Check Yourself: Surviving on the $$ of a Full-Time Creative

Being a writer can be incredible and fulfilling, but it can also feel solitary and a little bit terrifying. How do you navigate working alone, finding a community, dealing with your mental health, finding work, and coping when the money just ain't flowing? CHLOE PAPAS, an experienced journalist and writer, answers all of these questions in Check Yourself, a column on navigating the pitfalls (and the spoils!) of the writing life.

Painting by  Anna Valdes

Painting by Anna Valdes

Q: How do you transition to full-time creative work and still earn enough to support yourself?

A: Dear Creative Transition,

Ah, the million dollar question.

I think you are probably talking about freelancing as a creative, so I am going to be completely and utterly frank with you because I think that’s what you would want. I’m not sure what type of writing you do, but I can tell you that you probably can’t survive on it alone. It’s a harsh and sad truth.I hope that reality changes sometime in the very near future but for now, it’s a reality that we have to navigate.

The average online article for Australian publications pays somewhere between $80-300 per piece, and hundreds of writers are pitching those publications each week. Print pays better but can be incredibly difficult to get into. Literary journals are a fantastic byline with often-excellent editorial support but pay a small fee. If you mostly write fiction or poetry, your income opportunities are even slimmer. Money is something that our industry is only just beginning to whisper about, which - I believe - is one of the reasons why publications and companies have been able to pay us writer types so badly for such a long time.

I’m not interested in hushed conversations, so, to give you an idea of the earnings of a freelance writer with around five years experience here are my stats for six months of full-time creative work.

From July-December 2016, I made $8,519 from journalism and writing work. Add freelance copywriting jobs, some social media management, and web content = $12,790. Assuming I at least doubled those numbers, I’d make around $42k for the financial year. That’s without paying tax, and expenses. For the amount of work I did (and let me tell you, I hustled every single day), that income wasn’t feasible for me - and I now juggle a part-time day job in communications with freelance work.

But, Creative Transition, I don’t know the circumstances of your question. Maybe that income is feasible for you. Or maybe you have a partner with a salary that can help to support you both, or a trust fund, or you’ve recently been awarded a hefty grant. Maybe you’re still living at home for a little while longer, or you have absolutely no debts or heaps of savings, or you have a connection in the industry who can get you a regular and well-paying column or copywriting gig. If those things aren’t part of your reality, here is my biggest recommendation: make sure that you have a side gig.

You don’t need to live the draining corporate life, but you do need to earn enough money to keep yourself financially (and mentally) stable. Working in hospitality or retail a few shifts a week can be a good way to achieve some level of financial stability, and to ensure that you are still getting out of the house and meeting new people. Plus, having another gig to fall back on can be vital during the weeks when your creativity is a little drained, or when writing jobs are few and far between.

Lastly, find your people. Having a community around you while you’re freelancing, or when you’re writing in the wee hours of the morning after your day job, is vital. Writing can be an isolating trade. Having people to talk to when the going gets tough will make all the difference. There are a whole bunch of writers groups on Facebook (this one, for young Australian writers, is great) and they are full of people who are more than willing to provide advice, contacts, and swap stories. Twitter is a goldmine for writers too, and writers festivals are always a great way to meet new creatives who might live nearby.

You can absolutely do this, Creative Transition. Gather your tools, clear your mind, and start making plans.  

Keep your eyes peeled for the next installment of CHECK YOURSELF, coming out tomorrow.

Chloe Papas is a writer, journalist and editor based in Victoria via Perth. She spent a few years working as a journalist for the ABC before turning to the freelance life. Her work has been featured in publications like SBS, Overland, Kill Your Darlings, Daily Life, Vice and Junkee.