More Writing About Writing: What Makes a Writer?

writer

What makes a writer? Their gender, their race, their social class? I’m not sure in all honesty. I don’t know what they are supposed to define, or represent. I’ve never thought about it to any great length. One day I sat down and started writing. Was it poetry, fiction? I don’t know what you’d call it. There was no great goal in mind. Satisfaction came from the act itself. When the notebook was filled I destroyed it. Years later this aimless action now has form and structure, but the force behind it remains the same. A desire for expression.

Looking back on it my life was much simpler then. I worked at Homebase, something I’d eventually do for eleven years, I came home, read for a few hours, watched a film, and then went to bed. Gradually this changed to working during the day, writing all evening, then reading before bed. I wouldn’t say I was happy with this arrangement, comfortably numb would be a more appropriate, if not Pink Floyd borrowed, description. Indeed if it was not for the intervention of a friend, in all likelihood, this routine would have continued indefinitely.

No one in my family has ever been to university, and before my friend ordered a prospectus for me, no one in my family had much thought about it either. Even after the possibility of going had stirred a yearning for something more, it took a lot of convincing for me to actually follow the route of further education, let alone in Creative Writing. I left school with GCSE’s in English, English Lit, History, Drama, and Religious Education. I had no A-Levels though so we wasn’t actually sure I’d be offered a place. In the end I was required to send the university a selection of my prose and poetry, which my friend had to type up for me, I didn’t have a computer. Then we waited. Fear crept in, doubts. Every other day I changed my mind.

When I eventually started the course I quickly realised how I was required to start thinking about writing in a way I wasn’t sure I was capable of. I felt I’d made a huge mistake. There was so much about the context of a work, about a writer’s life, and how it informed what they wrote. Everything ended in ism. Realism. Existentialism. Modernism. Post-Modernism. All somehow overlapping, with definitions that were not entirely clear, or in some cases, at least to me, accurate. To me a writer was a writer, all other considerations were just theorizing.

Reading essays from that period I notice how often I spoke of my affection for the work of Charles Bukowski. Post Office and Factotum, were, and perhaps still are, the only books I’ve read that represent a way of life I’m familiar with. Working for minimum wage, living with poverty, I could go on, I won’t. His influence is also notable in the prose I wrote at that time. Short stories such as Classic Writer Prize Fighter, which begins with a boxing match between Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, were a kind of Bukowskiesque riff on The Colour Of Money, and noir fiction. A novella, Ballad Of A Thin Man, detailed my time working at Homebase, and my youthful lessons in love, with all the raw intensity I could muster.

I’m thinking about all this because I find myself back in the family home. Staying at my mother’s while finishing my MA portfolio, and a few other things with their deadlines approaching. In quiet moments I take the books from my shelf bought by old lovers. I read the inscriptions in Notes Of A Dirty Old Man, and Ham On Rye. I read their introductions. Bukowski was the laureate of American low-life, of the drunks, and prostitutes, and barfly’s of LA. The back cover blurbs sell him as the down and out raconteur. Reading other blurbs, other introductions, I’m surprised by just how many writers are wrapped up in a series of meaningless labels, and taglines. Some of which work for the author, others which somehow demean their efforts.

If all my early writing was published tomorrow I suspect I’d be labelled a ‘working class writer’. The blurbs might say that I explore the tougher side of life in London suburbs. The heartbreak of disillusioned youth. My stories would be coming of age stories. Introductions of future editions might discuss how I was raised by a single mother on welfare. It might go into further details about nervous breakdowns, drug abuse, and my unfulfilled desire to be a musician.

Was any of this on my mind at the time of writing though? No. Was it what I was looking to dissect, and explore? No. I was lovesick. Like Goethe’s Young Werther I was a sensitive and romantic young man driven to despair. Once my circumstances changed though, so did my writing. My interest now is in the intricacies of long-term relationships, of reaching the age of reason. I’m fascinated by the influence of the state, and corporations on modern life. Would future theoretical works be judged on these hypothetical ‘working class’ novels of my past? Would I be accused of forgetting my roots, of not tackling the issues that still affect others like me?

