Sometime during this last week (look, I’m sorry, but things have been busy, and it’s the Summer Holidays. Don’t expect me to remember which day is which…) I went along to the latest PWAC social evening. PWAC, as you regular readers will know, is the Professional Writers Association of Canada , and I’m a member of the Vancouver Chapter, which makes us sound more like Hell’s Angels. Anyway, we meet in the salubrious surroundings of the False Creek Yacht club:
With the weather the way it is, and the view being so good…:
……it’s hard to be maudlin about the struggles of life as a writer. Especially with the company on hand.
I think I’ve mentioned before that I’m in an interesting position at PWAC – I’m the only playwright (or at least, the only playwright who’s attended the meetings I’ve been to) and the others have different skills and niches in the writing world. Two meetings ago I sat with a group who were mostly Technical Writers, something I’d heard about but never investigated. Technical writing is hard work, by the sound of things, but it could be just the thing to suit you if you are good at immersing yourself in new subjects, enjoy interviewing people and are dedicated enough to produce top quality copy to a deadline. What baffled me, as a butterfly writer (I do some of this, drift about a bit and do some of that…projects get finished and started in no particular order…) was the notion of diving into an entirely new subject, learning and absorbing huge quantities of information which is then repackaged for an instruction manual, a policy document, that sort of thing, and then moving on to an entirely different job. One lady spoke of her exciting time writing policy for a casino group, despite having previously had no interest in gambling, and then moving on to a firm that built helicopters. In that situation, I thought, you have to love the process, have to get all your satisfaction from the way you work. I also spoke extensively with Steve Bain, who’s written eleven books (and had them published) but was less enthusiastic about the process than you might think: “It can take years for the books to begin to make money..” he said, ‘and the production process is months of hard work and deadlines.” He wasn’t complaining, just explaining, but it again highlighted a point I hadn’t thought about before – even writing a non-fiction book can be a slog, and it doesn’t guarantee an instant return.
Last week I arrived a little late, missing a big portion of the social side, but I did get to speak to the brilliant and brave Jackie Wong who’s recently gone freelance. There’s no doubting her talent and enthusiasm, so I’m hoping she can find the writing jobs she deserves.
So what’s the point of this socialising? Is it to get away from the lonely life of the writer, plugging away behind the desk, staring out the window and only communicating with real people via email and phone? Well, partly, yes. Claire Sowerbutt said that she’d been working all through the week up till 11.30pm every night, and this was the one evening she allowed herself a break. Freelancing, whatever your field, means you have to work hard on finding work even when you’re already working. Every day I wake up and thank God I’m a playwright. So we get together, sit in the sun and talk about jobs we’ve had, cheques we’ve chased, stories we’ll write one day when a: someone will pay us for them or b: the people involved are dead or unable to litigate. For me, every social evening is a kick in the butt, a reminder of how hard these REAL writers are working to find work, to publicise themselves, to get paid for doing the thing they love. It shows me that despite my decade of writing success, I’m still a dilettante, still only playing at writing for a living. I can’t say for sure what it is the others get from it, but there’s certainly a feeling that it’s a relief to find others in the same situation – to spend time with people who understand how frustrating it is to have to chase payment for work already done, people that understand love of writing doesn’t mean accepting ten cents a word but holding out for serious recompense. That even though you are building castles in the air at your lonely desk, it’s a job. And sometimes, it’s a vocation.
The modus operandi of the technical writer is actually very similar to that of an actor. In approaching a role, professional actors will frequently absorb huge volumes of background material, in addition to the text itself, to get comfortable with the character (or uncomfortable, if it’s that sort of role). However, ask them about the subject a few weeks after the performance has ended, and they will know very little – residual knowledge of the subject seems to depend on the purpose for which the information was gathered.