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There is a vacuum here, a void. I’ve written everything I needed to. If I was an established author I could take a break, wait for the next piece to take shape. I could teach, pass on what I know, or comment on current affairs, and reside in opposition. As it is I’m in limbo, a space between projects. I walk the streets to fill hours no longer spent writing. I read. I reacquaint myself with old albums. Somehow this doesn’t feel like I thought it would. I’m unsure of myself, of everything I’ve done.
I think it started when I received confirmation of my graduation in Creative and Life Writing. I’ve been awarded a certificate my partner thinks I should frame. I am Reece Choules MA. There is a sense of personal achievement that comes with this, however vague and intangible. I have no idea what I am going to do with it. I read between the lines of the accompanying university transcript. For hints and clues to a realisation I fear. I have no place here, in your literary world. I am an impostor. Running out of words. Running out of stories to tell.
In a way, I guess I’m always where I am now, on the brink of self-sabotage. To the point it has almost become cliché. I wonder if in fact this is a writer’s default setting, but deep down I don’t think that’s true. It is worse at times like this though, when I have finished a piece. The post-writing comedown brings an onslaught of overwhelming despair. The graded insight into my work only seems to be exacerbating this. I know it’s only an opinion, the words of lecturers whose views are so often contrasting. These marks however present me not with a problem, but with an abstract feeling that’s hard to pin down.
I spent months crafting the stories submitted for my final portfolio. I had absolute faith that this was the best work I had produced. I believed they were parts of a yearlong jigsaw that worked as well individually, as they did as some loose fitting whole. Even the title, Mantras For Modern Living, seemed to fall into place at the right moment, organically, and without struggle. Yet in the end it was my least favourite piece, written for a Life Writing module I never felt I got to grips with, that provided my best mark. At the time I thought the story was perhaps too introverted, too melancholic, to work on any universal level. To find out then that it worked more successfully than a series of stories I had poured my heart and soul into leaves me feeling like I failed.
Maybe this is all an act of subterfuge, a creation of a problem that isn’t there, but it troubles me to know I have been in this situation before, on my undergraduate course. Back then it was a never completed novella called These Days, a suburban western I couldn’t quite get to grips with, which ultimately brought disappointment. The pace was too plodding, the characters too contemplative. So with deadlines approaching I was forced to admit defeat. Reluctantly I reverted to type, I wrote about my life. I say reluctantly, because I felt I was cheating. I wasn’t telling the story I set out to, the story I wanted to, I was rehashing. Going over old ground. This isn’t a denouncement of Life Writing. This is an acknowledgement of that internal voice that Life Writing brings out in me. The voice that says, no one cares.
I know that a writer rarely sees their work in the same way as the reader. That every piece is eventually open to, and at the mercy of, all individual interpretations. So a story can at once be, a haunting meditation on death, and a glorious affirmation of life. It can be brooding and misanthropic, but insightful and humorous. As readers we bring our views, our baggage, to every story we read. The things we like become a way of identifying ourselves, and others. So the novels we love are both immersive worlds we escape to, and a brief, albeit obscured gaze, at our own elusive personalities. This might explain why it is it so common for writers to have a stronger affection for their lesser known works. The untainted novel that stands outside of the collective psyche.
Obsessing over these kinds of things will, for many writers, be completely counterproductive. In some respects part of me wishes I was still the ignorant youth writing songs for a never formed band. I feel as though I know too much now, I’ve seen how others slip away. Life catches up with them. Children, the bills. The fire burns out, writing becomes something to leave behind. I seek comfort in the journeys of writers I admire. I tell myself James Salter wasn’t published until he was 32. That A Sport And A Pastime was rejected by every major publisher, until George Plimpton published it in his Paris Review Editions. For each example like this however, I am aware of others less romanticised. Some are tragic, while some seem bittersweet.
I’m thinking of Philip K. Dick. How throughout the 1950s, despite numerous pieces being published in Science Fiction magazines, and journals, he toiled extensively on what he considered to be ‘literary’ works of fiction. So much so that at one time he was said to have at least a dozen ‘literary’ manuscripts in circulation with agents and publishers. Of all these it was only Confessions Of A Crap Artist that would be published in Dick’s lifetime, and this was due largely to the success of novels such as Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?, Ubik, and A Scanner Darkly.
I am aware that to some readers it is almost perverse to consider Philip K. Dick as anything other than a success. Today he is remembered as one of the most important Science Fiction writers of the 20th century. His novels and short stories have inspired countless film and television adaptations, including Blade Runner, Total Recall, and most recently The Man In The High Castle. I can’t help wondering though if he would have swapped this for the more ‘literary’ reputation he spent all those years working for. If given the choice he would have chosen an altogether different career.
Perhaps I’m guilty of a shameless over indulgence. If however there is something to be learned here, I suspect it is this. A writer will never be able to control how their work is perceived. You can study every How Fiction Works book. You can plan, and craft, and re-draft. Literature is a correspondence for those seeking understanding. The perception of it, is and always has been, the readers’ domain. They are our judge, and jury. The people we reach out to. So in the end it has to be them who decides what kind of writers we’ll be.