Not so long ago I read an article by Taiye Selasi, author of Ghana Must Go, exploring the pigeonholing of modern African writers. It also discussed what makes a so called African novel, or indeed an African writer, and how there is an increasing struggle to define it. Going further Selasi lamented how she and her contemporaries often find themselves in a no win situation. Where if they write about the poverty, and war, that cripples many of their respective countries, they are accused of ‘poverty-porn’, and if they write about life or subjects outside of Africa they get accused of writing for the West. What I thought was perhaps most interesting about Selasi’s piece though was her taking to task this idea of the African writer as native informant. Arguing that African writers write for the love of literature and craft, just like any other writer.

Taken further this logic could be applied to any writer marginalised, and pre-judged because of their gender, race, class, or sexual preference. Of course all forms of diversity should be embraced, but not to the point where it detracts from the writers talent, or body of work. We should encourage those who seek to challenge prejudices, who write for equality, and social justice. Their subject matter should not be dictated to them though on the basis of an ethnic, social, or gender group. Ultimately it is about respect. Every writer deserves the freedom to explore what they need to, while being treated with the same artistic integrity afforded to those not side-lined by an ill-defined, and flawed labelling system. For a writer should, first and foremost, always be a writer.




More Writing About Writing: For Writing, With Love

McCarthy’s apocalyptic visions

People pass in the twilight drift like apparitions. Planes ripple chemtrails through the clouds. From these green hills I see the highest points of commerce, the Shard, the Gherkin, and Canary Wharf. While crickets provide percussion to my dystopian daydream. I came here to escape the bass reverb of my neighbours. I came here to try and re-read The Road. The terrifying beauties of McCarthy’s apocalyptic visions have me obsessing again though. On a debate I’ve been having for over a month.

It all started nonchalantly. Writers talking writing, whose work inspired us, in his case Richard Yates, in mine, James Salter. We moved on to the short story, it’s disciplines and rewards. He wanted to know if I saw it as a stepping-stone to the novel, or as its own art form. My initial response was to agree with the latter. Having spent months on a collection of short stories for my MA I’ve come to appreciate them on a whole new level. Thinking about this more extensively though, pondering my beginnings, I wonder if there are wider considerations that I am forgetting.

With access to numerous emerging, and reputable magazines, as well as prestigious competitions, for the new, and the less established writer, the short story can be a great way of getting your work noticed. The problem with this of course is that the modern short story is at risk of becoming just another means to an end, a thread within a tapestry of essays, articles, and blogs. Which only solidifies further the impression of a pecking order, among the different literary forms. What has be taken into account though is that for any aspiring novelist, the short story is a space in which to shape your prose. It is a more practical, and approachable sphere, in which to chisel away at those early bad habits.

I once went through a phase where I was writing three or four short stories a week. The mistake I made though was that I never allowed any of these stories the time to sit. I never gave them space to breathe, so I never got from them all that I could have done. At the time I felt this overwhelming pressure to keep moving, to keep fleshing out the biog. I was writing numerous articles on everything from the music of David Bowie, to the art of Hieronymus Bosch. I never once paused to take stock of it all though. To see what was effective in my writing, and what was not.

In hindsight I can see that while I was writing a lot at the time, the pieces were not as focused as they should have been. I suspect this sort of problem is not particularly rare among new writers, and to me it seems a small part of a wider issue. An issue you see across the cultural landscape, where artists are expected to do it all. Actors release albums, or novels, singer’s star in films. There is nothing wrong with it, but is there not a risk for the writer of spreading their talent to thin? And can talent for one form really translate into success within another?

To me one of the best literary examples of this is Cormac McCarthy. Often described as America’s greatest living novelist, writers and academics routinely declare his novel Blood Meridian as one of the finest works of fiction the 20th century produced. The first McCarthy works I read were the Border Trilogy of All The Pretty Horses, The Crossing, and Cities Of The Plains, all of which demonstrated to me a masterful control of the written word. Of course others often cite the likes of Child Of God, Suttree, and The Road, as the defining pieces of an almost unparalleled oeuvre. And perhaps it is this mastery in one field that has led McCarthy into exploring his abilities in others.

Throughout his illustrious career, but more so in later years, Cormac McCarthy has written plays for both the stage, and the screen, albeit to varying degrees of success. The Stonemason, although receiving praise upon release, is rarely produced today, while the more recent, The Sunset Limited, was widely criticised for not working as a play at all. In fact some critics saw it as a missed opportunity for McCarthy, who they felt should have perhaps just written it as a novel instead.

