on the basis of my own floundering, it would be to go to things and meet people.’
Supporting the work of others means they will, more often than not, support our work in return, though this is not about doing favours as a strategic or cynical investment in future reciprocity (even if I have found they do come back again with slow-burning but gratifying frequency). Rather, it’s community as a tool for writing and resilience, as part of the end-goal itself, not something that happens after or around it. It’s about celebrating the milestones, not a mythical end point. It’s about building the resilience of fellow writers to help silence their inner arseholes, in the hope that message rubs off on our own internal critics too.
Kate Larsen (she/her) is a Tarntanya/Adelaide reader, writer, arts and cultural consultant with more than 20 years’ experience in the non-profit, government and cultural sectors in Australia, Asia and the United Kingdom. Her work has been published or commissioned by The Relationship is the Project, Meanjin, Overland, Kill Your Darlings, Voice&Verse and anthologies, magazines and arts organisations in Australia, Asia and the UK. Her debut collection of poetry, Public. Open. Space., was published by Fremantle Press in 2023. @katelarsenkeys