Paying the Mortgage

“How do you write while earning a living?”

Every writer has to figure out how to pay the rent (or mortgage) while carving space to write. Some people teach, and use their summers to write. Surprisingly, banking and bookkeeping have a fine tradition among writers. T.S. Eliot, O. Henry, and Raymond Chandler all worked at banks. At various times, Chandler was a bookkeeper for a creamery and an oil syndicate. During the first world war, he served in the Canadian (all right, compadre!) army and in the Royal Air Force. He had a drinking problem and was fired from his jobs–hence his wife’s financial support (she was ten years older than him) when he moved into full-time writing in his mid-forties, beginning with the study of short stories. He was a slow writer, a relief to me, as each of my books has taken me about five years.

Another Raymond, the brilliant short story writer, Raymond Carver, advised young writers to emulate him. He worked as a janitor and recommended it because he could think about his stories while mopping floors.

I never thought that would be a good idea for me. Manual labour always emptied my head of any creative impulse. So did boring clerical jobs. Other writers have gotten up at five in the morning to write for a couple of hours before going off to work. I couldn’t think at five a.m. But living frugally so that I could work part-time at something that paid enough to let me work part-time did create space for me to write until I could make a living with it.

But in all our different ways, what we have in common, is arranging our lives around writing, finding a way to make it work so that we have the time and mental space for it. In a better world, artists would be supported by their families, their communities, their countries. But in the reality of this world, we do what we can and we write. For those of us in countries where free expression is a right, we do so in the knowledge that we have something precious to protect and to fight for on behalf of those writers who don’t.

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