Tag Archives: work

What some people think I do

Ah, the arts life, just swanning about doing nothing while people give me vast sums of money to support my decadent lifestyle.

I find it really curious how some people think the arts work, and all the recent commentary around AI has made it obvious just how many people out there think that creative people are elitist and lazy and don’t deserve to be paid for their work, or even allowed to work.

I wish with all my heart that the people who feel this way would sit down and write a novel, or an opera, or paint someone’s portrait, or go on stage and perform a play. It would be obvious to them fairly quickly at that point that there would be effort, skills and knowledge involved.

Whether a book is fiction or non-fiction there’s usually research involved, as well as planning and structuring. I prefer to make novels up as I go, but I do a lot of world building ahead of that, and I spend time on themes. I prefer character-driven stories, and it takes a while to create complex characters who can make that work. Then there’s the writing, the redrafting, the editing and the promoting. These days even big publishing houses expect authors to do most of the marketing. 

If all I did on this blog was try and sell people books, many of you would not show up to read anything – and rightly so. Relentless sales pitches aren’t interesting, and this is also true for social media. And so, in order to engage people, I end up creating and giving away a lot of content. This has worked as a strategy for me, but it does take time and energy, and not everyone can afford that. My fabulous co-writer David has massive health problems, leaving him with the option of writing or promoting, but no scope to do both. For those many creative people working full or part time jobs, the way marketing your own work also needs to be a full time job makes this whole industry really challenging.

We (The Hopeless, Maine team) do a lot of events because selling books directly works for us and because it’s a way of raising the profile of what we’re doing. Events are also work, performing at events requires rehearsing, being at events means promoting the event. I wish I could spend more time at events just being glamorous and floating about, but in practice, you’ll also find the better known musicians at events working their merch tables when they aren’t on stage, and putting in a lot of effort engaging with people.

Developing ideas takes time. I don’t want to write the kind of obvious, derivative fiction that could easily be replaced by an AI. So there are limits on how fast I can churn things out (5k words a day is my upper limit) , and how much time I need to spend just thinking about things. Unfortunately we have a culture that prizes looking busy, and is much less keen on people thinking about things. What you can do by rushing around trying very hard to look busy as a kind of performance art is not the same as what you can do with focused thought, but one of these things looks more convincing than the other, for a lot of people.

Music takes time, too. It takes hours of work to learn a piece and get it up to performance standards. It takes a lot of time to learn a script and to be able to perform it on stage. Art also takes time and isn’t created in a brief flurry of being magically talented. The image I’ve put at the top of this post is a Hopeless, Maine take on The Death of Chatterton. Drawing that image took Tom at least a day – which he can only do because he’s spent years honing his skills as a visual artist. Colouring it will have taken at least four hours, and that’s four hours of intense focus. 

Being creative is an excellent thing, and I want everyone to have time and resources to create whatever they want. Being a professional creator is actually quite a lot of work, and has a lot of the same work aspects of other jobs – we have admin, and tedious stuff that just has to be slogged through, and all the rest of it. The vast majority of people working in creative industries are paid poorly, no matter what their economic approach to the work is.

Humanity and technology

I have a recollection of a scene in a Star Trek NG film, where there was a comment on our relationship with machines. The speaker was making a complex textile piece and expressed the feeling that when we replace anything with technology, we reduce our humanity.

Certainly when things are made by hand, to be kept and cherished we have a very different relationship with them to items made industrially to be thrown away. Ideas of fashion and consumerism depend on having no longevity in our possessions. 

There are things machines do very well, and I find I’m wholly in favour of using technology for things we otherwise have no means of doing. Medical technology is an excellent case in point here. Using machines to make life possible and comfortable for people strikes me as being a really good idea. Using devices to do the bits of jobs that are efforty but don’t give you much is worth a thought. Cooking from scratch but having a food blender can make a lot more sense than having to hand mash or whisk everything. Having workarounds for things your body can’t do opens up more possibilities.

I love the internet, and I greatly appreciate the things computers allow us to do. Books work far better for being easier to distribute and I see no advantage in books being something you have to meticulously copy out by hand. Clearly sometimes the slowest way is not the best way.

It seems to me that there’s a question to ask here about whether mechanising a process gives us something truly helpful, or takes something away from us. I think it’s also worth asking to what degree the ‘mechanised’ things really are that, and to what degree work is actually being done by people obliged to work like machines. I’m thinking about workers in Amazon warehouses and clothing sweatshops here, to take some obvious examples. The way in which people are deployed to support tech driven industry can be brutal.

