Image source: Flickr / Martin Kenny
It is 5:30am, and I can’t sleep.
I get up and put coffee on, sit at my computer, and wonder where to begin earning money as a writer today. Freelancewriting.com has a list of jobs – but most warn that a minimum of 3 years writing experience is required. Preferably five.
Time for a second coffee.
Ever since my body forced me to ditch the tradie jobs and try my hand at full-time freelancing, my dwindling supply of cash looms larger in my mind every day.
I know the meaning of that word. It means that when you’re nobody, the music stops and nobody gives you a seat. If you don’t get a seat, you don’t get experience, make no contacts. No contacts or experience means nobody wants to give you a seat.
I haven’t faced this dilemma since I was seventeen, finally latching onto a job as pizza deliverer, grateful to sit down before the music stopped. Three weeks later I crashed the car, broke my spine and spent a year in a back brace. Twenty years later, I wonder whether I’m about to experience a symbolically similar start to my new career.
I want to submit an essay I’ve laboured over for weeks, but there are precious few outlets for a 3500-word narrative non-fiction piece on the differences between camping in the 60’s and today. Rather than write for the market, I have pursued my passion and written for myself. It occurs to me that perhaps I’ve approached this writing thing from the wrong angle.
Unwilling to admit defeat, I stare grimly at my computer; in desperation I spot something called the Griffith Review. There is a link on their website labelled ‘Contributors’, and I click on it, hoping to read their guidelines and see that they are crying out for humorous first-person camping romps with occasional forays into deeper philosophical terrain.
Instead I am greeted with a long list of smiling, smug contributors to previous issues, all with intimidating credentials; multiple degrees, books authored, universities chancellored, awards aplenty. In the pre-dawn murk their smiles seem to say ‘We got a seat, and now there’s none left. And that music you’re hearing? That’s the coda, buddy.’
I decide to cut back on the coffee; it’s making me paranoid.
My only connection with Griffith University is that, up until six months ago, I cleaned the carpets and chairs of their Gold Coast campus. Terrible mould problems there – it’s the constant temperature that does it. Unchanging conditions, a sealed environment, lack of fresh air – presto! Mould city.
While scrubbing mouldy lecture-theatre chairs I’d read the latest course information brochures, and imagine what it would be like to learn how to be a historian, a biochemist, or a psychologist. Anything’s better than donning the face mask and scrubbing mould. It’s futile anyway – once you’ve got mould, you’ve got it for good.
Steam-cleaning the library carpets was the best – at 2am you’ve got the whole place to yourself, and during smoko can pick up any book you like. Cheap way to get an education…and a great way to take your mind off the acres of carpet yet to clean. Of course, you can read all you like and still not get that piece of paper that the world recognises as a qualification – that proves you have experience and helps you make those contacts.
With the night battering on the library windows and the long, high-walled avenues of paper thoughts leading off into shadow, I’d wonder if the students knew how lucky they were. To be guaranteed a seat against that day when the music stops, as it always does. I never asked them, because when you’re a cleaner you can’t – it’s too hard to hear anything over the high-pressure vacuum.
Being a cleaner breaks your heart a little, because your work is undone in a day, as though you were never there. You can’t do it for the passion, for yourself – you do it for the paycheque. Keep your head down and do the job – there’s a lot of carpet to clean. Save your passion for smoko, when you can imagine yourself as anyone you want for a while…a historian, a biochemist, a psychologist…maybe even a full-time writer.
Silence fills the vacuum of my new life, my writing life. Without the roar of the machine, I can hear the song ending. There’s got to be a chair out there…one that isn’t mouldy. Head down, that’s the key. From now on when I write, I’ll do it right; for the paycheque. Save my passion for smoko - too much high pressure otherwise.
It is 6:30am, and the sun is rising.
Time to do the job.
Ben Allmon is finishing a book about his 1000km, 50-day walk along the NSW coast to promote his debut album - a tale of sand, songs, and untimely erections.
Sam van Zweden was Writers Bloc’s Online Editor from 2013 - 2015. A Melbourne-based writer and blogger, her work has appeared in The Big Issue, Voiceworks, Tincture Journal, Page seventeen, and others. She’s passionate about creative nonfiction and cross stitch. She tweets @samvanzweden.