Working and Earning as an Artist: My Annual Finances

Personal, Rambles

This post follows on from two previous posts, “What I mean when I say I’m working as an artist”, parts one and two. As part of my artistic work I talk about my finances as openly and publicly as I can manage. I’m not going to cover the same ground as those posts now, but if you’re a geek about this stuff, or a voyeur, or are just interested on what the day-to-day of an artist’s life is like, they’re worth reading.

Why I Put My Money Online

First, I’m obsessed by money. I love learning how it works, how it flows. I genuinely enjoy spreadsheets, and I like visualising artistic projects through juggling their budgets. When I was an undergraduate, which thanks to proper state support was the single most privileged period of my life, I thought it was somehow anticapitalist to just not care about money. This was silly and wrong and also I hit the bottom of my overdraft a few times. These days, I write and chart obsessively about money because I feel like it gives me some measure of control or power over the systems which run our world. Though maybe I take it a bit far.

I also feel like I have some sort of general duty to talk about it. Most of my earnings come, ultimately, through taxes; a truly worrying proportion comes from either Creative Scotland or the Arts Council of England. I feel like a few hours a year telling the taxpayer how their money works for me is worth doing. Perhaps more importantly, I think that small-scale artists talking about this stuff helps to explain to the general public why it’s worth funding the arts: as I talked about in much more detail in my last post, the majority of artists work for absurdly long hours for absurdly little pay and to much unseen public benefit.

Equally, small-scale artists sharing this kind of information is a form of mutual aid. If you’re an artist and you can see how I earn, it might give you some ideas. As a Creative Scotland report, coincidentally published today, has shown, I actually earn more than the majority of Scottish artists, and I’m still not making the living wage. Maybe this information can help us all do better.

The Juicy Numbers

Here’s how much money I’ve earned in the last four financial years:

income table

(“Gross” is my total income, the actual amount of money that came into my bank account. “Expenses” is my business expenses as a self-employed artist, which I talk about below: it’s mostly travel. “Net” is gross minus expenses, and is more or less my actual spending money as a living human, except it also includes my taxes, which given my income are rather low.)

Here’s how that money breaks down into artistic and non-artistic income.

Income pies

(The non-artistic is mostly an environmental management/consultancy contract and a political organising contract, with some other bits and bobs.)

And here’s what the different income strands were last year:

income strands

(“Reader in Residence” was a big community arts contract; “Creative Scotland” was a grant for a single self-organised art project; “Patreon” is my crowdfunding scheme; “Workshops” is a lot of one-day or half-day arts training jobs for different organisations; “Commissions” and “Performances” are a lot of small and medium-sized contracts to create or perform art for different organisations. “Other” is my non-artistic income. The notable missing thing is sales, for complex accountancy reasons, but know that the products I sell are usually just about at cost (including labour of distributing) and I haven’t started earning royalties yet.)

Some important numbers to know to make a comparison:

  • The Scottish Living Wage is £17,160 per year.
  • The median (a kind of average) annual pay for full-time workers in Scotland is £27,710; the median for my age bracket including part-time workers is £19,292. I haven’t found numbers for the mean (another kind of average), but it’s likely a bit lower than those.
  • The poverty line (defined as 60% of median income) is £16,626. But then, the Tory government abolished that measure, so I’m probably fine.
  • I have never come close to these measures off artistic income, and have managed the living wage only once

Finally, some notes on my assets and liabilities:

  • I have a very small student loan for my undergrad (in Scotland, so paid no tuition fees), which I began paying back in my 2013-14 tax return. I had a bank loan for my Masters, but I have paid it off. I have no other debts.
  • I have no dependants, and no allowance.
  • I rent, in Edinburgh, sharing with a partner (though for half of 2013-14 and half of 2014-15 I lived alone). My parents now own their house outright.
  • Expenses includes a small portion of my rent and energy bills, half my phone and internet bills, and most of my artistic purchases, along with show materials, office supplies, and so on. The majority of it is simply travel. So if you were to compare me to a PAYE worker, you might want to imagine something like an income a little under halfway between gross and net. But closer to net.
  • I have very gradually built up savings, first as a cushion against lean years as a freelancer, and now in the hopes of getting out of the rental market. I’ve got to roughly £10k, mostly because I learned how to live on £10k a year and so put cash away in the good years.

How I Feel About  All This

I feel great about where I’ve managed to get to. I’ve spent the last two calendar years working almost entirely as an artist, and without a big annual contract to get me through, and I feel like I’ve proven to myself that I can do it. I can, for at least two years, live, just about, off my earnings as an artist. I know that that’s unlikely to be permanently possible, but I have managed it. Seeing the blue half of the pie chart expand is something I’m proud of.

I’m also pleased that the last financial year has a lot of income diversity – much more than I expected. If I were to be really detailed, I’d break down the strands by how much of each was expenses and how much was net income, but I have to stop somewhere. I suspect it would make my income look a bit less diverse, however, because the bigger the wedge the small the proportion of the wedge tends to be expenses. Despite this diversity, though, over half my income came from just two big contracts. Without landing 2-4 big (£4000+) and highly competitive contracts each year, there’s no way I’d be able to live off being an artist, and to get those I have to be very good at applying for them and apply for probably about four times as many as I get.