Clothes are to a large degree made by people. Mechanised clothes making involves dangerous work places, long hours and little pay. We haven’t spared anyone any drudgery or misery by this means. Factory floor work is often tedious and the environments are unpleasant – it’s not work I’ve done personally, but I know people who have. While mechanising can reduce the number of jobs in such spaces, it doesn’t result in nice working environments, necessarily, or well paid jobs, or meaningful jobs, which inclines me to think that we’re going about it all in entirely the wrong way.

What kind of work are we doing?

I’m currently contemplating the language of work, and whether it is in any way possible to decouple that from the concepts of capitalism. Work is intrinsic to capitalism, the whole system is built on the underpaid work and on the unpaid work that the poorest in society are obliged to do.

There are all kinds of things I do that involve effort, commitment and high standards that are not part of capitalism. I wonder how useful it is to tease these different kinds of work out from each other. I think it’s important to assert at the same time that there’s a great deal of unpaid work – domestic work and caring work especially, that are key to keeping capitalism grinding along. These unpaid forms of work are often undervalued in a system that only values people based on what they earn. Domestic work and care work are vital for the wellbeing of people, these aren’t just services provided to the economy.

Sometimes we talk about spiritual work. Anything that feels difficult and important, where we have to put in effort, it can be tempting to describe it in terms of work. We might put work into developing our skills, or into sustaining our relationships. We might work on creating community, and we might work on creating beauty. Work in the vegetable patch, or work on a blanket all have value in our lives, and some of these things will save us money even when they don’t get us paid.

I need to work on taking time off! What a splendid irony. And yet, with my brain infiltrated by capitalist concepts, putting that down is a job of itself. I note how we also use the language of work and jobs to express feelings about things we feel obliged to do but take no joy in. Perhaps that’s a key point for considering language use.

I’m going to have a play around with my own language use and see what happens. Perhaps I should think of some of this as investing in myself. There are places I can swap in words like development, creating, maybe even manifesting. I think it’s important territory to explore, because the words we use have such an impact on how we experience ourselves and the world. There would be a lot of perspective shifts happening between working on myself, and investing in myself and those terms suggest entirely different directions to move in.

Quiet Quitting is an abomination

When people talk about ‘quiet quitting’ what they mean is just doing the job you were paid to do. That’s a truly horrendous concept. Doing the job you were paid to do is doing your job. Going above and beyond is not something your employer is entitled to. Whether that’s unpaid overtime, being available when out of work when that isn’t in your contract, or anything else being extracted from you that you aren’t paid to do – that’s exploitation.

The dangled carrot is that this is the only way to progress. Doing the job you are paid to do is not enough to get you a pay rise or a promotion. That’s also appalling when you stop and think about it. The idea that your job should be more important than anything else in your life, and that your job should own you, is entirely vile. Unpaid overtime is wage theft. Most people aren’t following a calling, they just want to be able to afford to live. Asking everyone to work like they have a soul deep compulsion to do the job is unreasonable in the extreme.

Workplaces often try to save money by not replacing staff who leave, making those who remain pick up more than their share of the work. It’s exploitative. We’re seeing at the moment in UK transport what happens when a business runs on the assumption that employees can be pressured into working their days off to cover for colleagues who are ill. You can’t sustain that as a model, especially not for a public facing job during a pandemic. You can’t have people working their rest time and not have them get ill and burned out. Companies should employ enough people so that they can cope with illness and holiday leave, but far too many don’t. It’s not a lack of money – vast sums go to shareholders in this case.

I had a round some years ago when it became apparent that I’d got pretty good at the freelance job I was doing. It was suggested to me that my workload should therefore increase with no pay increase, because they were paying for my time. I was able to sit the relevant people down and explain that this is basically punishing someone for being good at their job and honest about what they are doing, and the whole thing was dropped. It helped that as a freelancer doing multiple jobs I was in a position where I could really quit if something became too much work for too little money. Of course, not everyone can do that.

Doing the job you are being paid to do, is doing your job. Don’t let anyone persuade you that they are entitled to more than that, or that you are a bad employee if you simply do what you’ve been contracted to do.

Being diseased

I’ve made some considerable effort not to get covid – I wear masks when I can (I get panic attacks so sometimes I can’t wear them). I’m vaccinated. I stay out of crowds and I don’t do much indoor stuff with people. But here we are, and it is in me and has been in me for a few days.

At this point there are no legal requirements for me to behave in any specific way. There is only advice, like working from home if I can. Little wonder that I have it. Part of the problem here is that we have a fundamentally broken system when it comes to work. We expect people to go to work when they are ill – spreading diseases of all kinds, and slowing recovery. Working when ill is horrible. The person who can just take a few days off and rest will recover faster. But, a lot of workplaces will punish you for doing that. Most people can’t afford to be unpaid or to lose their jobs over taking care of their health.

