When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up? I imagine you changed your mind fairly often, as you discovered the world around and fell in and out of love with aspects of it, but perhaps one desire was deep-rooted and pervaded through the years. For me, the dream of being a writer began very early: I was inspired by my grandmother, a published writer; I was immersed in books and reading thanks to my parents; and I had a governess, Zula, who was an amazing storyteller. Perhaps at times I toyed with the idea of being an actress or a ballerina, but I always returned to the writing dream.
Still, it was many years into adulthood before I realised that dream and became a full-time writer. I think for many of us the cherished childhood dream can fall by the wayside in a tough world where we must prioritise responsibility over passion and do what must be done to support the family. But we hold on to the dream, still, and it is what sustains us through the harder times.
Many dreams are hard to realise unless you do so quickly. If you want to be a professional sports player, for example, you need to follow that dream through childhood and adolescence; you can’t realise the dream later in life. But the beauty of the arts is that you can pick them up and develop your talent at any time in your life. This is especially the case with writing, in which having plenty of life experience can be a very positive attribute.
A recent survey of almost 15,000 British people by YouGov found that ‘author’ is the most desired job in the country. It was also the least unwanted job for respondents.
I wonder what it is that attracts people to the job? Certainly, it’s not financial reward: a survey carried out by Digital Book World found that nearly a third of published authors make less than $500 (£350) a year from their writing.
In fact, I think three aspects of being an author appeal:
- The prestige: Whenever someone asks me what I do for a living, and I reply that I am an author, his or her eyes invariably light up with interest, and respect. We do tend to respect creatives – those who put work into a creative endeavour. And writers over the years have been highly respected for their words and their wisdom, and their ability to create conversations and even sometimes change (just think of Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose book Uncle Tom’s Cabin is agreed by historians to have contributed to the outbreak of the American Civil War for the anti-slavery sentiment it stirred).
- The legacy. To write is to record a part of yourself for posterity. When you write, you leave a legacy for those you leave behind. As we age, that becomes a powerful driver. Writing is the passport to immortality, in a sense.
- The quiet life. Interestingly, second in the YouGov poll of most desired job was librarian (54%) and third was academic (51%). Writer, librarian and academic: what do these jobs have in common? A peaceful working environment! It seems that many people crave a quieter working life – the ability to withdraw from the hustle and bustle, and to have some peace and quiet. That says an awful lot about the evolution of the work industry.
The survey also found that women are 7% more likely to want to be an author than men, and 20% more likely to want to be a librarian. This is suggestive, perhaps, that women are more overwhelmed in the noisy, busy world of work, and seeking a role in which their work is meaningful and appreciated.
Having read about this survey, I feel more privileged than ever that I am an author. But then I did not fall into this job: I worked very hard to build it for myself. I wonder how many of respondents know the reality of being an author today, and how many have a picture in mind of the author of yesteryear, who was more ‘artiste’ than businessperson. I wonder how many see being an author as a wonderfully calm, romantic way to be. Certainly, there are times when that is the reality – but it is also a very demanding job, physically, emotionally and mentally, and requires a good deal of courage, commitment and faith. Still, it is very rewarding.
If we follow the results of this survey to their natural conclusion, then Britain is a nation dreaming of creating books, reading and caring for books, and studying. That is something to be very proud of indeed, and makes me glad that I chose long ago to make England my home.