Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Sunday, 30 September 2012

Is writing a hobby?


A hobby is a defiance of the contemporary. It is an assertion of those permanent values which the momentary eddies of social evolution have contravened or overlooked. If this is true, then we may also say that every hobbyist is inherently a radical, and that his tribe is inherently a minority.Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac: With Other Essays on Conservation from Round River

We Brits love our hobbies. For years at the end on my CV I included a few at the end. After a while, though, I changed the heading from ‘Hobbies’ to ‘Interests’ as I felt it was a bit more adult, as if hobbies were for kids. There was a programme on the TV a while back talking about some of the weird and wonderful hobbies the British have engaged in over the years and how they have changed. Hobbies started off being group activities often revolving around people’s places of employment (e.g. the work football team or brass band) and then, because of the lack of money during the two world wars, crafts became increasingly popular (making things with matchsticks and the like). Collecting has always been quintessentially British and not just sensible things like cigarette cards or coins; cheese labels was what one woman was into and she turned it into quite a profitable wee business. An alternative to collecting physical objects was collecting experiences: hence the rise of train spotting, bird watching and photography. In my time I have collected stamps, coins, toy cars, rocks, fossils, comics, bubblegum cards and I still collect music like it’s going out of fashion. But is writing a hobby?

Okay, so what exactly is a hobby?

A hobby is a regular activity or interest that is undertaken for pleasure, typically done during one's leisure time. Examples of hobbies include collecting, creative and artistic pursuits, making, tinkering, sports and adult education. Engaging in a hobby can lead to acquiring substantial skill, knowledge and experience. People also enjoy participating in competitive hobbies such as athletics, hockey, curling, golf, bowling and tennis.

Generally speaking, the person who engages in an activity for fun, not remuneration, is called an amateur (or hobbyist), as distinct from a professional. – Wikipedia

I actually define ‘amateur’ and ‘professional’ slightly differently: an amateur is someone who does something because he loves doing it whereas a professional does something because he has to even when he doesn’t feel like it. Most writers, even those who get paid (whether in cash or in kind) are amateurs. People don’t go to work in a cannery or down the pit for the love of it. It’s an emotive word, nevertheless, as amateurs are often looked down on: Oh, he’s a weekend such-and-such. The film director, John Waters, says it all when he wrote in Role Models: “The only insult I've ever received in my adult life was when someone asked me, ‘Do you have a hobby?’ A HOBBY?! DO I LOOK LIKE A FUCKING DABBLER?!”

An amateur (French amateur "lover of", from Old French and ultimately from Latin amatorem nom. amator, "lover") is generally considered a person attached to a particular pursuit, study, or science, without pay and often without formal training. Amateurism can be seen in both a negative and positive light. Since amateurs often do not have formal training, some amateur work may be considered sub-par. – Wikipedia

A professional is a person who is paid to undertake a specialized set of tasks and to complete them for a fee.

The main criteria for a professional include the following:

  1. Expert and specialized knowledge in field which one is practicing professionally.
  2. Excellent manual/practical and literary skills in relation to profession.
  3. High quality work in (examples): creations, products, services, presentations, consultancy, primary/other research, administrative, marketing, photography or other work endeavours.
  4. A high standard of professional ethics, behaviour and work activities while carrying out one's profession (as an employee, self-employed person, career, enterprise, business, company, or partnership/associate/colleague, etc.). The professional owes a higher duty to a client, often a privilege of confidentiality, as well as a duty not to abandon the client just because he or she may not be able to pay or remunerate the professional. Often the professional is required to put the interest of the client ahead of his own interests.
  5. Reasonable work morale and motivation. Having interest and desire to do a job well as holding positive attitude towards the profession are important elements in attaining a high level of professionalism.
  6. Appropriate treatment of relationships with colleagues. Consideration should be shown to elderly, junior or inexperienced colleagues, as well as those with special needs. An example must be set to perpetuate the attitude of one's business without doing it harm.
  7. A professional is an expert who is a master in a specific field. – Wikipedia

For me the key difference is the existence of a customer. A novel is a one off. It could reasonably be referred to as custom-made. As it’s also a work of art the customer often isn’t too specific about what he requires but sometimes he is: “There’s this new blockbuster coming out and we require a novelisation. This is when it needs to be completed, this is the word count and this is what we’re willing to pay for it. Oh, and it’s aimed at the YA market so watch the language. Do you want the job?” Usually an author produces a book that he thinks will meet a demand and then sees if he can get someone to invest in it (hopefully) without demanding much in the way of rewrites.

