Essay: Paul Traynoron creative labour

I Write For A Living

This essay was developed through an SRB-WestWords residency at the WestWords Centre for Writing in Parramatta.

I’m a business analyst. I write for a living. I’m a writer. I never thought of it this way until a co-worker put it to me in those terms a few years back. As a business analyst I write descriptively about a product or a service or an initiative or a company. I tell a story about a topic so that a reader can understand it, visualise it, feel something about it. I write persuasively to gain the reader’s buy-in to the thing that my bosses want the reader to want – whether that’s to support something, to spend money on it themselves, to convince their customers to spend money on something, to make a major system change to align with something, or whatever really. I use a range of voices and narrative methods to suit the audience or the intention of the piece of writing. I write for a living. I’m… a writer.

I’m just not sure that the label feels quite right, however. I make an assumption that others also may not think that the label is justified, particularly those cliched, caricatured, sanctimonious real writers who live rent-free in my head. What is it that would make sticking the label of ‘writer’ onto my lapel feel justified?  

I don’t really know that I even want to make the case that business analysts are real writers. I have a different life as a writer – maybe – outside of my life as a business analyst. I write short stories, memoir, poetry, lyrics. I want to maintain a distinction between that writing and the writing that I do to earn a salary.

I don’t want to generalise, but I don’t think that the term writer conjures images of pressed shirts and dapper pants at a sit/stand desk overlooking the CBD, waxing lyrical on product scope, requirements, target markets, and so on.  Well, at least not to me. Does it matter? A writer can obviously look like anyone. A writer can be anyone. But perhaps not anyone can be a writer? I sometimes feel like its easier to call out what something is not than to say what that same something is.

The notes that I scribble in my notebooks to form the threads of poetry or background for a story, or the short stories or essays that I type and retype in my iPad – that to me is my real writing. I can’t look up from the page if I try to read from my real writing in front of even one other person, but I can carry on without producing a bead of sweat in front of roomfuls of people when discussing the empty subject matter I get paid to work on. In those journeys on the train to and from work, in the backroom at home of an evening, I am engaging in the mythical process of ‘real writing’. That’s a different me to the me that sits at a work-issued laptop being a business analyst. I jump out of one role and into another. Away from the real job where I do real work because I get paid real money that can buy real things and pay for my real mortgage. The job that doesn’t raise eyebrows when I tell people about it. Though, most people don’t know what the hell a business analyst is or does anyway. Most business analyst conferences even tend to have a section that grapples with what a business analyst is and/or does. But one thing is certain, it is a real job. Writing? Don’t know about that. Sounds like a hobby to me.

Even though this idea of real writing is important to me, I’m not sure that doing it automatically makes me a real writer. I worry that unless it yields valid results then I can’t say ‘I’m a writer’. What are valid results? Well, having the work published, or winning grants, or competitions, things like that. But grant writing isn’t real writing either, it just leads to receiving money in order to facilitate real writing. In those moments I’m not a writer or a business analyst. I’m a beggar. 

I have been told to just declare myself a writer, to own it. The cynic in me rolls their eyes and jumps about in his seat with its hand up, demanding to be allowed to share his thoughts on that little gem before he gets back to writing scope documents and heading out to liquid lunches to wax lyrical about the latest news in the international payments landscape. The wide-eyed innocent on the other side of the classroom inside me is earnestly and excitedly writing the phrase ‘I’m a writer’ on all of his notebooks and occasionally-private-out-of-self-doubt social media accounts, eyes misty with vain self-belief and clouded with images of standing in the Dixson Room of the State Library reading an excerpt from his latest collection of short stories, resplendent in corduroy pants, artistically crushed shirt, and woolen scarf.

But until I get that call from the State Library, the necessities of life dictate ongoing commitment to my real job. There is that word again – ‘real’. Is that because it’s where my real income comes from? Perhaps it is because the majority of my time is spent at work. Or perhaps it is what I believe my peers will take more seriously, this sensible real job that supports my children and makes an equitable contribution to the mortgage and running of the house. 

I am a writer… in my spare time. Actually, on that, I have to be very sure that it is in my spare time. Every employment contract that I have had so far has included clauses regarding intellectual property. They indicate that any work produced by me using company resources or during working hours is the intellectual property of my employer. In this post-covid world I’m not sure what working hours exactly are anymore anyway. But that short story I worked on in a room that looked just like the work lunch room? I swear, it was a totally different location. Also, what looked like an idea for the outline of a novel that I typed into something that looked like Notepad on a device resembling my work laptop and then emailed to my personal email? That was just a shopping list, I swear. I was really focused on my real job.

My real job that I get paid real money for. I tell myself I’d be happy to do something for less that would make me feel more fulfilled each day, but the opportunities have been there and I haven’t taken them. Each time I have received a pay rise over the years it’s become harder to turn away from this professional path that I am on. When I was younger and had less I just made things work. 

And so I still can’t quite find my way around this question, does making money from creative pursuits shift the settings from ‘reward for creative labour’ to just more work? I feel as though the moment that there is a possibility of financial reward for creative work, it has an impact on how I approach it. I alter my work, deliberately or subconsciously, to suit the intended journal or website or competition. The same short story or poem is altered to suit a different theme in the hope that at least one pitch or submission is successful. I know that I am not the only one who does this. So whether writing grant applications or pitches or material for competitions or journals, once the voice is moulded in the hope of acceptance, I almost feel like I am acting as a freelance contractor. It’s just another job.

This essay itself feels like a piece of evidence for this argument. I am writing what I believe, for the most part, sure. But as I write I am conscious of the editorial process, the audience, trying to write in a particular voice. I worry that I am getting so caught up in making sure that I produce something that will be accepted for publication that I am, at times, more focused on the reader than the work.

The term ‘sellout’ even seems to have conventions regarding when it can be used. As though a person needs to be a ‘real’ something before they can be a sellout version of that something. Maybe I can’t even be considered a sellout because a Business Analyst isn’t a real writer. Sellout. A Business Analyst who is writing stories and memoirs and essays and poems and songs and thrilling in the sensation of swimming in an ocean of rejections? He’s just some guy with a fun little hobby. Did you hear that Paul wrote a short story? Oh really? That’s cute, isn’t it? Little embarrassing, but cute. Must be having a mid-life crisis. Maybe he’ll buy a motorbike next.

But why is all this your problem, reader? Why do you need to do anything to help me? It should be up to me. Why should I rely on you?

Because without you – the reader, the journal editor, the website owner, the competition judge, the consumer – without you I can’t actually make a go at the writer version of me. Read ‘make a go at’ as make a living. Because that’s what it all comes back to at some level, doesn’t it?

This essay was developed through an SRB-WestWords residency at the WestWords Centre for Writing in Parramatta.