Despite these failures to translate the power of his work from page to stage McCarthy fans might well be forgiven for having been excited about 2013’s The Counsellor. With a McCarthy penned script. An ensemble Hollywood cast. Not to mention directing duties for Ridley Scott. The film was released amid intense interest and publicity, and yet despite this, by all accounts it completely bombed. Part of this anticipation was due to the success of the Coen brother’s adaptation of McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men. The key word here of course though is adaptation.

Cormac McCarthy novels are renowned as much for their language, and philosophy, as they are for their movement across landscape, and control of action. They also, more often than not, operate in a very different way to the traditional Hollywood film structure. To be fair to McCarthy I quite liked The Counsellor, but this was largely because it had everything a McCarthy novel has, plus the visuals of Ridley Scott. To the casual cinemagoer though I imagine the film may well have been at best morally overbearing, and at worst, bafflingly under whelming. What I found most interesting though was that around the time of the films release McCarthy gave interviews where he stated that he didn’t really watch much modern cinema, even if he did reference the work of Terence Malik as something he appreciated.

Now by no means is McCarthy the first or the last author to experience Hollywood failure. William Faulkner famously walked out on Tinsel Town because he couldn’t handle the interference or the deadlines. I think what McCarthy’s experience serves to demonstrate is, that writing isn’t just writing when it comes to approaching different forms. I couldn’t imagine a great poet saying they didn’t read much poetry. I couldn’t imagine a great novelist saying they weren’t really interested in novels. Even the best of writers have to embrace the disciplines of a form if they want them to work.

J.D. Sallinger once wrote, ‘An artists only concern is to shoot for some kind of perfection, and on his own terms.’ I sometimes think a writer’s work should be thought of like a lover. If you are not completely infatuated, if you cannot be utterly dedicated, if you see yourself tempted by another, any vague plans for a future together might as well be forgotten. It is why poetry, flash fiction, short stories, and novels, should to be treated as what they are, an art within themselves, to be cherished and adored.




More Writing About Writing: Elements of Style

 Raphael, The Healing of the Lame Man (1515-16)
Raphael, The Healing of the Lame Man (1515-16), Tempera on paper, mounted on canvas, 340 x 540 cm. Victoria and Albert Museum, London © Victoria & Albert Museum

I’ve been going to galleries. I’ve been going to museums. Staring at grand Raphael painting’s in the V&A. Jesus, his disciples, the Last Supper, and Crucifixion. No one paints like this anymore. The techniques, the narratives, everything has changed. It’s moved with the generations, becoming more opaque. I worry then that this means I in turn am becoming archaic. I tell myself it’s just a change of scene, to change a style. I tell myself that when I have a voice unique to me, everything else will fall into place.

Pick a writer whose work you admire, and try to write like them. Eventually you’ll find that your own style comes through.

This was the best advice I was given as a Creative Writing undergraduate. As a Masters student, I am now expected to explain this style, and all choices made, in the form of reflective essays. I’m told it is to get me thinking about my writing, so I might understand it better. The truth is though; I don’t, and never have, understood it. I am influenced as much by Joy Division and Scott Walker, as I am by James Salter and Simone De Beauvoir. The stories I create, at least in theory, are striving towards a combination of all these elements. They need a rhythm, electronic, but ambient. They need a vision, neon, but glacial.

In the past I have jumped from a Kerouac like spontaneous prose, to an intense, on edge, narrative based on early Knut Hamsun writing. I found these hard to maintain though. They felt forced. Of course there was a common thread, in terms of content, but they lacked the starkness, and space I was looking for, in order to find something different. That works quickly and economically, in terms of mood, and atmosphere, like a classic album, say an Unknown Pleasures, or Tago Mago.

Confused I turned to those already where I am looking to be. They said,

This can’t be done. You’re wasting your time.

They said,

Writing is about narrative, plot, and structure. Forget the style, forget ambience.

They pointed me back in the direction of what’s come before, as I myself have often turned. Increasingly though, it is becoming less helpful, and the irony is, that many of the greats of the past rejected what came before them, and if not, they bent it, and shaped it into something their own. This happens all the time, with everything from football to fashion. To move forward we take what we need and leave the rest behind.

In many respects though there is only so far you can go. Music for example will always have a limited amount of notes. So similarities between the chord structures and melodies of songs are commonplace. These notes however can be manipulated by a host of different instruments, and keys, in a range of diverse styles. So when songs do share a similar sonic palette they can still achieve strikingly different outcomes.