Does the fact that you can get paid for what you produce make you a professional? I got paid £1.50 for a poem that was published in 1979 and for many years that was the grand sum that I had earned from my writing. So that makes me a professional writer, right? Nah. I write what I want when I want. I have never had to rely on my writing to put food on the table. In an extremely forthright article over at terribleminds I read this:

You cannot maintain the illusion of writing being this precious act when you’re working to make a living wage. I mean, I guess you can if you’re Stephen King. But me? And you? This illusion is dismembered by the reaper’s scythe. Writing is a job. A wake-up-at-the-perineum-of-dawn-and-churn-out-a-fast-two-thousand-words job. The kind of job where, if you don’t write, you don’t get paid, and if you don’t get paid, you will die in a gutter wearing only that one pair of pants you own.

Chuck Wendig describes himself as “a novelist, a screenwriter, and a freelance ChuckWendigpenmonkey.” He also does some game design on the side.

I cannot imagine being able to do that. That’s scary stuff. On the subject of linking writing and commerce he writes:

There’s a whole seedy sub-layer to being a pro-writer that, for some reason, writers don’t want to deal with. Fuck that. That’s like owning a toilet and not knowing how to unclog it. Elves don’t come and handle it, for Chrissakes. This is your job. Keyword: job.

Bottom line: I am not a jobbing author. Which makes me an amateur and amateurs can’t be professional, right? What’s the only thing that separates amateurs and professionals? The moolah. Amateurs can behave in a professional manner. What do you need to be a professional table tennis player? A table, a paddle and a ball. And what’s that going to set you back? Unless you want a table made out of concrete (seriously, they do them) you could buy a top of the range table for £800. A paddle? £240 max. Balls? You could pick up a bucket load for £60. So we’re not talking about a fortune. What does Stephen King write on? The web site allows you to take a virtual tour of his office. There, on his virtual desk, you'll see an iMAC computer. So one would assume he uses an iMAC in real life, too, not that it matters. You get the idea. The basic requirements to be any kind of writer will not set you back more than a few hundred quid tops. My mum wrote in my sister’s old school jotters with a Bic.

But what about the training? Stephen King graduated from the University of Maine at Orono in 1970, with a B.A. in English and qualified to teach on the high school level. He learned to write by doing. To the best of my knowledge The University of East Anglia's Creative Writing Course , which was founded by Sir Malcolm Bradbury and Sir Angus Wilson that very same year, was the first of its kind in the UK. Ian McEwan was the first applicant as I remember it. In a radio interview on Radio 4 in 2010 he had this to say:

I have fought all my life—forty years in fact—against the PR machinery of UEA which makes me out to be the product of a creative writing course. I am nothing of the kind.

In the interview both McEwan and Tobias Hill emphasise the benefit of reading and, to be blunt, no one needs to go to university to read good books. But can writing be taught? Certain aspects can and are. A sentence begins with a capital letter, ends with a full stop and must contain at least a noun and a verb. We get that in primary school. Writing, like any form of art, is not without its techniques, but there’s also learning on the job. And that can’t be discounted. An MA in Creative Writing is referred to the world over as a “professional qualification” but just because you have a Degree in Psychology does not make you a psychologist. Why would a writing degree make you a writer?

