Showing posts with label family. Show all posts
Showing posts with label family. Show all posts

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

On literature and life: public writers, private lives

Island #135, pp.42-43: note the schmick design
Earlier this month, Ruth Quibell and I had a feature in The Age, on the lives of writers.

The feature was an extract from a much longer essay in Island magazine, which is now out in bookshops: 'Public writers, private lives'.

The essay is something of a labour of love for the two of us. We are not only writers, but also writers who're married -- to each other. And both of us have, over the years, combined writing, paid work and parenting.

Prompted by Island's editor, Matt Lamb, we wanted to find out how other writers negotiate income, workload, family, friends and (perhaps most crucially) identity.

To this end, we spoke to twenty writers from Australia and abroad: Tony Birch (Aus), Alison Croggon (Aus), Amy Gray (Aus), David Lebedoff (USA), Peter Timms (Aus), Helen Hayward (Aus), Clint Greagen (Aus), Jennifer Mills (Aus), Benjamin Law (Aus), Alain de Botton (UK), John Armstrong (Aus), Charlotte Wood (Aus), Robyn Annear (Aus), David Francis (USA), Rachel Power (Aus), Tom Farber (USA), Dawn Barker (Aus), Emma Darwin (UK), Maria Tumarkin (Aus), and Matt Lamb (Aus) himself. They were generous with their time and insights, and we're grateful for both. Here's a sample:
“I have that faraway glazed look that writers often have, especially on holiday.” – essayist and broadcaster Alain de Botton 
Writers, however solitary their practice, are rarely alone. They have spouses, partners, children, parents – each of whom brings generosities and obligations, anxiety and contentment. These intimacies inhabit and, in some cases, justify, the author’s imagination. At the very least, these relationships demand an outward sensitivity at odds with the aloof stereotype. 
Some of the established writers we spoke to have little difficulty switching off from the demands of family life. For Alison Croggon this habit of “focusing in the midst of chaos” is one she cultivated early on in life. “I could be oblivious,” says Croggon, of her kids’ early years, “until I heard THAT scream (or THAT ominous silence) which meant I had to go and deal with something.” For Thomas Farber, this problem has practical solutions: “industrial ear protectors to muffle sound. I never answer the phone.” 
Others are more divided about the relative value of writing and parenting. “I refuse to switch myself off from my friends,” declares historian Maria Tumarkin. “I do not leave my son in afterschool care. I put relationships before writing.” Helen Hayward has arrived at a similar resolution. For her “own mental health” she wants to take care of her family and home “in order to keep what I care about buoyant”, while also respecting her work of writing “which I fit in whenever possible”. At this point, neither family nor writing is more important than the other. 
Importantly, parenthood and writing need not be at odds. Helen Hayward, for example, writes to better understand her family, while novelists Dawn Barker and Emma Darwin say having children allowed them to write in the first place. “I don’t think I’d have written,” reflects Darwin, “if I hadn’t had children, even though that’s not what I write about at all.” Darwin says her children made her “think about things for the first time.” Dawn Barker says having children has given her the emotional space to start writing: the break she needed from her demanding career as a psychiatrist. She takes regular time away from her young children to write, and is a “much more satisfied and happier mum” with a creative vocation she is proud of. She escapes the pram in the hall by working at the local library. 
A handful of writers also believe that the profession’s flexibility leaves them more available to their children. For columnist and sole parent, Amy Gray, writing allows her to be “physically available”, including walking her daughter to and from school. A parent of young adult children, Alison Croggon similarly reflects that she and playwright husband Daniel Keene were “much more available as parents than we would have been if we had had conventional jobs... I think it made a very great difference, especially during the teenage years.” Contrary to the trope of unhappy writers’ children, Croggon’s recollection of parenting is one of fun: “We’ve always had a lot of fun together as a family because we’ve never stopped talking to each other and being interested in what each of us are doing.” Importantly, this is as much about marriage as it is about parenting.
The digital copy is for subscribers only, but Island is available in good bookshops, like Readings. Of course, you can always subscribe.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Writing on empty: on writing income and identity

Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre paying the bills
Ruth Quibell and I have a piece in today's Saturday Age: 'Writing on Empty'.

It's an essay on the writing life; on income and identity, and how the two are entangled.

