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Writing, by its very nature, is a solitary and inward pursuit. Most writers will be able to identify with Proust scribbling away in his cork-lined room, averse to any contamination of his creative process by the outside world. Though the generation of the work itself necessitates much solitude, I have come to believe that, even for a writer, success usually requires other people to catalyse it.
Writers, like other creatives, benefit a great deal from having a support network of people who believe in their work and understand the particular risks an artistic life entails. Last year in a blog for my publisher I referred to such a cohort as a wolf pack. I wrote that finding one’s wolf pack was a necessary task for a writer. This doesn’t mean that I believe writers should belong to a school or a set where there develops a signature style which then influences, dictates or restricts what they create. A wolf pack is about the companionship and encouragement that will help a writer to endure the toughest bits on the long, hard road that is a writing life. My pack members include jazz singers, game designers and entrepreneurs as well as a few writers, some as far afield as Minneapolis or Zimbabwe. Wherever they are, contact with them, however infrequent, is almost always inspiring. One of the characteristics they all have in common is that, at the times in my life when I have chosen writing over salary, not one of them has considered my choice irresponsible. There are lots of people who think that the definition of a ‘real’ writer is a published one or one who gets paid for writing. In my opinion, the writing life is a continuum and publication (and payment) happen for different people at different points on that continuum. In other words, being published or being paid for writing are less helpful than we might think in defining a ‘real’ writer. Wolf pack members never need this point explained to them.
If artistic vision and an ability to tolerate risk form some of the other key characteristics of the wolf pack, the one thing that has absolutely no place in the pack is envy. Julia Cameron touches on this in her now classic book on creative block, ‘The Artists Way’, when she talks about the often deeply-held belief that someone else’s success is equivalent to one’s own failure. This is the competitive model with which many of us were raised, where there can only be one winner. The reality of an artistic life however is that there is no set course and no finish line. Art of any sort requires a body of work and multiple diverse voices, so that one idea can inspire, augment and cross-fertilise another. I recall talking about my novel when it had just gone out to publishers with a friend who is also a writer. ‘But you’re so far ahead of me!’ she cried out in dismay, as if I was somehow making headway at her expense. I remember deeply resenting this response, because to even get to that point I’d already spent many lonely, frustrating years working on my book while she had barely begun her own.
By far the best response I had to my novel coming out, the response that made me feel the most validated, was when a friend told me that my book’s publication had made her finally decide to commit to writing a play. I have started to call this response drafting. Not drafting as in the writing of a text but in the cycling sense: i.e. catching someone’s tailwind. Except that in the field of artistic practice, drafting doesn’t slow anyone down. In actual fact it energises both of you.
There are more tangible benefits to developing this sort of support structure. Many years ago my sister worked at a film school. Film-making is more obviously a collaborative art form and indeed the young film-makers she worked with always seemed to be helping each other out, with contacts, with potential job opportunities, with equipment, with technical support. This wasn’t a form of nepotism; it was simple generosity. Other artists, who themselves are no strangers to graft, are often only too happy to help you if they see that you too have a passion for your work. In my own life, many ‘breakthrough’ opportunities have come via fellow writers.
Watching other members of one’s wolf pack persevere and succeed not only endorses one’s own creative goals but makes them seem achievable. For me this mind-set has only become possible because I have divested myself of the belief that creative dreams are only for people other than me, a self-defeating belief that is surprisingly common and often deeply entrenched. I prefer now to see life as an adventure that we shape as we go and in which many things are possible.
In addition to living mentors, over the years I’ve acquired a few virtual ones, often long-dead writers or artists, some aspect of whose lives was particularly inspiring. For me the Swedish poet Harry Martinson is one such example. Martinson transcended a childhood of great hardship to emerge as a poet, later winning the Nobel prize for Literature, and all of this despite never having received a formal education. Below is his poem, Chickweed Wintergreen, (from his Selected Poems, released by Bloodaxe in 2010 but first published in 1935).
Yet manages, sparingly
and neatly in the moss.
The flowers are delicate
but know nothing of the sweet pliancy
you would foist on summer.
The determination of the fragile
is no less than that of the oak.
Martinson was no stranger to suffering. If ever there was a man who seemed to exemplify artistic endurance, he was it. A copy of his Selected Poems has been resident on my night stand for some years. I dip into it when I need to remind myself that, if we are passionate about our art and prepared to do the work, there is no reason to assume we can’t achieve our goals.