Anyone Can Write, But Not Everyone Can Be a Writer

By Bardia Sinaee

all work and no play

Anyone can write, but not everyone can be a writer, in the same way that anyone with a bit of money can take music lessons or try horseback riding, but landing a record deal or competing in the World Equestrian Games requires years of training, as well as equipment and travel (not to mention talent). When it comes to writing, public education levels the playing field somewhat in terms of basic literacy, but not everyone can afford to attend university afterward. And even if you overcome this barrier by taking out large student loans or somehow teaching yourself the Western canon, how will you keep the lights on until the Guggenheim Foundation comes knocking?

To apply for a subsistence grant from municipal, provincial or federal arts councils in Canada, you need publication credits. To learn what editors are looking for—to achieve fluency in contemporary poetry, for instance—it helps to read new magazines and books, and attend readings. Events where you can meet editors, publishers and other writers are often held in the evenings at cramped downtown bars, and are difficult to attend if you have mobility issues, work very early or very late, don’t drink, live in the suburbs or have to arrange childcare. To live in proximity to all this cultural activity, you’ll probably have to relocate from your suburb, First Nations reserve, or quiet town to a big city, where you’ll pay some of the highest rent in the country, an amount no “emerging writers” grant could ever cover (source link for rent costs).

If you want to parlay your literary bona fides into a career in writing and publishing, keep in mind that most independent Canadian presses and magazines have very few paid staff, while larger magazines and publishing companies, many owned by foreign media conglomerates concerned about the bottom line, have replaced ever-diminishing entry level positions with internships that pay nothing or next to nothing. Even postings for relatively unsexy publishing positions (editorial assistant at a university press, for instance) often list as a requirement a publishing certificate or equivalent experience, and good luck paying for an additional year of college or subsisting on a $500/month internship if you have student debt or medical expenses.

Even for a young white person with a postgraduate degree, no debt, no dependents, and no disabilities—the cream (no pun intended) of the privilege crop—being a writer (as opposed to cultivating a writing habit) means gambling with your future. Establishing yourself in two careers at once requires extraordinary drive, commitment and resources; for every writer I know who also has a career as a doctor, lawyer or professor, I know twenty who have jobs as cashiers, baristas, dog walkers, servers, part-time sessional instructors, or are scraping by through some combination of these and freelance contracts. Many in this latter group are unable to put aside enough money for retirement or a medical emergency, and, like a lot of precariously employed Canadians, are especially vulnerable to workplace abuse and employers who don’t pay on time or at all.

The Writers’ Union of Canada (TWUC) offers members assistance with writing contracts and grievances, as well as the option to participate in a group health benefits plan, however only writers who have published a book are eligible for membership. A personalized quote from the TWUC’s health insurance provider offered me a monthly rate about $15 lower than the quote I got for similar coverage from Sun Life Financial, which, given the TWUC’s $205 annual fee for regular membership, doesn’t seem worth it to me (not that I’m eligible for membership anyway).

While it has long been the case that the vast majority of Canadian writers cannot reasonably expect to subsist on grants, advances, royalties and payments from programs like the Public Lending Right, writers today also face a job market characterized by unprecedented instability. According to Statistics Canada, temporary employment “in the form of contract positions, seasonal work or casual jobs, grew rapidly from 1997 to 2005” (source link). A 2014 report by Statistics Canada found that the average real minimum wage in Canada only increased by $0.01 between 1975 and 2013, and that the percentage of young workers (aged 15-19) earning minimum wage rose from 30% in 2003 to 45% in 2010 (source link). Meanwhile, the average cost of a two-bedroom apartment in Canada rose by over 65% between 1992 and 2015, according to data compiled by the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (source link; note: I got this number by dividing the 2015 Canadian average by the 1992 average). The recent proliferation of tech companies and other proponents of the “sharing” and “gig” economies have disrupted the job market and challenged existing labour laws in ways that all levels of government have so far failed to coherently address.

Lobbying for increased arts funding and joining unions that wield little leverage are not nearly enough to equip would-be writers for the current economy. Canadian writers and the organizations advocating on their behalf must join and support the wider call for comprehensive, universal social security programs such as basic income, pharmacare, and low-fee childcare. (For proposals and studies about the viability of such programs, see former Senator Hugh Segal’s “Finding a Better Way,” the Canadian Medical Association’s “National Pharmacare in Canada” and economists Pierre Fortin, Luc Godbout and Suzie St-Cerny’s Impact of Quebec’s Low-Fee Childcare Program on Female Labour Force Participation, Domestic Income, and Government Budgets.) Whereas increases in writing grants would primarily benefit those who already have the means to accrue a body of work and apply for funding, the guarantee of food, shelter, affordable childcare and protection from financial ruin in the event of a life-altering medical diagnosis would go much further toward enabling the most marginalized members of society to pursue their education as well the production and consumption of literature. The reduction of these most basic and prohibitive barriers to entry would ultimately broaden diversity in the literary community and publishing industry, and by extension the content and bylines in our newspapers and magazines would be more representative of—and relevant to—the Canadian public.                                                           

The views expressed by Open Book columnists are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

Bardia Sinaee's poems have appeared in publications throughout Canada, including MaisonneuveThe Walrus and Best Canadian Poetry in English (Tightrope Books). He was born in Tehran, Iran and currently lives in Toronto.