Very few writers make a living solely from writing. In the fall of 1971, Stephen began teaching high school English classes at Hampden Academy. It wasn’t until the spring of 1973 that his novel Carrie was accepted for publication. Likewise William McIlvanney worked as an English teacher between 1960 and 1975 and only could afford to write fulltime after Docherty was published; it was his third novel. Joanna Trollope worked as an English teacher for twelve years. Muriel Spark worked as an English teacher and a secretary. In 1996, while J K Rowling was working as a French teacher in Edinburgh, Bloomsbury published Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone; she’d also worked as an English teacher in Portugal and a secretary at various firms. I could go on and on. These were all amateur writers with professional work ethics.

kaysextonLet me tell you about Kay Sexton. Actually I’ll let her tell you. This is from her website:

Kay Sexton's fiction has been chosen for over forty anthologies and been broadcast on Radio 4. Her unpublished novel, Gatekeeper, was shortlisted for the Dundee International Book Prize, she was shortlisted for the Willesden Herald short story prize in 2008, a finalist for the Bridport Prize in 2009 and was long-listed for the Sunday Times EFT Short Story prize 2010 alongside A.L. Kennedy, Rose Tremain, Jackie Kay and Helen Simpson. Her first non-fiction book is called Minding My Peas and Cucumbers: Quirky Tales of Allotment Life.

In addition to banging words together as Kay Sexton, she writes under the pen names Ren Holton and Carmel Lockyer, toils on her allotment and ministers to a Cairn Terrier called Rebus.

I got to know Kay via my wife. Kay submitted work to Carrie’s magazines and eventually did some work for her as an editor. It was unpaid but work is work, right? Recently she posted this on her blog. In part:

I went to an event earlier this month that I wasn’t expecting to attend, picked up my little badge at the door and it said Kay Sexton: Writer. Fair enough, I thought. Deep in the room was a person I have known distantly, for many years.

“What makes you a writer?” she asked and she didn’t ask it nicely.

The simple answer is that the person who wrote the badges made me a writer. Her badge said Lecturer which I also thought was fair enough. She earns her money through talking to students, I earn mine through writing. Simples, as some annoying mammals on TV commercials say.

But no. She pursued the subject and I knew why. In her eyes she is more of a writer than me. She has, after all, written a masterly doctoral thesis on Henry James, and had it published. Not in English by the way, in case you’re heading off to google my interlocutor (and I suspect I’m supposed to be pedantically furious that google is now a verb, but frankly, my dear, I have bigger things to worry about—like my appalling form in back squats). In her eyes she is a more erudite writer than me. A more substantial writer than me. She doesn’t write mucky stories for money (nor do I: I write complex feminist erotica for money, or at least that’s how I think of it) and she teaches the subject of writing at graduate level.

If you asked me, I wouldn’t say I was a writer. I would have said that writing is what I do, not what I am. I am, by comparison, a mother, an allotment-holder, a cook, and a crossfitter. And yet …

I’ll leave it there. If you want to read the whole post, feel free. I had started writing this post before I got caught up in her post but I was genuinely upset for her because, unlike so many of us who write simply for the love of it, Kay Sexton is a jobbing author. Her non-fiction book was a commission. I read it and, although it’s not my kind of book, I couldn’t fault the writing. It wasn’t simply competent; she raised the bar for herself and wrote a book that managed to keep my attention and entertain me. And then some snobby lecturer comes along and asks by what right she has the temerity to call herself a writer.

There are very few people out there who truly enjoy their job. Mondays stink, Wednesdays drag and Fridays refuse to end quickly enough. But it’s what we do so that we’re free the rest of the time to do what we want to do, be that trainspotting, stamp collecting, pigeon racing or novel writing. Kay is one of the lucky ones in that she has a job she loves. She is a professional amateur, not, I hasten to add, an amateurish professional.

You’ll note I never included book collecting as one of my hobbies even though I have a collection dating back to when I was sixteen. In this regard I agree with Jeanette Winterson who said:

Book collecting is an obsession, an occupation, a disease, an addiction, a fascination, an absurdity, a fate. It is not a hobby. Those who do it must do it. Those who do not do it, think of it as a cousin of stamp collecting, a sister of the trophy cabinet, bastard of a sound bank account and a weak mind.

