Wide Angle

What Are You Even For?

On working, doubting, and making a living as a writer.

Natalie Matthews-Ramo
Natalie Matthews-Ramo

The question of how to make a living as a writer is at its surface very simple. The answer is, you write whenever you’re not doing your real, proper job. The proper job, where you earn your proper living. The answer is, you feel grateful to have a job at all. The answer is, you tuck your writing away, like a cyclist rolling up one trouser leg so the cuff doesn’t get caught up in the chain. The answer is, you have reasons to write other than to make any money—some of them banal and maybe even embarrassing, like wanting to be seen, wanting to be someone. Some of them grander and easier to own up to, like trying to understand what it means to be in this world when so many of us feel we are outside of it. Whatever your reasons, they push you forward.

I remember a second-year business student for whom I had just bought a large orange and vodka for $5 at the Fat Lady’s Arms one Saturday night in 2002. He wanted to know how writing would ever get me a decent job. “What are you gonna do with that?” he asked me, almost as if I’d just pulled some indescribable item out of my pocket and was demanding that he touch it. I remember, in that moment, looking at the university students dancing all around us to “I’m Gonna Be” by the Proclaimers, the worst song in the world and yet also the song that people most often shouted into one another’s faces. I said to the business student that I didn’t know what I would do with the writing. A hot shame came over me then for not having a reasonable plan. I remember having a strong urge to join the dancers. I wanted to fall into oblivion, thrusting about unthinkingly to a song I hated, and to emerge reeking of other people’s Lynx.

We all know that it’s out of the ordinary for writers to make much money. When you visit the government’s Careers website, there is a special page to describe Writer, and there is a sign like one of those Fire Danger Today indicators that you see on hot country roads. Only in this sign it’s an indicator for good jobs, as in, “Probability of a Good Job Today,” and the arrow is pointing decidedly to Poor. I recently won a literary prize, a truly wonderful and absurd amount of money out of the clear blue, and I was struck how the news here in New Zealand described me as “pocketing” that money. That sly verb “pocket”—because writers glide around in huge coats lined with pockets in case the opportunity should arise to pinch something to which they feel entitled, like a scented candle or another coat lined with pockets. But, mostly, writers come across as these slightly otherworldly desperate fairy creatures, and if they have any monetary success at all, it’s novel. It’s amusing. They’ve bucked the system—the status quo of writers being poor.

For a long time my life was filled with encounters like the one with that business student. I’d buy somebody a drink, then they would find out I wanted to be a writer, and they would ask how I would make any money. The answer, at least partly, was that I had to stop buying these people drinks. I had a knack for sitting in bars I didn’t want to be in, with people I didn’t like all that much, nodding along to the worst songs in the world. I had a knack for doing what seemed to be required. I wasn’t really any good at learning anything from situations back then, but these experiences keenly suggested to me that if I wanted something else, I would have to find the gumption to turn away, and to keep turning away. If I did not, then my eagerness to please, to be the least disruptive I could be, would lead me into situations and maybe even a life that I didn’t like very much. To try to be a writer is to disrupt. And to write well is to keep disrupting expectation. Anne Carson says: “You can never know enough, never work enough, never use the infinitives and participles oddly enough, never impede the movement harshly enough, never leave the mind quickly enough.” Of course, Carson is speaking about writing. But I also think of the rush and the urge of society flowing over us like bad music, telling us all the time what counts as a successful career and a successful life. You have to shield yourself from it, impede the movement harshly, to keep it from submerging you.

I was lucky. I did get jobs. And even in early jobs, like working in Lotto stores selling people Instant Kiwis that very occasionally won $5, I felt a thrill at being solely at work. I might have wanted to be a writer, but I was also learning how to be a person facing out into a world. Each day I came back to my writing feeling like a slightly different person. I had listened, observed, eavesdropped, stored things away. There’s an idea I picked up somewhere that all work is the avoidance of harder work. There is some truth in that. “I’ll just remove these little balls of lint from my coat instead of doing a whole load of washing.” “I’ll just revise this paragraph for an hour instead of writing the next one.” At my job as an editor at Victoria University Press, we sometimes talk about “constructive procrastination,” which usually means playing around with typefaces and looking at cover concepts instead of writing jacket copy or ringing up a poet you’re scared of. But that avoidant work, although it must always give way to the harder work, can be rich with spontaneity—with thoughts you might not have had, conversations you might otherwise not have joined or eavesdropped. So, yes, my day job is, in a sense, the avoidance of the harder work of trying to really make it as a writer and only a writer. The harder work of pushing and pushing against a system where the arts aren’t valued as much as boats or rugby or real estate are. Selfishly, I find myself wanting to save the energy that I would spend on fighting. I save it to write work that matters to me.

For the writing that holds real value for us very seldom comes into this world in a planned, tidy, rational way, as in a business plan, without disarray and confusion along the way. I really believe that people who are writing anything truly of value will make some amount of mess as they are figuring out the necessity of their work, as they are reaching for what is most difficult to say. For a writer, working with what’s irrational is in most ways unquantifiable, even though it’s really hard work. No one sees all of the pushing and pulling, except perhaps for other writers. We carry this work around with us, and in turn it pushes and pulls on us. This is partly why it is so awkward when writers are asked, as we are always asked, to write something without being paid. We want to say, “But you don’t understand. I have to make this thing that makes sense out of all of this!” It feels like the work of writing has not been seen; it goes unacknowledged. But that work is where a writer lives.

