The Writing Life (3)

Photo Credit: Tom Sandler

This last couple of weeks I’ve been writing at the dining room table, partly to keep the spread in view, but also because damn city life gets in the way, most recently with plumbing that isn’t working and the smell of urethane as a couple of painters work on the stairs. Any stronger and this could be the alley behind a gas station. So it goes.

One project will never truly get underway until I’m in the right place for it, which is Nova Scotia. I can write in a train station at rush hour and at the family table before dinner with a dozen kids around, but this overdue book, for some reason, demands I be in the place I’m writing about, an opportunity I am trying to put into play later this month. A travel assignment is twisting me up more than it should. A couple of straightforward journalism pieces (that never are) beckon. A lecture due this spring – a first written assault on an idea that no publisher wanted but just won’t go away (a good sign) – deadlines are colonizing my desk at the moment.

If you’ve been following these postings then you’ll know I’ve been trying to – what’s the word Mr. Harper’s put in vogue? – recalibrate. Note, however, that in mine as in the case of most writers, that involves making an assessment for the New Year, estimating what I am capable of, trying to improve my productivity and working practices – rather than, say, skiing in Val d’Isère or somewhere, as apparently one hard-working Tory MP paying attention to his constituency is doing, or preparing for the Olympics as our PM will be doing soon enough. I’ve talked about how (1) how writers tend to gauge their success, and (2) how too much emphasis on the barometer of financial returns of whatever it is we do to get by can usurp vital time and energy and get in the way of what, if we think back to why we started, is the primary aim – all those lofty and difficult projects and ideas that prompted us to become a writer in the first place.

As far as income is concerned, it took me a while to come to the admittedly banal realization that writers are not like oil riggers or cops or plumbers or painters (you will understand if, what with the air sharp in here and it being too cold to open the windows much, tradesmen are on my mind). There is no benefit in overtime for us. No time-and-a-half after eight, double after ten and triple on bank holidays, or whatever it was I got paid in seismic, way back when. Even at their most efficient, writers face a ceiling on their revenue, because after so many hours in the day we just get stupid and write badly. Understanding the limitation this simple fact puts upon decent work will affect how a writer chooses projects and how well they are done.

If, for instance, you are a little bit presbyterian and so are hard put to say ‘no’ to anything, then you will probably learn that the cost of taking on too great a quantity of work, whatever that benchmark is for you, will be that the quality will suffer and that perhaps just one but more likely some of these projects will turn out sub-par. And, of course, this is bad news for a writer who is judged especially harshly by his or her last undertaking. In other words, if typically I am able to write twenty-five different newspaper pieces and ten other bits of work, but take on fifteen, then it is likely that I shall have a desk as I do today, with a couple of late pieces of work on top of many more. If, however, I recognize my ceiling, then I can choose more carefully, perhaps for the money or the travel and treats that come along with some assignments. Or reduce my targets because I understand that for a given time some less remunerative piece of work will require concentration. But in all of these cases I am better off if I have some idea of what that ceiling is – and whether or not I can raise it.

This year, despite having a surfeit of the overdue very badly paid labours-of-love and other work like this blog which pays very little. (I like Rover and have good reasons for doing it but we’ll get into all those web-led arguments another time.) I have raised my benchmarks and the revenue ceiling that goes along with it, mostly because it seems to me that this is what you have to do in hard times – i.e., not make excuses for yourself but leap at opportunity and make the best of it. It’s taken me stupidly long years – Malcolm Gladwell suggests what, it takes at least ten? – to figure out how I might actually manage to do this. But even sage analysis cannot for a moment guarantee better performance.

I have a couple of techniques for that which I’ll be happy to share next time. But another deadline looms.

Noah Richler is a writer and broadcaster. His book, This is My Country, What’s Yours? A Literary Atlas of Canada won the 2007 B.C. Award for Canadian Non-Fiction. He blogs for Wordfest and his column,“The Writing Life,” appears here and on


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