We all know the two stereotypes of how writers live: starving in a Dickensian garret, or swanning about in a mansion, courted by the power elites.
However, in Canada, in 2018, how do real writers really live? What’s ‘home’ for us? What follows is an extremely non-exhaustive exploration: I asked some working writers. Their answers are presented via pen names, to preserve an aura of glamour.
Emma is a mid-career, well-regarded literary author. She lives in the GTA, Canada’s bustling cultural heartland. Emma lives with family. She cannot afford a mortgage, but has no desire, she says, to own a home. She does dream of making enough to rent a studio apartment in a happening part of town, where pedestrian and public transit options would serve all her needs. To afford a cat would be the apex of her housing goals.
For now, she counts herself lucky to have a room of her own, though she confesses to writing in shared space when the rest of the household are out at their respective jobs.
Elsewhere in Toronto, Sam, a multi-genre writer, says his career as a writer has taught him that “Habit makes home.” His home routine – morning coffee with partner, walk to the desk – is eminently transferable. Good thing, as he rents a shared house (third in a series).“The rent is reasonable enough that even in a lean month I can manage rent and expenses.” Given that his landlord’s children may sell the house when the owner dies, Sam sees living with his partner as their safety net. He’s not fazed by the ongoing prospect of moves, though “It makes me more reluctant to buy new furniture.”
Sam is part of the modern rural-to-urban migration. Adapting first to a smaller city, Edmonton, gave him skills that served well when he made the move to Toronto. He got involved with campus radio, a good place to meet arts people and get connected, which is what matters.
Scott and Tessa, out in PEI, concur, and add that it helps to “live in a part of Canada where one can rent a wonderful country home for far less than a small apartment costs in our major cities.”
Tessa adds, “because we want to travel more, we decided not to purchase a home. We have exactly what we need to live securely,” including a community of artistic friends and colleagues. Between Scott’s teaching job and Tessa’s assorted gigs, they enjoy writing at their side-by-side desks.
Meanwhile, in urban Alberta, four writers occupy a cafe table: Colette, in YA; Mei and Elmore, mystery writers; and LN, a poet. They laugh ironically as Mei quips, “Want to be a writer? Marry well.” The adage applies to them all.
LN has a house to keep because her husband has a profession that pays the bills. Her income ‘keeps cake on the table, in a good month,’ but also means they bought in an old part of town, with plenty of grit on view outside her lovely, if drafty, windows.
Elmore likewise could not swing a mortgage on the strength of his credentials, though his work sells well. Elmore knows the score – he has a house because they got a deal at the right moment, and his wife has a stable profession. When Elmore has a good year, they renovate, or take a family vacation.
As for Colette, she punctuates the nature of their lifestyle by hiring them all, mid-conversation, to read for a modest honourarium at an event she’s planning. All of them wear multiple hats, shift gears with ease, and know they are lucky.
These writers come from various backgrounds, racially and socio-economically. In common, their families support their writing careers. They know it is different if you live alone.
According to Canada Without Poverty, “the most basic standard of living in Canada is calculated at $18,000 per year for a single person.” Small wonder that some “3 million Canadian households are precariously housed (living in unaffordable, below standards, and/or overcrowded housing conditions.” (1)
Colette shares an update about Vincent: his current house has been condemned, and with health issues beginning to limit his ability to work, she’s helping him look for accessible, affordable options. Elmore muses that this is one more good reason to look at Sweden, where guaranteed income supports cultural workers.
Here, according to the Writers’ Union of Canada study Devaluing Creators, Endangering Creation, (2015):
“Canadian writers are making 27% less from their writing than they were making in 1998 (taking into account inflation), while 45% of writers say they must do more to earn a living now.
Writers’ average incomes from their writing were $12,879 in 2015, while the median income was even lower, resulting from a steep divergence in income levels between a small group of very successful authors and a much larger group of authors earning very little.”(2)
Vanessa, about to launch her twelfth book, affords her West Coast life by taking on freelance editing and reviews. She runs an Air BnB and a gardening business, and plays music in nursing homes.
Vanessa learned community values in a tiny Saskatchewan town; while she lived there, she kept a big garden, and with a lower cost of living, could write full time. She avoided isolation by tying herself, then as now, to the larger world, whether on retreats, or, as most recently, flying to California to edit someone’s novel.
Enroute, she might have glimpsed Bram, who wryly supposes that, if you add it up by the hours, their home is on the road. Project by project, they eke out the rent, but sleep too often on sofas, and can authoritatively rank the sleepability of bus-stations, airports, and economy seats across the land. Don’t ask Bram about long term.
Tessa says: “I think Literary Arts Lodges sound like an amazing idea. The support could be as little as discounted transportation and shopping assistance, as in PAL Halifax, or as much as housing and other assistance in places such as Stratford.”
Adds Scott,“So many writers don’t have adequate incomes in their later years. Affordable retirement communities would be a godsend, and incredibly worth fundraising for.”
That word, affordable, points at one large gap in this portrait of writers’ homes: The North.
Realities of Arctic life include exponential costs for what most Canadians consider staples, but also, a culture that sees hospitality as imperative. This same imperative, common to remote communities across the land, also upholds writers who live, as so many do, in relative poverty.
When their poverty aligns as it often does along boundaries of race and ethnicity, these writers balance between staying connected to communities that lack access, and carving a niche within spaces of access.
For LN, it was lack of access that drove her from rural life. Now a long-term urbanite, LN happily works alone, but not isolated. She belongs to a community of writers, who understand: home is where we can work, whether that’s a room, shared space, or in transit.
Privacy, for a writer, is negotiable, but our security inexorably rests in a web of community.