Spider-Woman2Books are like tools and although there will be those who collect tools simply to own them and never have the slightest intention of using them I use my books. They do not need to be in pristine condition. They are not, like my copy of X-Force #1 still in its original wrapping and unread even though it was not sold in a Mylar bag. I remember paying £2 for a copy of Spider-Woman #2 simply to complete my collection. Don’t get me wrong, I like collecting but I don’t collect books. I have amassed a large number of books but I don’t collect them. It’s semantics but words are important to us writers, even us amateur writers.

Like so many posts like this there is no right answer to the question I posed at the outset; I raised it to make you think. I’ve never considered writing as a hobby personally. It wasn’t a job and referring to it as a vocation or a calling sounds pretentious beyond belief. There’s nothing a writer hates more than not having a word for something. What is writing to me? Here’s a poem I wrote in 1997:

The Art of Breathing

To find room for the new
you have to let go of
the old

so to learn how to write
I had to forget how
to breathe

and for a time I thought
I had to write to keep

which makes such perfect sense
but only if you're a

20 November 1997

Writing, for me, is a way of life. For some it will be a hobby and for others a job of work but if it’s not a way of life then they deserve to be called dabblers. I am not a dabbler. Writing is not a bit of fun. It is not a distraction although it is frequently distracting. The odds of me attending any kind of event where someone might hand me a badge that said: Jim Murdoch: Writer are remote but if I was handed one there is no way I would hand it back and say, “I’m sorry, you’re mistaken. This must be some other ‘Jim Murdoch’.” A lifestyle—I’m thinking here of the term as it was originally defined by Adler—involves choices: we choose how we view ourselves even if we can’t influence how the world views us.  Identity, however, is a complex thing and I’m not going to get onto that hobbyhorse here. Instead I’ll leave you with a final quote from Harvey Fierstein to mull over:

Never be bullied into silence. Never allow yourself to be made a victim. Accept no one's definition of your life, but define yourself.

I am a writer. That means something to me. My inability to explain to others precisely what that means in no way diminishes how important it is to me to look in the mirror and see a writer looking back at me. I don’t owe you an explanation. You’re not the boss of me.


Gwil W said...

Hi Jim,

I was interested in your take on the subject of hobbies because yesterday I came home from the local church bazaar with a big blue box containing a second-hand telescope under my arm. It's my new hobby, or it will be soon, assuming I enjoy it. Anyway I've just spent the best part of an hour assembling the more than 24 pieces and the fiddly screws in the correct order and then mounting the tube bit onto the tripod (first time I had the wrong end pointing to the floor but then I figured the stars are generally up above, so I had do that bit again). So, there you go. I am now an amateur astronomer!
My friend tells me the only thing I'm likely to discover is a black hole. I suppose that's the kind of joke we astronomers tell each other. I hope I don't get astronomer's eye like Patrick Moore. It's enough that I have runner's knee. Look forward to other reactions to this one. I suppose some people have a hobby of filling comment boxes with their thoughts. Maybe there's a name for it. If not maybe there should be. Cheers, Gwilym.

Jim Murdoch said...

Never was one for stargazing, Gwilliam. Even when I hear about stellar events like comets or an eclipse (neither of which are stars I know) I never take much of an interest. If I had access to a really big telescope it might be different but I can’t get excited over little blobs of light in the sky. I think I noticed Venus once and was completely underwhelmed by the experience. But horses for courses. If it makes you happy then go for it. I really don’t think of myself as having a hobby of any kind now. I listen to music constantly and watch hours of TV every day but these are just things I do as part of my daily life. For a thing to be a hobby to my mind I’d need to go somewhere and get something or do something out of the ordinary and something that is not essential to daily life. I’m not saying that books are essential to daily life but they’re not comics. With the comics I liked having sets. Spider-Woman #2 was a pretty awful comic but once I had it I owned a complete run and that was what was important. I still own comics I have never read. For me it was like art collecting. Even some pretty crappy comics had great covers and many of the comics I hung onto after I did that last big clearout I kept because they were art, plain and simple.

Wolf Pascoe said...

