When you are trying to carve a career as a writer, it can feel like you are competing with everyone – especially since a lot of writing opportunities are literally competitions so, um, you sort of are – but in truth, other writers can be the best friends you can have.
Because one of the fastest ways to make yourself unhappy is to view yourself in competition with other writers / creatives for a slice of an increasingly small pie. Oh, it’s an obvious temptation. Leaving aside the natural tendency in any area of life to compare up rather than down – to think, ‘I’m hard done by because my house isn’t a mansion’ rather than ‘I’m lucky I don’t live in a shack’ – the creative industries are rife with the fuel for comparison and competition.
This is down to a whole raft of factors. An industry that fetishizes youth and the new and is always looking for the Next Cool Thing, meaning that even if you do make it, your moment in the sun can be fleeting. A job market flooded not just by experienced competitors but by plenty willing to work for free or next to nothing, with an ever-downward pressure on prices. A dwindling number of the kind of entry level jobs that used to see people get a toehold in the industry, and a decreasing number of full-time paid writing jobs. A publishing industry that still favours white, upper/middle class men and is increasingly dominated by celebrities cashing in on their names rather than a commitment to nurturing talent. And those are just the first things I thought of.
But… you can’t fix any of those things. At least not right now, at least not from where you are. And yes, I think you should advocate for fairness and access at every stage of your journey, not just if you are one of the few lucky enough to one day get a platform where your voice can effect real change. But you also can’t paralyze yourself with all the bad stuff to the extent you can’t see any of the good.
So, given that the world is terrible and the market is terrible and the industry is terrible and the economic outlook is terrible… doesn’t it make sense not to face it alone?
Confession: I am not averse to professional jealousy. I have been known to snarl angrily at the smug tweet from someone blessing their luck when they should be blessing their parents’ bank account. I have felt the bitter sting of ‘but WHY are they successful when I am better?’ – sometimes when it’s not really true, which is bad, but it’s even worse when it genuinely is. But if there’s one thing that my career has taught me, over and over again, is the best thing you can do is remember that in the main, other writers are your team, not your competition.
Sometimes, this is true in the most literal sense. If you can and are eligible, join the relevant professional organisation for your role. This can be a ‘traditional’ union like the entertainment industry’s Bectu, The Writers Guild (which represents writers in the entertainment industry, including theatre, TV, radio and video games) or the National Industry of Journalists – organisations set up with the very purpose of defending the interests of their members. The Society of Authors offers a range of benefits such as contract vetting and discounts on professional insurance, but also lobbies on issues that affect authors and the publishing industry. It’s easy to think of writers as being isolated and individualistic – sometimes deliberately so – but in some ways this makes it more important, not less, that we have access to collective bargaining and lobbying.
There are also many smaller and / or more informal groups, some of which may be more specifically targeted to your niche or your needs, so it’s worth doing some research on what support is out there and available to you.
But if that’s the macro level, on a micro level, it’s important to see your fellow writers and creatives as on the same side and not as your competitors or, worse, your enemies. I’m not saying you have to like everyone (and I’m certainly not saying you should give people a free pass for bad behaviour), but in general, approach your relationships with other writers – whether in person or online, whether fleeting and casual or permanent and in-depth – as an alliance not a battle.
I’ve seen this time and again in my own life. Some of my biggest supporters – personally and professionally – are other writers. Sometimes this is hands on and direct; I have a select band of writer friends who will read my work and give me feedback, I have contacts who have commissioned or recommended me for gigs, or suggested that I apply for things. Sometimes, it’s more general – I find out about opportunities because someone is talking about them on Twitter, another writer shares or retweets a piece I wrote to their (often bigger) platform, or I even just find other writers to commiserate with when we are all feeling a bit down and frustrated.
There are a wealth of resources out there for writers and freelancers – many of them coming from those in the same industry. This can range from mentorships to workshops to free feedback on grant applications (one thing I have noticed in the pandemic is *lots* of creatives using their unwanted free time to give back and help others in the industry). The generosity our there is astonishing, and it’s everywhere if you look for it.