However, despite all this, what I also know is that the idea of being a full-time artist is a lie. I wrote about this more last time. Very few people get to Just Make Art, and most of them are highly economically privileged already. For the rest of us who want to live off art, we have two choices: spend at least half our working week on a day job, or spend at least half our working week answering emails, filling out funding applications, sitting in meetings, and generally hustling. There is no moral or artistic difference between people who support themselves to make art by waiting tables and people who support themselves to make art by filling out funding applications: they’re both drudge work and hustle. Neither of us are full-time artists. Or, rather, all of us are. I make a living as an artist, which means I make a living sending emails and filling out forms. No wonder my art has so many spreadsheets in it.

What Happens Next

My life mission is to be able to earn the living wage out of making art (and thus also writing emails and filling out funding applications and doing workshops). Currently, where I live, that’s £17,160 after expenses and before taxes, based on a 40 hour work week. My other three life missions are to reside in a housing co-op, work in a workers’ co-op, and live in an anarcho-syndicalist utopia. I figure if I can get one of those three, plus the living wage, I’ll feel OK about my life. I’m a long way off any of these missions, but I can feel myself getting closer.

In the short term, I’m escaping the freelance hustle, for the most part. I’m completely astonished and delighted by this: I’ve been awarded an AHRC scholarship to study a PhD in Creative Writing, which covers tuition and a non-taxable stipend of £14,400 for three years. This could not be closer to my dream. (I mean, it could, but taking into account the practical considerations of being an artist in a neoliberal society, it could not be closer.) That’s still not a living wage and it’s supposed to be full-time, so I will have to work beyond my hours earning elsewhere. I’ll be less able to take on the many small gigs, so I’ll be looking for one or two big contracts to make up the rest.

My ideal scenario – total creative freedom – for the next three years would be mostly working on my PhD and making the rest of my income from my Patreon. I’m not there yet, but it’s feasible by the end of the PhD, when, well, who knows what will happen. Getting there is trickier than it looks, though: the first year of my Patreon has been boosted by getting a lot of small commissions, which I’m then able to share freely with backers to add to the unfundable oddities I make solely thanks to their support. That is, it might be harder for my backers to feel they’re getting “value for money” unless I’m able to be doing those commissions as well. If I’m able to earn around £3k a year from Patreon (i.e. three times as much as I do now) then I really could do that – what a dream! But getting there is harder.

So that’s me. As openly and honestly as I can put it: my income, how it happens, and my plans. If I were to give one piece of advice to other artists who are trying to “make it” (I have not “made it”), it would be: Get good at spreadsheets. Understand how money works. Think practically and with brutal honesty about how you can financially support yourselves. Make money work for you. Try to get to the point where the time you spend thinking about money saves you far more time than if you were trying not to think about it. If you want more creative advice, Action Hero has the beautiful goods.

If I had one message to taxpayers reading this, it would be, and is: please protect arts funding. My case puts me in maybe the top 20% of working artists in Scotland in terms of income earned solely from art, and in the bottom 20% of workers in terms of income earned. You have no idea how much you’re going to lose.

Hou Writin in Scots Maiters Tae Me

Personal, Poetry, Politics, Rambles

(skip tae English owersettin)

I. History

A stairtit writin in Scots as an experiment. Hit wis fleysome tae me, tho A’d kent the leid for a guid bit. A wis seilie tae hae a teacher for Higher English wha haed a strang interest in Scots poetry: throu him I got to ken and luve a wee bit o Robert Garioch n Hugh MacDiarmid; Matthew Fitt pit me on tae WN Herbert at a schuil creative writin coorse; n growen up in Orkney meant A kent poems fae Robert Rendall n Christina Costie too. A treisured this mirlins o leid for a lang whiles, no that shuir hou or gif thay belangt tae me.

As A’ve wrote n spoken aboot at mebbe ower muckle, A’m a bairn of English paurents. We flit tae Westray (an ooter isle in Orkney) whan A wis 2, sae Orkney’s the anely hame A ken, but for aw that A’m yet n will for aye be an incomer.  Mebbe acause o feelin that, or mebbe acause A wis niver that guid at comploutherin, or mebbe acause A wared a gey great hantle o oors in books, whan A wis a bairn A picked up mair o ma paurents English as ma freends’ n neebours’ Orcadian. Tho but the grammatical forms o ma speech n a wheen o ma wird chyces hae definitely n defiantly steyed Orcadian (‘Hou’s that?’ for ‘Why?’ n ‘Throu by’ for ‘Throu here’ bein kenable wans, tho skeely lugs will catch the mair), thare’s plainly a fouth o English in ma speakin. For aw that, ma speakin is skitie n shifty: A tak on the tuin o the fowk aboothaunds in a wey mony unhamit fowk dae.