Take for instance Radiohead’s gloomy, Motion Picture Soundtrack from Kid A. In essence it is the depressed young sibling of The Beatles White Album closer Good Night. The soaring, angelic backing vocals, the lush strings, the way the songs float towards their conclusion, and yet Thom Yorke’s falsetto lamenting cheap sex and sleeping pills produces something altogether darker and more melancholic than Ringo’s endearingly nasal, Disney like, lullaby. Meaning one becomes an almost Orwellian Hymn, and the other becomes a nostalgic vision of a future, where the listener is simultaneously both child and parent.

Now in respect to literature there are theories, which suggest that in everything from The Hunger Games to Heart Of Darkness there will be characteristic plot devices and structures that date back centuries. There are also hundreds of books written about how books should be written. For my Masters I am marked on specific criteria based upon what all writing has done, and is supposed to do. If then these ingredients are part of some universal literary DNA, and all writers have to follow them, then perhaps the only thing that truly separates one work from another is style.

Climbing the walls with this thought, shouting at trains, I found myself forced to repeat it all again, to a friend entrenched in her own ever spiralling project. She said,

Style. Never worry about it. I worry about characterisation, and plot.

Everyone says that. What if we’re all just writing the same stories though? What separates say Hemingway from Faulkner? Style. People remember their styles.

What. No. You’re moving too far from what you’re supposed to be doing. Concentrate on the story.

Unsatisfied by the off hand dismissal I decided to relay this to a friend who isn’t a writer, but is always happy to indulge in conversations of cultural relevance.

This is interesting. What you’re saying. You’re moving toward a kind of Pop-lit.

Ambient maybe. What I am wondering though, is if literature needs to become something more abstract? Less fixed, like modern art.

It’s not the job of a writer to be abstract. Actually it’s the opposite. What you need to be is subversive, Ballard via Henry Miller, with a concrete emotional narrative.

Maybe.

Look, really, all you need to do is write what you want to read.

Write what I want to read?

You can’t sit around second-guessing what people want. When you start writing something, ask yourself, would I want to read this? If you don’t, your reader won’t.

What do I want to read? The stories I am interested in usually focus on individuals, lost, isolated in their own drifting lives. This can be Fight Club or The Bell Jar, but it could also be Crash or Ask The Dust.

I said,

I don’t think this is going to help me. I’m stuck in the past, but I want the future.

What do you mean?

I mean one minute I think novels should be lean, like Point Omega. Then I think they need to be big expansive affairs that immerse the reader, like War And Peace.

So you want distance, and immediacy. You want crisp, economic, immersion.

Yes.

He proceeded to tell me that this is all sounded like an unhealthy act of self-sabotage. That I’m creating problems, and pressure, that isn’t really there. Perhaps it’s why I am still sat in the V&A staring at Raphael’s The Healing Of The Lame Man, contemplating the elements of style. What I should be doing is building bridges. The Futurist’s, the Modernists, they did this. By combining everything that inspired them, with what they wanted, and what they thought, literature could be, they produced unique works still discussed and dissected today. In being seduced completely by style, we can ultimately sacrifice substance. The best writers achieve both. Woolf, Faulkner, Hemingway, they all did this, because they knew that in the end, movements pass, trends change, and all that remains are the stories.




More Writing About Writing: His White Envelope

Photo by themostinept (copied from Flickr)
Photo by themostinept (copied from Flickr)

Standing, books in hand, on the basement floor of a Waterstones. Trying to decide which way to split a gift token. I seek distraction from the people sat loosely in the seats provided. From the advertising displays, half finished, predicting the new sensations. Behind the counter, the staff moving back, moving forth, offer polite assistance.

We could order that in for you. Check the availability in other stores.

A man approaches me. Answering inner demands. His cheekbones high and forceful. He reaches into a bag. Stained. Falling apart. He says,

Do you mind if I give you this? It’s the first chapter of my friend’s novel.

My initial thought is to disappear into the dark corners of the Erotica section, but I take the envelope. I say,

Ok. Thanks.

He smiles. He nods. I pretend to study the covers of Open City, of Blue Of Noon, while I watch him make his way across the floor, while I watch him watching others, in stilted poses.

Can I help you Sir?

I turn to find a woman obscured by the heavy trolley she is pushing.

Sorry. Miles away.

I step back. Narrowly avoiding the table. Sign posted. AMERICAN DREAMS. With Faulkner, McCullers and Hemingway. Stacked high. Glossy. She says,

Was there something specific you were looking for?

