by Alison Clifford
When I was little I wanted to be an astronaut. I don’t know that I really understood what that entailed, apart from going into space. Space was cool, and I wanted to be there. My parents, bless them, never attempted to make my younger self see reason – after all, I get motion sickness watching a boat on TV. I would never had handled rocket travel!
After that wore off, I wanted to be a vet (you have to study how many years? Hmm, no), then as my violin playing took hold, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra was in my (not unreasonable) sights, and finally teaching music.
So what did I do when I finished school? I joined the Royal Australian Air Force, and never once regretted it. That I served during a time of peace probably made a difference…
Not once did I ever consider writing for a living.
For someone who used to spend lunch time in the school library scribbling away at her stories and was once given the back-handed compliment of ‘is this is your own work, it’s very good’ on a poem assignment, I’m surprise I never considered it. It’s not even that I didn’t consider it, I never realised it was an option. I don’t think my parents would have tried to turn me from a career in writing, but when I look back, I don’t think I ever told them I wrote.
I think it’s hard for teenagers to make a decision about careers. There’s enough going on in their lives without throwing such a momentous decision into the mix. I was lucky enough to have a brother who served in the Army, and I had spent time in the Army Reserve, so I knew I’d like the Defence Forces. I loved the disciplined and structured life, and there were opportunities to do things most people can’t. Okay, so I had to turn down the chance of a joy-flight in a Macchi because I knew I’d spend the whole time throwing up, but I was part of the first all-female guard of honour, and was also colour orderly for the Queen’s colours. And the Defence Forces was a solid, regular job.
That’s where I think writing never occurred to me as a job. We were always encouraged to think of career options that would give us steady work, and writing – especially creative writing – is not a reliable earner.
Most authors don’t spend all their time writing books. Most have to do other things to support themselves: journalism, blogging, teaching and mentoring, and many run editing and proofreading business. A lot of writers I know are like me – they have full time jobs and write in their spare time, and the work they do is diverse.
Of course there are the writers who have turned their work careers into a platform for fiction writing. Kathy Reichs is just one example of this. She is a forensic anthropologist in her ‘day job’, and the creator of Temperance Brennan – her books the basis for the Bones TV series.
When I did finally start writing, I had to make a decision about how seriously I wanted to take it. I thought about doing creative writing through Open University and also investigated other course options that weren’t quite as long, detailed, and expensive! In the end I decided that I didn’t want that kind of pressure on my writing. I didn’t want to feel that I had to push myself to write a commercially appealing book, one that would get me a contract and enough royalties to make the effort and time worthwhile. And then have to try to follow it up with another book, and another. I wanted to write what appealed to me, what I felt passionate about, and gain satisfaction from being creative my way.
I have a great job and I work with fantastic people who support my writing. It’s not a job I would have ever dreamed of doing when I left high school, or ever considered before I was offered the chance to try it (Work in payroll? But I don’t do numbers!). Like the RAAF, I’ve never regretted it, and it’s given me the stability to do what I want with my writing.
Do I regret not thinking of writing as a career option when I was young? No. Writing has come into my life again at the perfect time. I have no regrets, just lots of stories to tell! And I can do it my way.
And it's never too late to try something new.
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