Whan A wis a teenager, A cultivatit this Englishness a fair bit. A dandied up ma claes, haed a by-pit fascination wi Brideshead Revisited, listent tae The Divine Comedy (Neil Hannon bein a fair anglified chanter hissel), n sic n sic-like: cultivatin n identifyin wi that pairt o me wis a means o takkin strenth fae whit merkit me oot. Aw ootlin teenagers ken aboot this. A cried masel “British” steid o “Scottish”. Sae A didna really stairt explorin the Scottish n Orcadian pairts o me til A bid in England.

A flit tae London tae study theatre directing, n at lang n lenth fund A wisna English aither. A wis scunnert fae whit felt like the total wanwit o Londoners n English fowk mair braidly aboot hou Scotland wis, whit maitered thare,  that hit e’en existit. Hit didna help that thare wis plenty o Americans aroond wha kept on cryin the UK “England”. A developit a wappin chip on ma shouder whit coverage o the independence referendum haes fairly beddit in. A felt mair Scottish, acause again A didna belang, n here hit wis ma Scottishness whit merkit me oot.

Hit wis aboot that time A stairtit howkin the leeterar history o Scots. A bocht a scunnersome annotatit edition o A Drunk Man Looks at a Thistle. A rade n rade, whit is maistly hou A think aboot n caip wi things. A stairtit investigatin hou the Scots Renaissance happent, hou leid wrocht a means o not anely threapin identity but biggin hit, hou writin in Scots happens nou. Sae A thocht A’d gie hit a go.

My first mynts involvit uisin gey wheen o dictionars. A didna ken hou tae think in Scots. A’d smuirt the lugs n vocables A’d growed up wi. A wantit relearin. A wantit reclaimin a pairt o masel A’d deleeberately juntit oot o ma identity. Whiles A fliskit throu online thesauruses n ither fowk’s poems, A stairtit rekiverin wirds A thochht A’d tint, n A stairtit learin hou tae airt oot the Scottish syntax fae ma ain speech. A stairtit taitin oot the different thrieds o ma tongue – diction, tuin, vocables, syntax – n learin whit pairts o ma vyce articulatit whit pairts o me. I stairtit rewritin masel.

Maist fowk writin in Scots are in wan wey or anither in (or whiddin fae) the shaidae of Hugh MacDiarmid n his byous experiment in syncretism. MacDiarmid’s project can be rade as ettlin at recreautin a Scots leid the same as the Acts o Union haed niver happenit, the same as the first vernacular Bibles in Scotland haed been printit in the than-leevin Scottish tongue; hit wis a project in leevin alternative history throu leid n poetry. Hit damn naur succeedit. Something aboot MacDiarmid’s messan, maggie tak on rewritin his ain leid n history appealit tae me, ettlin at rewritin mines. A syncretist Scots whit borraed fae mony dialecks n dictionars, whit mad a stramash o soond n associe, whit pit feelin n effect first, fittit whit A wis ettlin at.

Brave wis ma first hail-heidit poem in Scots, tho but thare wis sketches afore hit. Hit’s in the rantin n flytin mode whit Scots is aft thirled tae (the stents of whit are cannily pyntit oot by Joyce MacMillan in her Scotsman review o Union). It tried tae smoosh thegither the tuilyin luves n resents A feel as an incomer Scot, as a hauf-Scot, as somebdy wha half-belangs to a half-nation. A identified ma ain twaness wi some sort o cultural antisyzgy, a Scotland whit is tryin and failin tae mak a multicultural contemporar identity wioot fawin back o tartanry, whit has tint hauf hits history n selt the ither hauf, whit luves and laithes hits ain kailyard. Hit wis n aw a randie threapin o ma Scottishness: hit wis me sayin, this is me, A’m Scottish, me n aw, this kintra belangs tae me n aw, n tae ye, n tae us, n tae this fowk, n this. A’m fain hit’s ma maist weel-sped poem tae date, winnin me a pickle (n losin a puckle n aw), n for ordinar gien audiences a grand time. A felt A wis daein somethin richt.

II. Future

The upbiggit performativity o the syncretist Scots project sert ma ain performative sel-rebiggin; hits experimental howkin o whit Scotland micht be helpit me tae experiment wi whit ma Scottishness micht be. This days, mair nor hauf ma darg is Scots, n A’m conteenan tae sey the mairches o whit hit micht dae. Writin in Scots helpit me gree the different pairts o ma identity: nou A’m no sae fasht, no sae carkin, no sae wirrit aboot gif Scots belangs tae me n mair interestit in whit happens tae Scottishness the nou.

A conteena tae write in Scots firstmaist acause A’m drawed tae hits minority staundin. A luve hits soonds n pattrens, aye, but A luve thaim in English n aw. A’m interestit in hou in Scots A micht write fae the ruinds o things, n sae moot things whit micht ense be whisht. A’m drawed tae hits defeatism, tae writin in something whit’s deein or cheengin or weirin awa; I like the wey readers o Scots hae tae double-taka n reween sentences; A like hou writin in Scots gars us tae rebig wir leid on the flee sae’s tae mak the unmade. Aw this is a brade fae MacDiarmidism: hit’s bent set awa fae the biggin o a hail-n-hauden language, or a hail-n-hauden nation, or a bou-stane ideal of whit Scottishness is. Hit’s a mynt tae ledge the fotchin pluralisms o Scotland.

