salaam, dear Leila // issue 1

 

In the last year or so I’ve started taking writing more seriously and alhamdulilah I’ve had some small but meaningful achievements. As a mother of a young child, I plan carefully to set time aside for my writing. Sometimes I feel selfish for doing so. Writing is just for me. I’m aware it’s highly unlikely I’ll ever be able to make a steady income out of it, however small, and therefore contribute financially through writing. Sometimes I feel like I should stop writing, that it’s a waste of time because there’s no benefit to anyone. But then there are times when a reader will tell me something they loved or related to in something I wrote and that makes it all worthwhile for me. Am I selfish for prioritising my writing, should I spend the time on something more worthwhile if I can’t make a career out of it?

Jamila


 

Dear Jamila,

You are not being selfish. It’s a blessing to have a meaningful activity which you enjoy and which you feel is worthwhile. Being a mother is one of the most challenging roles in life and having time for yourself is healthy and uplifting. You are so right, though, about the unsteady income. In a survey carried out by the Society of Authors, the average annual earnings of a professional author was 10,500 pounds, well below the minimum wage. Unsurprisingly, only 13.7% of authors earned their income solely from writing. So, surviving as a writer will entail having an income that comes from a source other than the writing.

In the not-so-distant past, it was quite respectable for women to be housewives. Talented housewives pursued hobbies and sometimes these hobbies took off and generated income. Nowadays, young women feel an obligation to share or at least contribute to their family’s expenses. This is fine, but as Muslim women, it is worth reminding ourselves that we have a God-given right to be maintained by our husbands according to their means. We should not feel obligated to contribute, it is a choice we make freely, without pressure. After all, we are already looking after the children, running households and providing stability for the community – all this is ‘work’ and hours of our lives that should not be taken for granted.

In every economy, at any point of time, there will be people who are unemployed. It is a fact that there are simply not enough jobs for everyone. You, a busy mother who enjoys writing, could be, by choosing voluntary unemployment, giving up a potential job to someone else who needs it more. In this case, in a roundabout way, you are benefitting another family.

But it is not all about finances, the writing life is full of rejection and loneliness. Career tracks are undefined as are expectations. It is a needy life because writers need readers, and readers are not easy to find. You rightly point out the satisfaction you get when readers respond to your work. Writing is communication and few writers are content to write without a readership. This is where publishing comes in and fierce competition. Readers’ time is limited. If they read X, they might not have time to read Y or Z.

Your query does not include any angst over how good or not a writer you are. You are confident about your abilities. Your recent achievements have bolstered you and this is the momentum you will need to keep going. I have observed, over the years that talent is not enough to achieve success. Drive, ambition, perseverance, self-belief, and the willingness to sacrifice tends to matter more, in the long run, than innate ability. Also writing the relevant thing at the right time, luck, providence, endorsement. All these factors play a role.

I would not advise you to stop writing. It is too big a sacrifice and you might end up feeling resentful. You don’t need swaths of time to write. Even if you must have a day job, an hour of writing here and there can still be productive. Becoming a professional writer is one of the cheapest start-ups, all that is needed is a laptop. But beware of other costs – all the courses, retreats, services, etc that target the beginner writer. To ease your conscience, do also explore careers that are related to writing, ones that can provide a steady income. You might enjoy working in an arts organization or the publishing industry, working as a librarian or in a bookshop. Pursue all avenues and see which one opens up to you. Wanting to write and not being able to write can be hugely frustrating. At the same time, the need to write could diminish, if you find creative fulfilment elsewhere.

with love, Leila