My father would sometimes have us film our own family versions of Mastermind or Sale of the Century in the lounge. The contestant would be sat in an armchair with a torch shining directly into their face. One of my brothers would have a camera over his shoulder to film the episode—we’d rented a video camera from the local electric goods store. I remember it being huge, about the size of R2-D2. My father was the Quiz Master, so he would shout the questions, mostly questions about local geography, politics, rugby. If you got the right answer he would shout “That is correct!” He was also in charge of the buzzer noise for when someone gave a wrong answer. It was this terrible nasal yell: EHHHHH!

My memory of being in the hot seat at Mastermind is muddled, partly because I remember being quizzed—the intensity, the pressure of it, the brightness of the torch in my eyes—and partly I just remember watching the video later on. One scene went like this.

“What is the name of the river that runs through Te Kuiti?!”

“Ummmm … ”

EHHHHH! The Mangaokewa! Who is the prime minister of New Zealand?!”

“Ummmm … ”

“EHHHHH! David Lange! Name one New Zealand writer!”

“Stop shining that torch in her face! Come on, dear … famous New Zealand writer…. Janet … ? Margaret … ?” (This was mum, cheating.)

I was about 5 years old at this time. I was sucking on the head of a teddy bear and rocking back and forth in the armchair, and squinting into the torchlight.

“Ummmm … ”

EHHHH!” At this point both of my brothers would be joining in on the buzzer sound, and adding farting noises.

My older brothers had been through the same Mastermind gantlet—more successfully than me—so it wasn’t like I was being treated unfairly in this instance. Mastermind was a lesson in how the real world worked. You had to know facts. If you didn’t know the right thing immediately, then you got buzzed. But sitting there in the armchair, the torch shining in my face, I felt a blinding sense of injustice. It was as if all the right answers were there in front of me but I wasn’t able to reach them. The name “David Lange,” for instance, was a group of meaningless sounds that ungrouped and dispersed as soon as they’d been uttered.

I dreamed of being asked questions not about the government, rugby, and famous authors, but about my life and my special, creative ways of doing things. It was only in these scenarios that I had answers as effortlessly as I wished. I remember out the front of the house I would bike around in ever-tightening circles, imagining I was being interviewed on live TV—“What advice would you give to viewers who want to do these tricks on their bikes?”—and telling them all about the importance of swiveling a certain way or how you had to do a unique flourish as you dismounted. The same when hitting tennis balls against a concrete wall. “The important thing is,” I’d whisper to my interviewer, “you can’t get angry when you miss the ball; you’ve just gotta pick it up and try again.” I would pretend to be Alison Holst, a beloved New Zealand television chef, while adding chopped nuts and chocolate powder to my bowl of ice cream, explaining my interesting techniques: “Sometimes a spoonful of jam can be very nice. The important thing is to mix it all up very thoroughly.” It was performative, but it felt so satisfying to me to have all these interesting answers and to be able to imagine the interviewer nodding along, impressed.

I guess I’m telling this story partly because I’ve realized that I’m the kind of person who only has answers for questions that are not being asked directly of me, and I think that’s why I’m a writer. Writing, and reading, doesn’t usually feel like having a torch shone expectantly in your face. So many other times in our lives, we do have torches shone into our faces. But when you’re writing you sit in the dark until your eyes adjust.

A piece of writing tends to start with a question, but usually one that, unlike on Mastermind, is almost parodically unanswerable. “Why does this thing feel the way it feels?” or “Why were we like that?”—and then, in your own time, you start trying for a response. This feels to me like being inside one of those weird whispered monologues when I was little, circling around on my bike or whacking tennis balls against a wall, muttering my explanations and imagining, or hoping for, someone listening and nodding. Writers are so often responding to questions that haven’t explicitly been asked, which perhaps is why our work is so difficult to measure and reward. The system in which we must live says to us, “What are you even for?”

When I started writing this piece, I knew it would not be business-like or even educational, and that this would likely be frustrating. My writing has always lacked businesslike aspect: It tends toward disarray and clings to what I find sustaining. But I find myself coming back to Montaigne, who, as Sarah Bakewell details in her extraordinary portrait How to Live, was so interested in the idea of what consciousness was that he had someone regularly shake him awake in the middle of the night so that he could catch a glimpse of unconsciousness just as it was leaving him*. It was like he wanted to be in a dream, a reverie, all the time; yet he also wanted to be firmly grounded in reality and to feel as much of it as possible. As a writer, he was able to be lost in himself as well as to hang on tightly to everything that happened in his life—so that he could pull it back when he needed it in his work. Living as a writer, living at all, means learning how to hang on.

This essay is adapted from a speech delivered in November at the Michael King Writers’ Centre in Auckland, New Zealand.

*Update, Jan. 19, 2018: This essay has been updated with a reference to Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live, from which the author learned about Montaigne’s sleeping habits.

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Ashleigh Young

Ashleigh Young is a poet and essayist living in Wellington, New Zealand. She was a winner of the 2017 Windham Campbell Prize. Her book of essays Can You Tolerate This? will be published in the U.S. by Riverhead in July 2018.