I feel grim, but not as grim as other things have made me feel in recent years. I’m very tired, but I was very tired anyway so it’s hard to know if this is new and extra very tired, or pre-existing very tired. My concentration is rubbish, but it’s mostly been rubbish this year.

I’m looking at how body stressors add to my experiences of panic. I’m starting to think that my panic experiences aren’t just silly things happening in my head for no reason, and that panic might be what my body does when it starts to feel dangerously under-resourced. I’m usually the first person to assume I’m making a fuss and taking a thing far too seriously, but here I am with covid and it is by no means the most ill I have felt this year. 

What if the panic isn’t an over-reaction? What if the panic isn’t something I need to learn how to control, but a genuine and reasonable response to hazards? What if the problem is one of being under-resourced, not one of just making a fuss? Everything I’ve encountered on the mental health side assumes that panic is an over-reaction, and that the problem is the panicking, not whatever caused it. Last week I had panic attacks caused by being in more body pain than I could take. Maybe the fact of the panicking isn’t the problem here. Maybe I’m not just making a fuss over nothing, and maybe that’s even relevant when the things going on are more about mental health as well.

The Cult of Jobs

In theory, jobs are the answer to poverty, and to the rising cost of living. ‘Get more work’ our government tells us here in the UK. We are encouraged to move into better paying jobs, work more jobs and work more hours. It’s preposterous when you stop and look at it. Time is finite. We do all have to sleep. No one should be asked to work all the hours there are so as to be able to afford food.

It is true that automation and the cunning use of computers will result in fewer jobs. Checkout work is a case in point here. I see people online talking about how we should not use self service checkouts because it will cost jobs. However, I’ve done checkout work and can vouch for it being low paid, tedious, that you get a lot of abuse from customers, and that hauling things over a bar code reader is not intrinsically rewarding. How much better the world would be if those of us who can did that work ourselves and we didn’t require so many people to do it for us.

We could use technology to get rid of boring, repetitive, soulless jobs. We could even stop with the nonsense that jobs and more work are the answer to poverty. It’s interesting to note that in The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists (1914) exactly the same argument was being made by the bosses and politicians in the story and that the author was clearly not persuaded. More than a hundred years later, jobs have not saved people from hunger in the UK.

Jobs themselves are not a solution to poverty. More hours working equate to a lower quality of life. Paying people a living wage for the work they do would be a better place to start. We could afford to question our whole culture around work and working, because increasingly it makes no sense and leaves too many people disadvantaged. We can’t keep trying to grow our economies into more just arrangements – it’s not what capitalism does. We can’t afford the damage relentless growth causes and our planet just can’t take any more of it. Increasingly the Cult of Jobs looks like a death cult that urgently needs replacing.

Learning to be less efficient

One of my big personal projects at the moment is that I’m trying to learn to be less efficient. I’ve got a significant attention span – I can do things with my brain for longer than is good for my body, and I need to tackle that. It isn’t good for my hands if I colour for a couple of hours flat out, or type for extended periods.

Just because I can doesn’t mean I should. 

Years of practical and economic pressure haven’t helped with this. Taking breaks and being gentle with myself has, all too often, felt like a luxury I couldn’t afford. It’s not like that at the moment. Rest should never seem like a luxury. Basic self care to avoid pain and damage is not a luxury. I am not a machine, but I’m not very good at treating myself like a person.

So I’m trying to figure out how to slow down. How to take more breaks, and be gentler. It’s an interesting process not least because it means I have to be alert to what my brain is doing while I’m working. I’m obsessive, and I can fall into the rhythm of a thing and get stuck there, and some bits of my brain really like that and find it soothing. It takes a huge toll on my body if I’m not careful – too much strain on my hands and not enough movement elsewhere.

There will be a balance to find. Enough rhythm in what I do to sooth my brain. Enough movement for my whole body to allow me to be reasonably well. Enough rest for my hands to avoid hurting or damaging them.

Unskilled Labour is an illusion

The idea of unskilled labour is one that is routinely used to make life harder for economically disadvantaged people. The notion is that if you have no skills, there are many jobs you can apply for that aren’t skilled, and that don’t merit much of a wage. If you don’t have a job you are therefore deemed lazy and workshy.

At the start of January, I was job hunting again. When I can work in the kinds of jobs I have considerable experience in, I can earn a decent wage. However, I have done a number of minimum wage jobs along the way. If I can’t find stuff I am well qualified to do, I have to look at whatever I can get. 

There are very few jobs out there that ask for no qualifications and no experience. Many jobs require you to be able to drive and to have a car. When I’m looking for work outside my areas of experience, there’s not much I can apply for, and what I can apply for has everything to do with retail experience and public facing work history. I note that a significant number of low paid jobs require strength and physical fitness, and that we don’t value that much in workers. There may be a lot to be said about the value placed on the bodies of the economically disadvantaged.