(A by-pit wird for academic readers: A’m kenably talkin a bit til n aroond Deleuze n Guattari here, n weenin hou Scots micht exerce as or like thir norrie o a “minor leeteratur”. Is awbdy writin on this? Is thare onything tae sey here?)

A find masel distribblit by the masculinism n conservatism o muckle contemporar Scots leeteratur. As Joyce MacMillan pointed out, Scots theatre seems to hae turnt tae bein mair stentit newlins tae mair male makars n male subjects and macho eemages. The pages of Lallans, Scots’ foremaist literar jurnal, are sturtinly owergaed wi men. For masel n ma ain readin, the maist o the poets A’ve leetit here hae been men. Nou tho but, on the wan haund, A’m deaved by a rural conservatism in Scots leeteratur whit tells n retells pub yairns n interminable selkie brides; on the ither, A’m stick-n-stowe forgnawed wi the machoness o Irvine Welsh eemitators, wha offer the ither contemporar mains o Scots writin.

A’m wantin tae airt oot queer weys of writin Scots. A’m wantin tae airt oot feminist weys of writin Scots. A’m wantin tae airt oot paistmodernist weys of writin Scots. A’m wantin tae chap up Scots wi wabspeak. A’m wantin Scots tae multipy n multiply; A’m wantin hit tae get fair fucken fremmit. A’m wantin scrievers o Scots no tae clock ower auld pasts for Scotland: A’m wantin scrievers o Scots tae cleck orra futurs.

Throu aw that but, thare’s anither tuin cantin. The MacDiarmidite tradeetion o monolithic syncretist Scots haes lang been contert by a vernacular tradeetion o hameower Scots: some swatches bein, in Orkney, Christina Costie and Robert Rendall; in Shetland, Christine De Luca; in the Doric, Sheena Blackhall. This are poets wirkin in minority kynds o Scots – leevin hamelt vernaculars – n writin poetry in the soonds o leevin speech. Futurity haes as muckle tae dae wi leevin minority tradeetions as wi camsteirie, ragglish howps.

For aw that A’ve been reengin ma ain Scottishness throu writin Scots, A yet canna write Orcadian. A mind on wirds n phrases fae ma bairnheid, but A’m strauchlin tae pit thaim thegither. A’ve been awa ower lang. Ma Scots poety has Orcadian souchs, but thay ser anither leid, n A’m growin dissytit wi that. A want tae gang hame for a stoond, n see whit’s thare for me, n see whit’s in me thare.

Scots isna in guid set. Thanks tae aw the byous wirk o the Centre for the Scots Leid n Scottish Language Dictionaries, thare’s a guid-gaun unnerstaunding o whit Scots is n brave fowk keepin hit alive, but gey few o ma young contempors as poets are writin in hit. While Lallans stodges on, the Scots warks in Gutter or New Writing  Scotland are a curn n seendle fae younger writers. Ootside o Scotland A dout bit ye canna get Scots set furth at aw. A jist dinna think Scots is speakin muckle tae ma generation. Whether that’s the hank o the internet, or bein pit aff by Scots leeteratur’s ayebidin auld-carlism n machoness, or jist inevitable leid-deith, A dae ken, but A feel hit’s happenin.

A luve Scots. A feel like A’m experimentin yet. A feel like A’ve scantly stairtit antrin intae hou Scots micht maiter tae me, tae us. A feel like A’ve plenty tae lear fae thaim wha’ve wrote n are yet writin n rewritin Scots. I feel like thare’s plenty yet tae reenge. A dinna want this leid tae dee, acause A think thare’s that muckle vieve yet tae hit. Gif we get independence or no, A feel like Scottish cultur is flistin thanks tae the debate, that thare’s a guid sort o peuchleness n a sense o possibility thare: A want thay possibilities tae insnorl a leevin Scots. For that tae happen, A think we maun haud inventin n reinventin whit Scots micht be; A want tae threid minority tradeetions throu a royet n optimistic leid; A want no a stieve Scots or a haurd-mairchit Scotland, but a Scottishness whit’s birsin n remakkin hitsel ayeweys.

What Writing in Scots Means To Me

(back tae the tap)

I. History

I started writing in Scots as an experiment. It was scary for me, though I’d known the language for a long time. I was lucky enough to have a teacher for Higher English who had a strong interest in Scots poetry: through him I got to know and love bits of Robert Garioch and Hugh MacDiarmid; Matthew Fitt put me on to WN Herbert at a school creative writing course; and growing up in Orkney meant that I knew poems from Robert Rendall and Christina Costie too. I treasured these fragments of language for a long time, never quite sure how or if they belonged to me.

