Laura Elizabeth Woollett is a rising literary star, the highly acclaimed author of a collection of short stories and two novels. She’s 29, has a degree in creative writing, and has never had a full-time job. She told herself that it was a lifestyle choice, so as not to kill her creativity. In fact, she never had an offer. Like many writers, she accumulates a precarious income from occasional work. His best job was in a call center.
His novel beautiful revolutionary was shortlisted for the 2019 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards, which means she could win a life-changing $80,000. She was terrified. She didn’t win. She recorded the moment as a return to normal.
His frank and ironic account of this episode is one of 19 essays in Open Secretsan anthology born out of a call for The Sydney Book Review for writers to contribute stories about how they do the job. It reveals a wide range of fortunes, preoccupations, obsessions and neuroses, but the one thing that is clear from each essay is how difficult a job of writing can be in a country and culture that, in the ‘together, do not support it.
It has nothing to do with the image of the literary work which still has a surprisingly tenacious hold on the Australian imagination. There are two dominant myths. The first is that the writers’ lifestyle is funded by taxpayers and they don’t write much in return. The second is that writing responds to a divine call. You do what you love, so you shouldn’t expect to be paid for it.
Sydney Books Review editor Catriona Menzies-Pike debunks both of these myths in her introduction to the book. As she points out, it’s getting worse and worse. “Public funding available to Australian writers continues to shrink, the prospect of healthy royalties from book publishing is dim, and the gigs that so many have relied on to pay bills, workshops, teaching, public events, have decreased in number.”
Some look beyond the uphill battle to earn a living and tailor your writing to this essential work. They ask what this says about how our governments and institutions fail to value literature: James Ley laments the diminishing respect for the humanities in our university courses and teaching positions.
Others look at the inevitable psychological issues for anyone who dedicates themselves to a task that doesn’t pay off: how can you continue to respect yourself and what you’re trying to do? Lisa Fuller received an email from a creative writing student saying her dream was useless because her writing sucked. She replied that she was struggling with all these feelings herself.
Many of these stories were written during the pandemic, which reduced the availability of paid work and book promotion and amplified the writer’s isolation and negative thoughts. For some, however, the shutdowns were a brief respite where, for once, everyone got a taste of their daily lives. Fiona Wright had never felt so comfortable. Due to illness, she had always had to work from home and tried to make it a virtue; now she saw others struggling to adjust to the conditions she had accepted as natural for herself.