ADEN ROLFE is a writer, poet, playwright – basically, an all-round excellent person – who does plenty of other excellent things too, like sharing with us his excellent advice on how to earn a crust in the cruel, cruel world creative industries.
Describe a typical day for you…
I work as a freelance copywriter for arts organisations and civil engineering companies, and as a poet and radio playwright. You can guess which of these activities make more money, but we don’t need to name names. What it means for a typical day, however, is that I could just as easily be suiting up to go on site for a client as I could be muddling through emails at my studio or sleeping in under the rubric of ‘having a late start today, honey’.
The trick, I’ve found, is to get your priorities sorted and focus on one thing at a time. I’ve just come off a technical writing contract, for instance, to develop a new work for the ABC’s Creative Audio Unit. It’s a mystery series set aboard a boat. Which is incredibly fun, but it takes everything I have to be able to keep track of each episode. My last radioplay – Like a Writing Desk – went to air at the beginning of June, and I’m trying to finish a poetry manuscript about memory, narrative and identity. So there’s a lot on, but whenever it’s possible, I’m a mono-tasker.
What were some resources or skills that you’ve found useful in your career?
When I left UTS, the job market was fairly tepid, particularly in the media and publishing industries. I mean, I was arrogant and precocious, but once upon a time that was enough. So I struck out as a freelancer and enrolled in the NEIS program – aka ‘start a small business for the dole’ – which is the best thing I ever did. I learnt a lot of the practical things you don’t necessarily pick up at uni: how to invoice, how to track your accounts, how to market yourself as a business.
After that I slogged my guts out to build my portfolio. I worked for cheap and forgot how to spell ‘weekend’. Eventually the worm turned and things became more sustainable. I was able to start making strategic decisions about my projects and strike a balance between creative and professional work (which is a problematic binary, I concede, but it’s one that works).
What do you wish you would’ve known in your first year/time at uni?
We had a great cohort at UTS – we were involved in each other’s projects, Vertigo, things like that. But I wish I’d been more proactive outside that circle. I never really got involved with organisations like Express Media, for instance, or submitted my work to journals until after I graduated. So get involved. Or, you know, don’t. There are too many people doing things poorly because they’ve got too much on. Identify what you want to commit to and do it well.
Also, know what you want to get out of your degree and manage your expectations accordingly. I know a lot of people who resent having an ongoing debt for a somewhat amorphous course with intangible outcomes, and I don’t begrudge them for it. But in the ongoing discussion over the value of creative writing degrees – whether you can teach such a thing, whether students would be better off dropping out and just writing, whether they create unreasonable expectations of literary success – I think a couple of key things have been ignored. Namely, that no one really thought they were going to be a success, but more importantly, that that wasn’t the point. For me, uni was about having a forum to try out ideas, to form connections with people who shared the same interests and aspirations, to become more broadly literate. Maybe that’s less important now, because of the internet, but for me it was critical.
Any other bits of wisdom?
Do some strategic planning. There’s no shortage of options for writers to get published or gain experience, but if you don’t know what the bigger picture looks like you’re only going to focus on the most immediate opportunities, racing to meet each deadline without ever putting together a targeted pitch or submission. It’s unrewarding and ineffective.
If you don’t have one, get an ABN. Learn how to budget and project-manage. Get a good accountant. Never work from home for more than a day at a time. Work on paper whenever possible.