Work requires skill and knowledge. Some of the worst paid jobs require heroic levels of patience and considerable stamina. For jobs that pay you to do nothing, as far as I can make out you want to get a high level consultancy gig where no one expects you to do anything, or to get your income from shares and resource ownership rather than by actually working. There are no unskilled jobs. Every employer out there has qualities they require in their employees.

During the pandemic it’s been really obvious that low paid workers were in the front lines doing some of the most important things and shouldering a great deal of the risk.

The idea of the unskilled worker is a convenient illusion. It’s part of the thinking that justifies who gets to be rich and who gets to be poor. The idea that work is low paid because it isn’t important and doesn’t require much of you simply isn’t true. How people are paid has everything to do with power, and very little to do with the true value of their work.

Work as a coping mechanism

I’ve always turned to work as a way of coping. That can mean paid work, volunteering, housework or making things. It’s something I can put between me and the teeth, and the teeth are very sharp and have been with me my whole life.

The theory is that if I can make enough, do enough, be good enough then I can stay out of the teeth. It doesn’t work, and I know it doesn’t work, but I’ve never found anything that does. The problem with working as a coping mechanism is that it can add to the exhaustion and make things worse. I’d be better off with some sense of worth that doesn’t depend on doing stuff, or being validated for doing stuff but I’ve never figured out how to have that. Self help articles and books are all about increasing your self esteem, not how to start from scratch.

I suspect the trick is to have a sense of self and self worth rooted in who you are, not what you do. It’s just that I’ve never felt intrinsically good enough. It’s hard to imagine feeling good enough without having to be useful, helpful or productive. I’m also no sort of ornament.

It also doesn’t help that every single thing I might do to try and keep myself out of the teeth depends on confidence. The worse things are, the harder it is to believe that I can do anything to offset it. The more in pain I am the less able I am to feel or appreciate any wins I might achieve.

It’s not a good way to be. But here we are, and I can still write blog posts,so there’s something.

Doing it for money

Living by creative work is a bit of a gamble, to say the least. Most of my working life I’ve had other jobs on the go as well – often also in publishing, because marketing and editing pay more reliably than writing does.

I spent this last year mostly working on my own stuff, when I wasn’t being horribly ill. Given the many rounds of being horribly ill, it’s as well I wasn’t trying to do much else! But, I gambled on a couple of things and it hasn’t worked out. This happens. Opportunities melt away, or turn out not to be as good as they looked. Currently the entire book industry is being sorely challenged by distribution issues, paper shortages and whatnot, especially in America. Royalty payments are down, because American book sales are really low right now.

What you earn as an author tends to depend on work you’ve done in previous years, and there’s often no knowing how long it will take for the work to lead to money. One of the advantages of self publishing is that you get the work out and sell it. Big publishers move slowly and can take years to make decisions. Graphic novels are slow to make, so the books we’re working on were first drafted ten years ago. With the series complete, that set of books will be more interesting to other publishers, and Sloth may be able to pitch it on – but who knows?

Once upon a time, I wrote a novel in six weeks because someone offered me something like a thousand pounds to do it, and that’s more money than I’d ever made from writing before that point. By the end of it, I had days where I was mostly just shaking and crying – multiple drafts of an 80k novel is a lot to do in six weeks and I didn’t sleep much. I didn’t do another one. I couldn’t have sustained it, although it turned out that my first husband thought I should have done.

I gambled and lost, this year. I lost money on an event where I really needed to come out ahead. Everything has been slower than I needed it to be. Releases are delayed. Various projects have been hit with problems and some things I’ve just had to rethink. Meanwhile energy costs, and food costs are set to rise. I have a safety net, but it’s finite, and shrinking. 

I spent New Year’s eve looking at local employment possibilities. I’ve done all kinds of work along the way, I have no qualms about jumping back in – shelf stacker or dinner lady maybe. My skills aren’t much use for conventional employment outside of publishing, I don’t have a car, and that means I’m pretty much obliged to look at minimum wage jobs if I can’t get the writing based work to pay. At one point a few years ago I was doing half a dozen small jobs to make ends meet, and it was tough. So, I was bracing myself to get back into all of that.

Much to my surprise, I find that instead I’m going to be writing a novel to a tight deadline and for a flat fee. I’ve got three books to read as a matter of some urgency, and I’m going to be flat out for the next eight to ten weeks. So if the blog is a bit brief, or sporadic, this will be why. But it will pay better than being a traffic warden, and I was going to have to lie on that application about how well I handle aggression and conflict situations…