The essay is an extract from a longer feature Ruth and I wrote for issue 135 of the literary magazine Island, which will be launched next week in Hobart. In the meantime, here's a sample:
The anxiety of uncertain literary income is not radically different to that of many contractual or casual workers, jostling for cash. But writers often earn less for their labour, including years before ''making it''. ''I'd have to make a hell of a lot of money,'' writes blogger and forthcoming non-fiction author Clint Greagen, ''to catch up on the hours I've put into it over my lifetime.'' And there is often an expectation that writers will work for exposure rather than cash. Witness the recent outcry after Crikey's new arts site, The Daily Review, was launched without a budget for paying freelance contributors. 
Indeed, even successful authors are routinely asked to work for free. It is not unusual to have a speaking event staffed by producers, directors, publicists and sound engineers, all earning a wage - while the author is supposed to pay for groceries with applause and a bottle of wine. 
Whatever the cultural background, the miserly rewards can lead to frustration. ''Writers,'' Melbourne novelist and academic Tony Birch says bluntly, ''are the most exploited workers in the publishing industry.'' Novelist Jennifer Mills, a vocal advocate for writers' financial rights, agrees. She started the @paythewriters Twitter account to highlight the industry's stinginess. ''I'm an enthusiastic volunteer for projects I care about,'' says Mills, ''but that doesn't forfeit my rights as a worker.''

Monday, September 26, 2011

Work and Life: Getting it Right

I've a piece in today's Canberra Times, 'The work/life divide: time to think about getting it right'.

I'm exploring the dangers of imbalance, and the need to start early: teaching kids that career, marriage and parenthoods are negotiated, not divinely decreed.  A sample:
Work/life balance is not only an issue for early middle-age and older. On the contrary, it starts young, in upbringing and schooling. Kids deserve to be taught, as early as possible, that these choices are choices – and not predetermined stages of life. The path from schooling to career, for example, can be swift and simple. But there is no shame in a little dawdling, idling or vocational recalcitrance. Blithely loafing from one abortive career to another is one thing, but mindful curiosity is another. Ethics and philosophy classes might help – a little less indoctrination, a little more critical thinking. But most importantly, children will also learn by example: parents who demonstrate their willingness to do things differently. Swapping chores, forgoing absurd mortgages, turning off the television and work mobile, engaging in genuine, open debate about finances or employment – each is a small education in value. We might fail, but our failure may be avoided for the next generation. Work/life juggling is best developed by learning to balance early.
(Photo: Darjac)

Friday, April 1, 2011

Can a Job Really Be Worse Than Unemployment?

I've a piece on the ABC, 'Can a Job Really Be Worse Than Unemployment?'

I'm looking at the mental health costs of bad employment, and suggesting how we might improve the conditions of employees.

Yes, I know: I don't have a real job.  I'm one of Susan Johnson's 'other half', who give up income for vocation.

But a workplace riddled with anxiety, bitterness and regret doesn't help anyone.  So I'd like to see this changed. Here's the text:
Can a job really be worse than unemployment? ‘Idle hands do the devil’s work,’ says the old saying.

The implication is obvious: when we’re unemployed, all our energies are channelled into destructive or wasteful pursuits, rather than useful ones. This is one of the reasons for the stigma of unemployment: the jobless are often caricatured as restless, dangerous folks, without proper outlets for their impulses. Unemployment is expected to be uncomfortable, riddled with ennui or self-loathing.
But recent research gives grounds for caution. According to new study by ANU’s Centre for Mental Health, a bad job can be worse than being on the dole. Having analysed data from more than 7000 respondents, over seven years, researchers discovered that those in the worst employment conditions were more prone to mental health problems than those looking for work. 
What is a ‘bad job’? Obviously some of this is a combination of luck and personal eccentricity. As a philosopher, I’d make a poor infantryman – questioning orders is my reason for being. But what the Centre means by bad employment is something more specific: a combination of difficulty, demand, pay and authority.

Many ‘high-powered’ employees cope well with complex jobs because they have the power and resources to manage them. Alongside this, they have the status and wealth to make it worthwhile: esteem from colleagues and the general public, and plenty of cash and its trappings.

By contrast, some workers have high responsibility – for staff, budgets, outcomes – but not enough authority to do the job properly. On top of this, they’re frequently on call outside office hours, and permanently reachable by mobile phone, iPad, laptop. And the pay often does not match the effort, anxiety and intrusion of domestic life. So they face continual uncertainty in the workplace, interruption at home, and little wealth to justify the toll.
As a result, many of these employees are profoundly unsatisfied with their jobs. So much so that, for many, moving off unemployment into gainful work is worse than the dole, with its assumed idleness, and unsubtle forms of coercion and surveillance. This can easily lead to a Catch-22 scenario, where those with flagging mental capacities are unable to pursue more rewarding and secure jobs, which further diminishes their psychological well-being, and so on.

Meanwhile, their peers in better jobs often grow increasingly more capable, wealthy, confident. One of the foundations of an egalitarian society – social mobility – is thereby undermined. Folks cannot escape their ruts, and are stuck in jobs and lifestyles they loathe.
This is detrimental for organisations, as work practices suffer from staff distraction and tension. Demoralisation also hurts families, as stressed workers take their problems home. There is no easy solution. While wise businesses often pay handsomely for good staff, many will resist proper remuneration. The false simplicity of the bottom line blinds them to the deeper and broader costs.