I wave the copies of Open City and Blue Of Noon as if they are pompoms. She smiles. She pushes the trolley on, to stack the shelves, to pass the time. I look round for my literary pilgrim. He is gone.

***

On the street, wrapped in the sounds of car engines keen at traffic lights, I wonder if passers by carry the same white envelope as me. If we have perhaps been initiated into a new trend, the spirit of the age in high definition. I walk towards the galleries, the showbiz lights, to a friend with news to share. Snatches of conversation, coughs and sneezes, disrupt my thinking. I shuffle inside the agreed coffee shop. Find a table, in the corner by a mass-produced painting. I watch a woman writing between the repetitive glances at sleepwalkers, while a Talking Heads song leaks out of the speakers, reminding me of an ex-girlfriend, her need for meaning. I used to lie on her bed, staring at the ceiling, as she, half-naked, went through photographs spread over the wooden floor. Arranging them in orders based on new concepts, she said,

It has nothing to do with talent you know. It’s about being in the right place.

Was this about that? His white envelope. His publishing revolution. Lo-fi. Writers send out work everyday, hoping, waiting, on publishers, their opinions, their industry insights. We could bypass this though, self-publish, easier than ever before, but the writers I know don’t discuss it. Why? Are we confined to operate within one fixed structure? Are we wired to an ageing form, unable to move on? Feeling ill equipped. Feeling isolated. I bury my thoughts in a new, highly praised, book. This is my release.

***

After a few pages of Open City, when the carousel of customers has caused a background change, my friend appears. She is supposed to lead into something good, her new career, in a new part of town. She says,

Can we get out of here?

You’ve just arrived.

We’ll walk and talk.

I pick up my bag. We make our way outside. The noise hits me first, then the cold. I dodge and weave through groups refusing to part. I say,

So?

Well after an hour of telling me how tough her boyfriend finds advertising. She said we should stay in touch. When I have a bit more experience, we should do coffee. Do you know how many times I’ve heard that?

Her lips begin to tremble. Tears welling reflect the electric shades of neon. Blue. Green. Pink. To change the subject I tell her about my Waterstones scene.

Wow. Ok. It’s guerrilla marketing now. It’s ambushing casual shoppers.

I don’t think it’ll catch on.

You know it’s probably a work of genius.

You know that word is over used.

The space between us closes in as the streets become narrow, as people pour out onto the pavement. She puts her hands in her pockets. Speaks abstractly, at pace, about Anselm Kiefer, about Ulrike Meinhof. That Talking Heads song, ‘Found a Job’, comes back to me. It’s about this couple that start making their own television programmes. Once again my ex-loves words exert a monopoly on my feelings,

It has nothing to do with talent you know. It’s about being in the right place.

There is logic behind this yes, but does it apply to writing, to all of the arts, or just what she saw as the confines of her suspected limitations? I turn to my friend. I say,

You could set up your own galley you know. I could self-publish on-line.

You wouldn’t self-publish. You’re too much of an aesthetic. You need the physical.

Vizinczey self-published In Praise Of Older Women.

Yes, in the sixties.

Virginia Woolf self-published.

She shrugs her shoulders. This isn’t what she wants to talk about. Yes, a friend of hers is starting his own theatre company. A friend of hers has set up her own record label. But they have capital. They have contacts. It is different for her. It is different for writers.

Why?

Theatre companies, record labels, these are joint ventures. A writer telling you their work is great, with no outside appreciation. It arouses suspicion.

Are you saying we can’t choose what we like on our own?

I’m saying it’s easier for a writer when someone else says they’re great.

We stop outside the underground station. She is going east, to see a performance art piece. Do I want to come? I can be her plus one. I say,

I have an assignment due. I should be getting home.

We say our goodbyes. We part.

***

On the train, heading south, I take out his white envelope. Open it. Carefully unfold the crisp paper. A small white card drops into my lap. It says if I like what I read I can go to the web address provided. I can download the rest for the price of a cup of coffee.

The idealist in me supports this, he wants to see a market change, but the romantic wants his Picador cover design, his name in bold on the spine. For many writers the conflict is the same, self-publishing is the domain of the vanity project, an act of desperation. Technology has altered this argument though, and the success stories are forcing opinions to change. Yes, publishers still need to sell, and writers still want to be read, but the challenges faced continue to change depending on your side of the fence. Whatever happens, I believe that each will find their place; it’s just that we’ll have to ask some tough questions in order to redefine it.