I once asked a poet I respect what a poem was. "Anything with line breaks," he answered. I liked this because it put the power in the hands of the writer. You may not like my poem, but you don't get to say it isn't a poem. It has line breaks, see? It's a poem. It's a poem because I say it is, because I broke the lines. Ditto, I'm a writer because I say I am. There's my lousy book on Amazon, see? You may not like my writing, but I'm the one gets to say I'm a writer, not you. Yes, now that publishing has become a button it's chaos and there's a lot of crap out there. But I'd rather sort out that problem than the problem of gatekeepers setting agendas in the name of standards.

Kirk said...

I guess I'm an amatuer writer until someone pays me for it. I've thought of going to school to be a journalist, which would make me a "professional" writer. My sister, who IS a journalist, advised against it, as journalism isn't exactly a growth industry at the moment. A few years ago, I had some cartoons published in a couple of magazines that have since gone under. I feel I can rightfully call myself a published cartoonist. But I'm reluctant to call myself a published cartoonist, as I was only paid in contributor copies.

Whether I'm an amatuer or not, writing is now what I look most forward to doing. Certainly more than my job.

Jim Murdoch said...

I would have to disagree with your friend’s definition of ‘poetry’, Wolf, but I do see where he’s coming from. There are far too many people out there who need to have things done their way as if that’s the only way they possibly can be done. I’ve just finished a book written by a teacher of creative writing and although she does present ways of doing things she does try and not suggest there is any right way and all credit to her. One of the things she talks about is the use of adverbs and how these days they’re use is frowned on and she pointed out that basically this is a fashion thing. There is nothing wrong with books written in the 18th century. Just because styles change doesn’t mean right and wrong have changed, Those are my words, not hers, but that’s what I got from her book.

If you received a contributor copy, Kirk, you have been paid. The tax office calls it benefit in kind. If you receive an item that can be converted back into cash—which a magazine can, it can be sold—then they would want to make an adjustment in your assessment to take account of it. Of course it’s not worth their while for a magazine that you’d be lucky to get a quid for but the principle is sound. It actually bothers me when magazines don’t send me a copy. I regard that as the very least they could do and really shouldn’t be publishing anything without factoring that cost into the equation.

As for becoming a journalist I’m inclined to side with your sister. Journalism, like teaching and banking, is not the respected industry that it once was and I can’t see it ever recovering. The truth isn’t what it used to be.

Dave King said...

I tried my hand at just about a;; your categories of hobby. Looking back, most of them strike me now as pretty sterile - especially the collecting ones.
I enjoyed the romp through them though, and you managed to rekindle something of the one-time magic, so perhaps there was something there after all!
Maybe Doreen, like the tall thin man, has it right - prize blooms are best!

Jim Murdoch said...

I have never got gardening, Dave. As a kid I hated to get my hands dirty—and it’s still something I’m not fond of—and so the idea of rooting around in soil just did not appeal. I had a house for a few years with a small back garden which I mowed and that was it. At least I assume I must have mowed it. I can’t actually remember doing any mowing; I must have blocked it. I’m happy enough to look at photos of exotic gardens and even more exotic flowers—I’m not completely anti-Nature—but let those with green fingers (or thumbs if they’re American) get on with it. I’ve only ever owned one plant, a cactus, which I killed.

When it comes to collections I think, for me at least, that’s where the whole hunter-gatherer thing kicks in. I always enjoyed the chase not that most of the things I ended up chasing were remotely ambulatory so it really wasn’t much of a chase but they were good at hiding. Carrie used to co-own an antique shop and ended up collecting all sorts of weird things over the years all of which have now mostly gone bar the elephants and I do all the collecting there on her behalf. I enjoy the challenge of finding some new and unusual figurine.

Marion McCready said...

No many people have more hobbies than my husband and they're not the 'normal' ones either - juggling, spoon carving, to name a couple!
I wouldn't call my poetry a hobby, it's not something I do to relax / fill the time etc, I'm serious about it and I'd be lying if I didn't say I have ambitions about it too. However I have just recently remembered that writing was / can be fun! And now having remembered to lighten up a little about it, I am having fun!