As I’ve written and spoken about at perhaps too much length, I’m a child of English parents. We moved to Westray (an outer island in Orkney) when I was 2, so Orkney’s the only home I know, but for all that I’m still and will always be an incomer. Perhaps because of feeling that, or perhaps because I was never that good at fitting in, or perhaps because I spent so much time in books, when I was a child I picked up more of my parents English  than my friends’ and neighbours’ Orcadian. Though the grammatical forms of my speech and certain word choices have definitely and defiantly stayed Orcadian (‘How’s that?’ for ‘Why?’ and ‘Through by’ for ‘Through here’ being really obvious ones, though practiced ears will pick up more), there’s obviously a lot of English in the way I speak. For that matter, the way I speak is slippery and shifty: I take on some of the accents of the people around me in a way that many unhomed people do.

When I was a teenager, I cultivated this Englishness somewhat. I dandied up my clothes, had a brief fascination with Brideshead Revisited, listened to The Divine Comedy (Neil Hannon being highly anglified himself), and so on: cultivating and identifying with this part of me was a way of gaining strength from what marked me out. All outsider teenagers know about this. I called myself “British” rather than “Scottish”. In the end, I didn’t really start exploring the Scottish and Orcadian parts of me until I lived in England.

I moved to London studying theatre directing, and finally realised that I wasn’t English either. I was appalled by what seemed like the complete ignorance of Londoners and English folk more broadly about how Scotland was, what mattered there, that it even existed. It didn’t help that there were a lot of Americans around who persistently referred to the UK as “England”. I developed a massive chip on my shoulder which coverage of the independence referendum has definitely helped to bed in. I felt more Scottish, because again I didn’t belong, and here it was my Scottishness that marked me out.

It was about this time that I started digging into the literary history of Scots. I picked up a big annotated edition of A Drunk Man Looks at a Thistle. I read and read, which is generally how I think about and cope with things. I started investigating why the Scots Renaissance happened, how language functioned as a means of not only asserting identity but building it, how writing in Scots happens now. Eventually, I thought I’d give it a try.

My first attempts involved using a lot of dictionaries. I didn’t know how to think in Scots. I’d suppressed the ear and the vocabulary that I grew up with. I needed to rediscover it. I needed to reclaim a part of myself that I’d deliberately pushed out of my identity. As I flicked through online thesauruses and other people’s poems, I started rediscovering words I thought I’d forgotten, and I started learning how to pick out the Scottish sentence forms from my own speech. I started teasing apart the different parts of my tongue – diction, cadence, vocabulary, syntax – and learning which parts of my voice articulated which parts of me. I started rewriting myself.

Most folk writing in Scots are in one way or another in (or running from) the shadow of Hugh MacDiarmid and his extraordinary experiment in syncretism. MacDiarmid’s project can be read as trying to recreate a Scots language as if the Acts of Union had never happened, as if the first vernacular Bibles in Scotland had been printed in the then-living Scottish tongue; it was a project in living alternative history through language and poetry. It damn near succeeded. Something about MacDiarmid’s mongrel, magpie approach to rewriting his own language and history appealed to me, attempting to rewrite mine. A syncretist Scots which borrowed from multiple dialects and dictionaries, which played havoc with sound and association, which put feeling and effect first, suited what I was attempting to do.

Brave was my first fully-fledged poem in Scots, though there were sketches before it. It’s in the ranting and flyting mode that Scots is often confined to (the limitations of which are astutely pointed out by Joyce MacMillan in her Scotsman review of Union). It attempted to smoosh together the conflicting loves and resentments I feel as an incomer Scot, as a half-Scot, as someone who half-belongs to a half-nation. I identified my own doubleness with some sort of cultural antisyzgy, a Scotland which is trying and failing to assert a multicultural contemporary identity without recourse to tartanry, which has forgotten half its history and commodified the other half, which loves and loathes its own kailyard. It was also an aggressive reclamation of my Scottishness: it was me saying this is me, I’m Scottish, me too, this country belongs to me too, and to you, and to us, and to these folk too. I’m happy that it’s become my most successful poem to date, winning me a few things (and losing others), and generally giving audiences a good time when it comes out. I felt like I was doing something right.

II. Future

The constructed performativity of the syncretist Scots project suited my own performative selfreconstruction; its experimental investigation of what Scotland might be helped me experiment with what my Scottishness might be. These days, more than half my work is written in Scots, and I’m continuing to try and push at the boundaries of what it might do. Writing in Scots helped me reconcile different parts of my identity: now I’m less worried, less anxious, less concerned about whether or not Scots belongs to me and more interested in what happens to Scottishness now.

I continue to write in Scots I think primarily because I’m attracted to its minority status. I love its sounds and patterns, yes, but I love those in English too. I’m interested in how in Scots I might write from the margins of things, and be able to say things that might otherwise go unsaid. I’m attracted to its defeatism, the sense of writing in something that’s dying or passing or changing; I like the way readers of Scots have to double-take and rethink sentences; I like that writing in Scots forces us to remake language on the fly in order to say unsaid things. All of this is a strong move away from MacDiarmidism: it is determinedly not the construction of a coherent language, or a coherent country, or a monolithic idea of what is Scottish. It is an attempt to assert the shifting pluralisms of Scotland.

(An aside for academic readers: I’m obviously talking a bit at and around Deleuze and Guattari here, and wondering how Scots might function in relation to the concept of a minor literature. Is anybody writing on this? Is there anything to say here?)