Of course, sometimes you need to view this support with caution. If you’re an attractive 20 year old, maybe be wary of some middle aged guy who private messages you with an offer of ‘professional support’. Be wary of ‘unsolicited feedback’ that is just thinly-veiled jealousy or someone sticking their oar in for no reason (I once posted a picture of a final version of a book cover – ie, the cover that was already out in the world, so wasn’t going to be changed – and a young woman I didn’t know sent me a private message helpfully listing all the ways it didn’t work (which she knew because, she assured me, she was a ‘very visual person’) then ended the message saying she admired me and one day hoped to write a book. Um, maybe start by not torpedoing potential professional relationships with emails like that?). Don’t let your ambitions or insecurities blind you to behaviour or relationships or situations that are toxic or unhealthy, but also don’t be combative where you could be collaborative with much better results.
Sometimes this involves a little reframing. I found my own professional envy much easier to deal with when I made the mental shift from ‘but WHY are all my friends more successful than me?’ to, ‘wow, look at me with all my cool successful friends!’ The world is full of people willing to commiserate in your misery but less happy to celebrate your success, which often can actually be lonelier. Why not be the person who gets called to crack open the champagne, not just the one to share the shit stuff with?
Now I get that, as someone who has been doing this a long time and is (generally) confident in my abilities, I am coming to it with a more settled perspective and less hungry ambition than someone starting out, so in some measure it’s easy for me to say this. But I realised a long time ago, surrounded by talented and successful people as I am, that if I allowed myself to resent rather than celebrate that talent and success, I was losing out on some of the best relationships my life could offer. I like my friends: why wouldn’t I be pleased for them? An why wouldn’t I, as a writer who enjoys good writing, not want to support the people who make it? I read more than I write, after all. Just makes sense to me…
Go, team! Ways to support other writers
Join a formal organisation: Do your research, obviously, but it’s really worth finding out what the best org for your business is and joining if you can. Many will offer reduced / limited membership for students or emerging artists.
Find an informal group: This could just be a local writing group, a networking meet up or online chat, but building a support network is one of the best things you can do.
Don’t just big up your mates: Yes, support your friends – especially if you belong to under-represented groups that don’t have access to the same mainstream avenues of promotion others may have – but part of the problem with the creative industries is they are such mates’ clubs. Seek out and elevate voices from outside your circle.
Spend thoughtfully: Obviously, like what you like and enjoy what you enjoy – I have a fondness for a whole bunch of crime series written by straight white guys that no commitment to diversity will ever shake – but it’s worth directing at least some of your spend where it will make some difference. Buy a book by an indie author or direct from an indie press or small, non-chain bookshop. Chuck a fiver in a KickStarter or buy someone a Ko-fi. Go see a play you’ve never heard of or check out a smaller venue that supports new writing. Make a conscious effort to read outside your comfort zone – if nothing else, it’ll make you a better writer.
Remember it’s not just about money: Maybe you can’t afford to buy that book or a ticket to that show or support that cause right now, but your retweet might get it in front of someone who can. That review you wrote on Goodreads or Amazon – even if it’s only a line long – might help an author sell more books. Telling your mates about a play you saw or a writer you like could do more good than any advertising campaign. Sharing the word about opportunities that don’t apply to you might expose them to someone who can benefit. I’m not saying turn your life or your social media into a platform for other people, but equally don’t underestimate how much such small supportive gestures can matter.
Look for ways to help, not just benefit: Not a bad motto for life, not a bad motto for writing. And with a little thought, you might be surprised to see how you can use whatever influence you have to help others. Sure, you need to protect your own creative time, and sometimes that will mean being ‘selfish’ – I know famous authors who could spend their whole lives answering emails, and are asked to donate more books than they sell as ‘charity prizes’. But in the long-term, most of us can contribute something – no matter how small – to helping both other individuals and the wider creative industries as a whole.
I mean, I’m not remotely well-known or famous, but I have been doing this a long time, so I try to make myself available for chats or a coffee with newer writers who want to pick my brains, such as they are. I pass on professional contacts and opportunities (where appropriate). I’ve helped people rejig their CVs to make them more employable. I try to share other writers’ work n my social media, to read diversely and talk about authors I enjoy. In my role as a theatre critic, I’ve made an effort to seek out and review work that might not normally get a lot of exposure and been vocal in my praise when I liked it. It’s not a lot, but it’s what I can do, so I do it. Ask yourself where you can do the same.
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