Jim Murdoch said...

I suppose that is the key word, Marion, and I’ve never found writing particularly relaxing either. I’ve always struggled to marry ‘doing’ and ‘relaxing’ because whenever I do something I tend to throw myself into it. It’s not that I’m not enjoying myself but there’s certainly an intensity about me. I enjoy work. I enjoy being productive. I actually struggle to relax and have done since I was a boy. Relaxing is a waste of time. Let me relax when I’m sleeping and can’t do anything else. I’ve tried to do relaxation exercises and wind up more stressed than I was before I started. When I write I concentrate, I focus and leave the enjoyment if you like until I’m done and read over what I’ve written; you can’t do two things at the same time well.

I cannot juggle. I’ve never made any serious effort to learn but as I’m not very good with coordination I think I’d prefer to spend my time doing something more creative. The same goes with the spoons. I’m a bit of a perfectionist and I can just imagine how stressful it would be for me making sure every cut was perfect. It’s why I hate things like scratchboards: one mistake and it’s ruined. That’s not relaxing.

Dave King said...

I'm half with you on the gardening issue. I am the labourer, doing all the manual stuff that is beyond doreen (who is disabled). Yesterday there was much to chop down, tear up and/or batter into submission. I really enjoyed all that - the warm sunshine helped.

Jim Murdoch said...

When my mother phoned me up to tell me that my dad was dead my first thought wasn’t really a thought, Dave, it was a feeling expressed in words—I was sad my dad was dead—but the next thought (for which I feel not a little bit guilty) was: Christ, that means I’ll have to do the garden. My mother was lucky I was such a dutiful son because I hated every last second of it not that I did more than the basics, mowing the lawn—I walked over to B&Q and bought a new lawnmower rather than risk electrocuting myself on the one Dad had added a motor too—and trimming the privets. I don’t think I pruned a single rose bush—it never occurred to me—although I did a bit of weeding here and there. I never used to have such an aversion to being outside but the older I get the less interested I find I am in the great outdoors. I accept that that’s completely unnatural but I’m content in my unnaturalness.

Ken Armstrong said...

I feel that this post is speaking directly to me in many ways. I like it very much and would rather take it away with me than say very much more.

Thanks Jim.

Jim Murdoch said...

Well, Ken, that’s all any writer can ask for.

Unknown said...

As an actress with a "day job", I found this post extremely fascinating and also hitting quite close to home. Too often, after saying I'm an actress, I've been asked "Yes, but what do you REALLY do? I mean, how do you support yourself?" I think the biggest difference between a hobbyist and a professional is demeanor. I treat all my acting work (no matter if it's unpaid) as a real job -- not as something I'm dabbling in.

Jim Murdoch said...

That was why I included the quote from Waters, Alexandra, because I would hate—absolutely hate—if anyone called me a dabbler. I imagine more actors are out there who manage to live comfortably off their acting than there are writers who don't find the need to do something else to make ends meet but I don't imagine the ratios are that different. I watched an interview with Dame Diana Rigg last week and one with Michael Gambon the week before and both of them talked about the poverty they lived in at the start of their careers. It's too easy to look at successful artists as they are now and imagine it was easy for them. Rigg started in repertory theatre when she was about sixteen and it was pure luck that the part of Emma Peel came up some six years later. She might have had to wait as long as Gambon did before he came to everyone's attention; he was 46 when he starred in The Singing Detective.

Unknown said...

Writing is also therapeutic, for me at least. When I feel down or even frustrated writing my thoughts down on paper really helps me to deal with my emotions.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for your comment, Norm. Sorry to take so long to respond but your comment was awaiting moderation and I hadn’t checked there for months. (Google really could make it a bit clearer when comments need moderating.) I get where you’re coming from here. I’ve said many times that I believe a writer to be a person whose natural response to life is to write about it. It doesn’t really matter if you’re happy or sad or anything else, writing can always take that and make something worthwhile out of it.

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