I find myself disturbed by the masculinism and conservatism of much of contemporary Scots literature. As Joyce MacMillan pointed out, Scots theatre seems to have become restricted of late to more male playwrights and subjects and macho forms. The pages of Lallans, Scots’ main literary journal, are frighteningly dominated by men. Reflecting on my own reading, the majority of the poets I’ve referenced here have been men. Now though, on the one hand, I’m bored by a rural conservatism in Scots literature that tells and retells stories down the pub and interminable seal-wifes; on the other, I’m utterly exhausted by the machoness of Irvine Welsh imitators, who offer the other main contemporary stream of Scots writing.

I want to find queer ways of writing Scots. I want to find feminist ways of writing Scots. I want to find postmodernist ways of writing Scots. I want to mash up Scots and net-speak. I want Scots to multipy and multiply; I want it to get really fucking weird. I want writers in Scots not to invent new pasts for Scotland or to interminably dig through history for answers: I want writers in Scots to invent new futures.

Though all that, though, there’s another tune singing. The MacDiarmidite tradition of monolithic syncretist Scots has long been countered by a vernacular tradition of Scots writing: in Orkney, Christina Costie and Robert Rendall; in Shetland, Christine De Luca; in the Doric, Sheena Blackhall. These are poets working in minority versions of Scots – living local vernaculars – and writing poetry in the sounds of speech. Futurity has as much to do with living minority traditions as wild and disruptive hopes.

For all that I’ve been exploring my own Scottishness through writing Scots, I still can’t write Orcadian. I remember words and phrases from my childhood, but I’m struggling to put them together. I’ve been away too long. My Scots poety has Orcadian inflections, but they’re put to the service of a bigger language, and I’m getting dissatisfied with that. I want to go home for a while, and see that’s there for me, and see what’s in me there.

Scots isn’t in a great state. Through all the magnificent work of the Scots Language Centre and Scottish Language Dictionaries, there exists a throroughgoing understanding of what Scots is and a brave body of folk keeping it alive, but precious few of my young contemporaries as poets are writing in it. While Lallans plods on, the Scots pieces in Gutter or New Writing Scotland are few and far between and rarely from younger writers. For some reason, I don’t think Scots is speaking that much to my generation. Whether that’s the influence of the internet, or being put off by Scots literature’s enduring old-fogeyism and machoness, or just inevitable language death, I don’t know, but I feel like it’s happening.

I love Scots. I feel like I’m still experimenting. I feel like I’ve barely started exploring what Scots might mean to me, to us. I feel like there’s a lot left to explore. I don’t want this language to die, because I think there’s so much life left in it. Whether we get independence or not, I feel like Scottish culture is booming as a result of the referendum debate, that there’s a confidence and a sense of possibility there: I want those possibilities to involve a living Scots. For that to happen, I want to keep inventing and reinventing what Scots might be; I want to thread living minority traditions through a wild and optimistic language; I want not a stable Scots or a tightly-bordered Scotland, but a Scottishness that’s pushing and recreating itself always.

Not Going to the Party: Anxiety, Access and the Arts

Personal, Politics, Rambles

This essay is about my own chronic social anxiety (discussed in concrete and difficult detail), about some of the complexities involved in talking about disability, and how mental health relates to accessibility. For me, it’s one of the scariest things I’ve put on the internet. Like everything political I put up here, it’s written from my own limited perspective. I’d very much value the thoughts and perspectives of others on the piece, especially if you think there’s things I’m well off about; I’m particularly interested in thoughts from folk involved in disability activism and radical mental health. Anyhow, here goes:

Not Going to the Party
Anxiety, Access and the Arts

When you apply for a job, grant, commission or anything else under the dubious and horror-inducing header of Opportunities, you should be filling in some kind of Equal Opportunities or Diversity Monitoring form, and that form should be asking you whether or not you have a disability. Actually, if it’s a really good monitoring form, it’ll ask whether you “consider yourself to have a disability” or whether you “identify as disabled”, which are simultaneously more complex and more simple questions than “Are you disabled?” The specificity of Creative Scotland’s “Do you have any of the following conditions which have lasted, or are expected to last, at least 12 months?” is a particular gem of hiding a hugely complicated discourse behind an apparently clear question. All of which is to say: every time I fill one of these out, I hover my cursor over the checkbox, wishing there was an option for “I don’t know, maybe, I mean yes, of course, but it’s complicated, what do you mean?”

I have severe and chronic social anxiety. I’ve written about some of the ways this manifests before, but, if you know me, it’s still quite possible that you might not know this about me. It’s easy to miss. It’s not a very visible condition – partly because when it’s bad it means I have to hide from people, and partly because it’s a condition which can disable (ah…) the parts of the self needed to talk about the condition. The way you might most commonly hear or see it is when you ask me to a party or some social event and I respond clumsily and awkwardly – “Uh, maybe, I mean thanks, I’d really like to, but I may not be able to, er…” – and, if you push me, I might say “Well I actually find parties really hard.” Then you might look at me strangely – or, in a way that heartens me when I see it but at the same time makes me sad, you might say, “Oh… yeah… me too.”

