For the last six months or so, we’re been trying to make a point of taking one day off every week. Before that it wasn’t unusual for me to go two week and more between days off, and between August and December of last year, Tom mostly didn’t have any time off at all. Sometimes, with deadlines, this will be unavoidable, but we made the commitment to not live like it all the time.
It’s really hard, with a low income to feel entitled to time off. There is always more work that could be done – speculative, paid and unpaid. There are always more people who want me to just do a small thing for them. In practice ‘day off’ for me often means having some free hours to catch up on cleaning, tidying, laundry and so forth – which is not exactly like a day off, but is at least a rest for the brain. As a self-employed person, if I don’t work, I don’t earn. There is no paid leave, to get a day off each week I have to earn enough on the other six to cover it.
Holidays are even harder, having to earn enough to pay for the holiday and to pay for the time not working. This autumn we managed to take three consecutive days off to go and visit friends in Shrewsbury. It’s the most time off in one go I’ve had in years.
There are consequences to never getting a proper break – mental and physical exhaustion, never having time to re-charge batteries or seek inspiration, never having respite. Being on the go and run down all the time makes me more susceptible to illness and to depression. People are just not designed to run flat out all the time. It doesn’t do much for self esteem, either. The sense of poverty that comes with not feeling able to rest, the sense of being so much lesser than all the people who can have a week off, more than once in a year.
I’m able to feel like I can afford a day off each week because my economic situation has improved a bit, and Tom isn’t under a tough deadline at the moment. At first, I felt absolutely guilt ridden trying to take that day each week. I was uncomfortably aware of all the things I should be doing, and I felt there was no decent justification for me having this time off. I didn’t feel like I deserved it. I know how readily low income is ascribed to laziness and lack of effort, and I fear those judgements from other people. There have been times when people with considerable power of me were making those judgements. And of course being an author, the regular refrain of ‘you have a hobby, not a job’ makes it hard to say ‘but this is really tough’.
I’ve never been a full time author. I’ve always taken whatever paying work I could get alongside that, which has mostly been writing based, but not the kinds of things anyone would make a hobby of. People are quick to judge, and to assume, and to imagine they know. In reality what’s happened is that to get time off this year, I’ve really cut back on my writing. I’m much less creative than I was and I don’t give it priority. I have to be responsible and put the paying work first. I also have to be responsible and put my mental health further up the priority list – time off is necessary to stay functional and being functional is necessary for doing the paid work.
There’s a sense of loss in all of this, a loss of self, and of purpose. I don’t really know who I am at the moment. I can’t sustain the way I had been living, and because I can’t sustain it, writing books is getting to be very difficult. I’ve got about 2 hours each week with space and time earmarked for creative writing. That’s not a lot, but it is sustainable.
Creative people are judged by others in terms of what we earn – those of us who cannot make a living purely out of our creativity are routinely told it’s just a hobby and not taken seriously. Most creative people cannot afford to do it full time. There will be some people who will feel smug over the choice I’ve made when/if they find out. I certainly don’t have what it takes to be a commercial success, and in the absence of that, what I have is a hobby that I don’t have the energy to sustain and a calling I can barely answer most of the time.