Last spring I met the lovely Sophie McKeand on a Writing for Live Performance Masterclass I was teaching at Ty Newydd Writers’ Centre on the southern coast of the spectacular Llyn Peninsula in North Wales. I was recently reading her blog and one recent post in particular caught my attention: ‘The Price of Self-Employment’. This is a brave subject – something so important and yet so seldom discussed widely in our industry. I asked Sophie for permission to reproduce her post – and I include details of her biog and links, below:
Sophie: I’m not sure how I imagined the journey when first setting out as a freelance/self-employed writer seven years ago. It’s been a difficult but ultimately rewarding expedition, especially considering the only thought was: forward and onward and don’t look back.
The ego has been shredded, rebuilt, blasted apart, glued back together and shredded again. At 39 I earn a third of the salary I did when I was 27. I don’t own a house or have savings or a pension anymore, and instead of my company car I share an old Renault Espace with my partner (also a freelancer).
I’m the happiest I’ve ever been.
Was it Gary Snyder who said we should aim to be ‘famous for fifteen miles’? This is my mantra (although admittedly I work slightly farther afield that that).
Working geographically, as opposed to by genre, means I’m involved in communicating with people across the whole spectrum of my community. Studying to pinpointed PhD depths seems a little redundant here so adopting a more rounded approach means I’ll facilitate poetry workshops with 10 eight-year-olds, or eight ninety-year-olds, or 250 year 7s. I work with people with early stage dementia, NEETS, gifted young writers, adult learners and people with mental health issues. Each group has wildly varying support needs and expectations, and each workshop has to be tailored specifically to meet those needs. I’ll also have at least three or four other workshop plans ready in case of any ‘eventuality’ (yes I have plans B, C, D, E and F in my suitcase every time.
A large percentage of the people I work with have had their enjoyment of literature strangled by a didactic curriculum set by careerist politicians (not the fault of teachers) and this has instilled a fear, not a love, of creative writing. People have become terrified of verbs, pronouns, adjectives, grammar, spelling and punctuation, which is a shame because language is free and belongs to us all.
In these sessions I focus on our shared understandings of language. I want our group to concoct a nourishing, creative stew of ideas, thoughts and imagination to devour. Metaphor, simile and image are the building blocks of great poetry and we all use them, it’s just a case of recognising when we do and learning how to nurture that element of thought.
There is absolutely a skill to being a writer. Developing a philosophy behind the words and understanding the editing process are the next steps for anyone thinking of taking the writing further, but for these initial workshops, for those hours, I want people to forget about how they should write and to just have fun writing.
I’d love to be able to do this for free. Unfortunately that’s not possible. I still have bills to pay. On a good year I’ll earn maybe £14k (pre-tax), on a quiet year £10k (at least then my tax bill is small). I’m lucky my partner in business is also my partner in life, and he’s incredibly supportive. Work wouldn’t be anywhere near as much fun without him and as a freelance partnership (he’s a graphic designer and partner in an independent record label) we manage to pull in enough to pay the bills and have a comfortable, although not extravagant life.
One of the elements I struggle with most is finding suitable rates to charge. At one end of the scale I’ve been paid £130 per one-hour workshop (fees were set by the project coordinator) and at the other end I’ve been offered £15 for one hour because ‘that’s more than the usual hourly rate for staff here’.
I was very grateful for the former, although I wouldn’t dream of asking for that, but declined the latter. This is not because I’m overly precious or egotistical. When you book me you’re paying for eleven years of work: three years of a degree then a year freelancing whilst working full-time before leaping into full-time-self-employed.
When you book me for a half-day please understand I’ve spent at least that time again planning the workshop, sourcing materials, photocopying/printing, researching and imagining just how it will all come together to create a meaningful experience for your group. When you book me for an hour it’s unlikely I’ll be able to work anywhere else that morning.
You don’t have to think about holiday pay, sick pay, tax, national insurance, maternity pay or public liability insurance. There’s no redundancy package or notice period when you decide to use another freelancer (which you absolutely should to ensure your group/s have access to a full range of styles and approaches). I can’t have a bad day, be ill, have the car break down or have a family crisis on a day I’m coming to you because you might think I’m unreliable and not book me again. Perhaps all ‘arty’ people are like that? No. No we’re not. I’m not even going into the raft of DBS/disclosure certificates I have proving that I’m not a danger to anyone.
On top of that I have to ensure I’m still writing. If I’m teaching something I should be actively engaging with that practice myself, so a ‘holiday away’ tends to involve staying at the oasis of literature that is Ty Newydd for a week. This means I’m confident my writing and workshop facilitation are of a high standard.
I perform at events and festivals, give readings and submit work to various publications because these are the benchmarks supporting my assertion I’m a suitable person to come and work with your group. I also make a point of creating at least one or two voluntary projects in my community each year because it’s an important element of who I am and being self-employed allows me the time to do this.
I wouldn’t change any of this. I love every minute of work and wake every morning knowing that, whatever I’m doing, it’s generating creativity and inspiration in my community. I’ve been involved with truly dedicated people at National Theatre Wales, Literature Wales, Oriel Wrecsam, Age Cymru, The Wales Millennium Centre, The Hay Festival, Barnardos, Clwyd Theatre Cymru, Night Out/Noson Allan and various other local, regional and national organisations over the years, and I’m grateful that most try their best to ensure artists are paid a living wage.
I’m living the dream.
Or at least I’m living my dream of working with words in my community and using poetry as a way to help people find their own voice. Witnessing participants discover the confidence to read out work they’ve just written and knowing I helped them achieve that is, to put it bluntly, totally awesome and worth every penny I don’t now earn.
I know budgets are tight, and this can force people to just focus on the bottom line when considering booking a freelance writer, but having the opportunity to work with a writer, musician or artist on a creative project can make a genuine difference in people’s lives – it’s changed mine incomparably.
Sophie McKeand biog
Freelance poet and workshop facilitator in Y Gogs. Longlisted for the Poetry Society‘s National Poetry Competition in 2014, published widely including in Poetry Wales, Dark Mountain, Earthlines and Adbusters with new work forthcoming in Tears in the Fence (Sept 2015). Performs regularly at festivals and events such as Wenlock Poetry Festival, Green Man, Wilderness and Dinefwr. Works as a freelance workshop facilitator with Literature Wales, Arts Council Wales, Oriel Wrecsam, Age Cymru, Barnardos and more. Organises National Theatre Wales’ Word4Word in Wrecsam and sits on the ntwTEAM Panel (2014). Dysgu Cymraeg.