If you’re not a “me too”, here’s what it feels like. If I’m in a social situation, it’s something like trying to walk through a tight darkened corridor lined with broken glass. That might sound melodramatic, but it’s important to me to get across the physical pain and horror entailed by social situations for me – this isn’t introversion, isn’t a preference or personality thing, but incapacitating (ah…) suffering: so, darkness and broken glass. If I have people I really trust there, or if it’s a small gathering, or if it’s quite quiet, or if I have a clear social role (like host, or cook, or performer), there’s more light and more safe places to stand. The busier and noisier it is, the more strangers there are and the stranger they are to me, the less defined my social role, and the more at stake or risk my social capital (more on this in a bit), the darker and tighter the corridor, the sharper the glass. The broken glass is an unending stream of painful thoughts like “All these people hate me” and “I’m hopeless and ridiculous” and “I just failed and will always fail” and “Run away before you make a bigger fool of yourself” and “RUN AWAY NOW” and worse, all sharp and cutting in the way they arrive. I guess most of the people reading this have thoughts like that sometimes. Try and imagine having them constantly, all the time, without relief, and you’ll get close. Sometimes this leads to migraines, sometimes to panic attacks, sometimes to me just behaving really, really weirdly.

I’ve developed many strategies to manage my social anxiety, because I like people and I like being able to spend time with them without my hands shaking so hard I drop my pint. Alcohol is one coping strategy – though whether a pint or two eases or intensifies my anxiety is a bit of a lottery. Identifying a nearby safe space that I can withdraw to when needed – a calm room, a person to check in with quietly, a toilet break – is really crucial. Giving myself a fixed role to play within the party is a frequent one, though it has its limits, and it’s hard to relax with that. Many of these management strategies are as much for you, the “normal” person, as they are for me: they hide my anxiety from you, which makes it easier for you to relate to me and protects me from being hurt, even as it exhausts me. The best coping strategy I’ve ever found is performing itself: getting on stage and performing for people is a glorious feeling for me; it allows me to be in huge, noisy rooms without panicking; and often the buzz from performing well can carry over for several hours, enough for me to socialise free from anxiety for a while. The only downside is that when you’re known as a performer, your social anxiety becomes even more invisible. I’m continually astonished by the dense way people will say: “How can you be chronically socially anxious when you spend so much time on stages?” For me, the times I’m in performance are among the best times in my daily life, and that’s a huge part of why I’m an artist.

So, do I have a disability? Do I consider myself to have a disability? Do I identify as disabled? Do I have a mental health condition which has lasted, or is expected to last, at least 12 months? Yes. No. Maybe. It depends.

The DSM-V, American psychiatry’s diagonistic manual, widely used elsewhere, calls what I have Social Anxiety Disorder. I pretty much fit the bill for how it’s described. Sometimes I call it that. Usually I just call it “social anxiety”, and that’s how I’ve talked about it with counsellors. I haven’t exactly self-diagnosed, and nor have I sought a diagnosis through standard NHS routes. I may yet do that – it might provide access to more understanding, and also to more assistance for my conditions, but it also means engaging with traumatic bureaucratic intrusion into my life. In any case, what I have severely reduces my ability to function in a “normal” way, causes severe pain and suffering, and has persisted chronically: these are all reasons I could be said to have a disability or identify as disabled.

But there’s more to it. For one thing, I pass. For the most part, people don’t know I have this condition unless I let them know. Like being a queer man not currently in a relationship with another man, I get given social passing privilege, or can take it. This matters. I don’t suffer the deleterious effects of being always seen as other, always seen as disabled, my mind and body aren’t seen as available to your intrusion in the way others’ might be, and so if I were to identify as disabled it would mean a different thing. There’s a community, a language and a discourse that I am tentative about appropriating. Moreover, while my condition is severe and chronic, it’s also for the most part manageable, and it does wax and wane, and that matters too: it is not permanently there. And more still, the stigma and lack of social understanding around mental health and wellbeing issues is such that it’s a major and difficult step for me to make to identify publicly in that way (a step you may be able to tell I’m deliberately forcing myself to make with posts like this). All of which is to say that disability is socially situated and complexly experienced, and is rarely a yes/no answer.

Through all of that, what really matters to me is whether my condition inhibits my ability to participate in my life. Disability is not, in the end, I think, mainly a question of whether you have such-and-such a condition or such-and-such a diagnosis, but a question of how the world excludes you – how the structures of society exclude you from experiences or resources or opportunities because of who you are. For an artist, chronic and severe social anxiety is a major access issue.

Social functions are a big part of life as an artist: “succeeding” as an artist, which is to say having any kind of “career” as an artist, which is to say not just reaching bigger and wider audiences but also being able to perform the labour functions of art in such a way that your social system will give you the resources you need to live, requires being able to socialise. You find your audiences through amassing social capital: growing interest in your name and your work, being able to persuade people to come to your gig, your launch, your action. You find your employers, commissioners, producers and programmers through being able to meet people, talk about your work, persuade people to take an interest in your work. You find your community and collaborators by being able to be friendly, interesting and kind. These are all forms of socialisation and social access, and they are true for lots of social roles and careers, but they’re really true for artists. They are also all boosted by being able to go to parties, and by being able to experience social situations as anything other than intolerably painful more often than not.