But companies can certainly do more to avoid the economic, psychological and social costs of employment stress. Most obviously, proper training. Investing heavily in staff education in institutions and on-site gives employees the skills to properly manage their workplace. This also justifies giving them more autonomy: they’re not drones who need micro-managing, they’re capable employees whose authority ought to match their responsibilities.

The government also needs to get on board with this, investing in properly-regulated and subsidised education, so staff aren’t skimping on training before hitting the workplace. Education isn’t a ‘free ride’, it’s a long road to good employment and citizenship.
Perhaps more importantly, some companies need to seriously rethink their approach to flexibility and family. Working parents do not always avail themselves of flexible work arrangement, but businesses can do more to resource and promote family-friendly options. Good leaders promote diligence, but they also demonstrate the importance of balance: work smart, not just hard. Unhappy families are unhealthy for everyone.
Good guidelines on technology are also necessary. Companies often police the obvious threats, like pornography. But there are more subtle threats to well-being. Research confirms the deleterious effects of technological addiction on mental health and productivity. Others suggest telecommunications devices are fraying family ties. Organisations might formally flag the possible psychological and social consequences of their tools. Managers, bosses and colleagues might also show restraint, avoiding intrusions like after-hours calls or emails.

Of course tight deadlines can require frantic last-minute conversations. But unrealistic planning and poor communication are equally to blame, and can’t be fixed by badgering harassed staff. 
Again, the problem isn’t hard work or ambition. It’s not even competition, which can be challenging, cultivating. It’s that staff lack the authority, security and rewards to make employment worthwhile.

Sometimes busy hands do the devil’s work too.
(Photo: Ronn)

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

'A balanced life holds amazing rewards'

I had a piece in the Sydney Morning Herald yesterday, 'You may have to work at it, but a balanced life holds amazing rewards'.

Prompted by the Australia Institute's 'Go Home on Time Day', November 24th, I'm highlighting the problems with overwork.  And I'm suggesting that, if some of us put as much work into work/life balance as we do into work, we might be better off.  A sample:
For Australian workers who are dissatisfied, harried and guilty, a re-evaluation might help. International studies suggest that many fathers, for example, don't work at home, even when businesses support it. Perhaps domesticity is frightening or dull. But we also conflate success with vocational achievement. This isn't unreasonable, as it's a source of recognition and pride.
But life as a whole is also a formidable achievement: marriage, parenthood, friendship, and our mercurial "inner world". It takes enormous skill, wisdom and diligence to get it all balanced. This isn't some blithe, hippie fantasy, it's freedom itself: cultivating a strong, clear-minded, many-sided character. If we put as many hours into this aspiration, as we do into labour, we'd be more healthy, focused and prolific – perhaps even happier.
(Photo: foundphotoslj)

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

'Empty pockets and wonky careers can provide a richer life'

I've a piece in today's Age, 'Empty pockets and wonky careers can provide a richer life'. I'm offering a defence of our part-time, low-income household, where I'm here more often as a father and husband.

I don't think this is possible for everyone - and I don't blame anyone for going the traditional route.

But I think it's important to defend this, our own kind of feminism. A sample:
I'm a feminist because I take my wife's selfhood seriously. It feels absurd writing this, but it's frightening how easily folks slip into separate ''roles'', rather than being a communicative, responsive couple.

I recognise that she's an educated, intelligent person with a vocation of her own - and she deserves to cultivate it. She's a loving mother who wants to see her kids between the hours of seven and seven. And, finally, she's a grown woman, who likes to spend time with her handsome husband.

Importantly, she sees me in similar terms. So instead of enforcing the separation of labour, we share the burdens and joys - in the interests of sanity and empathy. We both work part-time, look after the kids and do menial chores. We play, eat and work together. In this, feminism isn't an abstract ideology or slogan. It's a quality of the relationship.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Author at Work

"In-house research by the PR division confirms that regular approved employee fraternization with significant family stakeholders improves productivity by 35%, in line with strategic goals set by the productivity committee in the final Corporate Alignment Memorandum (CAM) of the previous financial year."

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Thank You

Just a quick 'thank you' to everyone in blogland for your supportive comments and emails.

2010 has not been a marvellous year so far. But a little goodwill, even over the intertubes, helps.

So here is a Lego undersea station, with submarine, submersible and mechanical squid - inspired by the back of a Lego box, but built to our own design.

It's our creative labour - appropriate, I hope, to humbly express our gratitude.