I had an interesting conversation with a friend at the weekend about MONEY. A thorny topic. Although the details are not relevant, she was pointing out to me the discrepancy between my attitude, and that of certain friends in the (ahem) legal profession. She had been bemoaning the relative paltriness of payment which she was receiving for a week's consultancy work as a seasoned professional in her particular area of expertise. I had done a quick tally and found that it was roughly equivalent to the sum that writers are paid for a week's tutoring at the Arvon Foundation, and which is considered to be pretty reasonable remuneration. 'I'd do it!' I told her. It was, incidentally, roughly equivalent to the sum that most writers - other than a favoured few - are paid as an advance for books which have taken/may well take several years to write. But hey, we are all volunteers and mustn't grumble.
What was amusing was that she then had the same conversation with a group of lawyers who pointed out that nobody could be expected to work for such rubbish money. Which possibly serves to explain why we are still such a divided society!
However, the point of this posting lies elsewhere. Some weeks ago a friendly journalist asked me what I thought about a recent advertisement for a poet in residence and I had, somewhat rashly perhaps, agreed to be quoted in that I thought the sum of money on offer was paltry. So did every other experienced writer of my acquaintance, although this is possibly because most of us have been made cynical by age and poverty.
The residency purported to pay for a 40 hour week for 9 months, for £13500 (pro rata)
But while £18000 per annum is a reasonable starting salary for a graduate, it is not a full year's salary these days for anyone with even a limited amount of professional expertise and experience and yet that was what they were advertising for - somebody with a substantial body of work.
I pointed out that shelf stacking would be a better option. A colleague, more in sorrow than in anger, pointed out that the residency was much better paid than that - but I'm not so sure. So called 'replenishment managers' (wonderful term!) for Tesco can command £22,000 with all kinds of extra benefits. And they don't need to be seasoned professionals with a substantial body of published work either.
Now I love poetry, and I'm by no means averse to working for very little or even for free when everyone is in the same boat and when it's in a worthy cause. I've done it countless times. But many years of struggling to earn a living have also taught me that the commercial sector tends to take us at our own valuation.
Now all of us would have been delighted to work for a fixed 2.5 days per week for the sum of money on offer. I do it myself for another organisation, helping students with their academic English, and thinking myself very lucky indeed to have the job. It's generous, it's challenging and enjoyable, but it doesn't expand outside those very fixed part time boundaries. What I do with the rest of the week is my business. In fact - mostly - I write! For hours and hours!
So the problem, I think, lies in the pretence that this is a sum of money which covers a full week's work of 40 hours. It isn't and it doesn't. But the result of pretending that it does, is that the boundaries all too easily become blurred. And quite soon, the work for the host organisation somehow seems to expand to fill more and more of those 40 hours.
Sadly, the general consensus about so called full time creative writing fellowships (and this from a cross section of experienced writers including myself who have worked in them over a number of years) is that few of us have ever managed to do much worthwhile writing while engaged on them, partly because too much creative energy is involved elsewhere but mostly because such fellowships invariably expand to fill just about the whole week.
I'm sure whoever has got the job will find it a stimulating experience but they would have to be youngish and mortgage free, or retired or with some other means of support, ie a non freelance husband or wife. I think many administrators don't get to hear this side of things, because writers tend to keep it to themselves, or moan about it in online groups. But the feeling is very general and is one of the reasons why so many of us feel that the whole concept of writers in residence needs to be revamped. It would be infinitely better for the writers if they functioned more along the lines of the few fellowships that are content to pay only for the time devoted to the organisation. A fair day's work for a fair day's pay, and no pretence made that the fees involved can begin to cover a full working week. Host organisations would just have to get used to treating writers like any other professional consultant, and forego the warm glow of feeling that they were giving something away. A business arrangement, not a charity. The whole concept needs drastic revision.