OK, look: I’m more likely to go to my friends’ gigs than anyone else’s gigs. Many of the artists I’m interested in are also my friends, and sometimes the friend part comes first. In the forms of art where the performance of the self is relevant – live art and performance art, for example – then being friends with the artist can make the work richer and more interesting to you. This stuff is not accusing artists and producers of being nepotistic or favouritist (though some of them may be that too); it’s a description of how the normative values and processes of society reinforce given structures of power. It is not blaming artists for being interested in their friends; it’s just admitting that that happens. It’s saying that if you’re more able to socialise, more able to make friends, more able to go to parties – places where you can make friends, interest people in you, form stronger social bonds, talk about huge ideas over free-flowing food and wine, whatever – then you have greater access to being a successful artist.

Accessibility is a many-faceted issue, and there are deep and complex questions to ask about it – about what arts venues and events can and should do to support access for artists and audiences; about how that is different for, for example, a regular wheel-chair user, a deaf audience member, an artist with manic depression; about whether inclusion is even the right discourse to be using anyway, whether there’s something inherently flawed and power-ridden about the idea of one group being “included” by another; about a hundred other things besides. So I’m aware that I’m launching this particular access question into a sea of other questions, and while I think that producers, organisers and venue managers have a duty to properly consider them all, I also sympathise with those genuinely trying to understand. So in what follows, I’ll try and make some concrete suggestions.

I don’t want you to stop having parties! I don’t even want you to stop inviting me to parties! (Please keep inviting me to parties.) I definitely don’t want people to stop having art parties, which are beautiful. Other things I’m not asking for include: rewarding or congratulating me for overcoming my anxiety (because it’s not something to be overcome: it’s something I live with and that’s a fact that you need to live with); and asking me every five minutes at parties whether or not I’m OK (I’m definitely not now!) But there are a couple of things I want to draw out.

It’s not just me: different people have hugely different capacities and limiting factors when it comes to parties and all the other kinds of socialisation. Across neurodiversity, depression, OCD, autism spectrum conditions and a host of other forms of being can change how you can and want to socialise. Many of these are much more severe and more “disabling” than mine, though that doesn’t – and it’s a struggle with myself to assert my ability to say this – reduce how severe my condition feels to me. In a totally different but equally relevant way, ability to access the art world’s social capital can also be reduced by having kids, debt, or a tiring job at 7am. Or by having drug and alcohol dependency issues. Or by a thousand other things. People are extraordinarily diverse and often strange, in both visible and invisible ways. So, if you believe in widening access to the arts, and you believe in welcoming diversity into your community, then please remember that that applies to how you socialise too. Mindfulness of neurodiversity: that’s the main thing I’m asking for.

When you’re organising events and festivals, do you provide multiple ways to socialise? Are you sensitive to how space and organisation create different social spaces and different access issues? When you host an art party, is there a quiet room or a safe space? (Correct answer: the whole thing should be a safe space). When you set up a networking event, how might the kinds of networking you provide exclude some people, and who could you ask to help? How much do you rely on the social connections you’ve made when programming a festivals? Could you draw a map tracing your relationship with each artist and how it formed? Are there any blank spaces on that map? When you see someone acting or seeming awkward at a party, what do you do? Do you act embarrassed and shut them out? Do you equate their awkwardness with some moral failing? Do you avoid inviting them next time? Or do you find ways to relate to them as another human being?

Those last questions are about recognising that our society privileges particular kinds of mind, particular ways of being, and particular social abilities. Being a good party-goer is a social norm. It is hard not to be part of that norm; it is hard to celebrate the extraordinary things that not being part of that norm can give you when your exclusion is hurting; and it is painful and traumatic to be ignored, laughed at, judged for being weird or otherwise abused for not being part of that norm. Resist reinforcing that norm whenever you can. I want you to invite me to parties, but when I say I can’t come, think about what your response might mean to me. You can ask me about ways of responding, if you’d like. More often than not, I’d like that.

There’re a lot of reasons I’m writing this, asking these questions, and making these suggestions. It’s happening now because it’s just been peak Edinburgh festivals season, which is like the world having a party on my doorstep, and thus a constant source of horror. It’s also because Forest Fringe just held an excellent gathering around some questions of access. A big part of the why is that I think they might be helpful for the many other people I know facing similar or connected issues in their lives: a bit of solidarity is a wonderful thing. Another big part is that I think that the more neurotypical artists and producers who read this might gain some genuine understanding from it and start thinking of other ways to do things. But beneath and behind those reasons, this is also about being honest about myself, thinking through who I am and how I relate to my work and the world. For me, maybe the most important outcome of writing this is that the next time I’m facing one of those forms, I might just tick “Yes”.

Thanks to Laura Dean, Katy Ewing, Darcy Leigh, Jenny Lindsay Barbara Melville, Annabel Turpin, and Molly Uzzell for comments on and support for the first draft of this piece.