More Writing About Writing: Q&A with Dostoevsky

Photo by AndYaDontStop (copied from Flickr)
Photo by AndYaDontStop (copied from Flickr)

I was riding the buses, nothing better to do. Reading Dostoevsky as the people behind me chit-chatted about dinner, about drinks. I gazed out the window. Skyscrapers and commuters, suits and ties, a vast unravelling city. I allowed my thoughts to breathe, to drift to a room with a Russian view.

So Fyodor, you wrote Crime and Punishment and The Gambler simultaneously.

Debts force one to take risks my boy, but then you know all about that.

I do?

Yes of course. Your novel, which I must say is a transfixing read.

Had it come to this, imaginary praise from a dead Russian Realist? And what for, the novel hidden under my bed, the novel I was too scared to finish, or the one all writers hoped they had within them, the masterpiece yet to be written? Ashamed of my self-indulgence I returned to my book. Then my phone rang. My best friend. Did I fancy a walk round the park? A drink? Yes. Yes.

We met at the gates by the river. Swans floated along the water as lovers took photos of smiles in fixed poses. I took the chance to set the conversational tone, with more self-indulgence, writers’ seminars, and illustrious workshops. He said,

Is it helping?

That’s the problem. I just don’t know.

You should talk to a tutor. Someone like-minded on your course.

My writing had taken a radical shift, in style and tone, more melancholic, more abstract. Talking to other writers about it had become like talking with an overworked doctor. They nod along. Yes. I understand. Then quickly move you on. Next patient. What seems to be the problem? Doctor, I’m baffled by the genre conventions. You leave feeling no wiser than you did before. Maybe it’s me, a projection of insecurities not soothed, but like a good doctor, it’s hard to find a good writing friend, someone who gets you, someone who can help diagnose those problems shared. I said,

What I want is a real opinion.

Do you?

I can’t take any more ‘how fiction works’ conversations, the art of, the craft.

It began to rain. Heavy. Spiteful. We stood under a fat-branched tree. I knew that what I wanted I could not have, Dostoevsky on speed dial, available to answer each late night call.

Fyodor I can’t seem to figure out the plot. I have characters but no story.

This is a problem easily solved. When I was writing The Adolescent

I thought about him, back to the wall, awaiting the Tsar’s firing squad. I thought about Poor Folk, the praise he received as the next literary great. Then came The Double, and his early fall from grace. I turned to my friend, said,

You know I’ve been reading The Idiot again.

Please. No. If you start on about Dostoevsky I am going to kill myself.

I understood this. If we talked about Bowie or Iggy, I brought it round to Dostoevsky. If we talked about politics or economics, I brought it round to Dostoevsky. His work was my first love of literature, full of passion, ideas, and a yearning for truth. Of course there have been others since, but I re-read his books every year. Buy different editions of ones already owned. I said,

What’s wrong with Dostoevsky?

Nothing, but realise those novels didn’t just appear out of nowhere.

I know.

Do you?

Dostoevsky re-wrote The Idiot time and again, through poverty, epilepsy and the loss of loved ones. Early drafts had the novel’s saintly hero, Prince Myshkin, as a womanising gambler, a brute seeking debasement. He wrote extensively in his diaries of his disgust with a failure to understand his own novel, his own characters. He wrote about his fears that the work would not be judged fairly; that all readers wanted was Turgenev and nihilism. I said,

Of course I do.

Then snap out of it. All writers get blocked. Allow for others to help.

I feel diluted. Homogenised. I’m not blocked. I’m seeking inspiration.

So stop obsessing about what Dostoevsky would do and just write.

What would Dostoevsky do? Yes I was aware of the ridiculousness of this conversation, but that was a thought too rich to resist. I knew about the pitfalls, the platforms, from writers fresh with hindsight, but what would Dostoevsky have done if he no longer knew what worked and why? I allowed my imagination to run away with itself once again.

Fyodor, The Brothers Karamazov, Demons, literary classics by any standards. Did you ever worry though that they were too grand, too idea-filled, and thus vulnerable to censorship?

Oh you’re too kind Reece, but let us be honest. I am no Tolstoy, no George Eliot.

Really? You don’t feel your work equals theirs?

Who finds pleasure in their own writing? One has to have an idea of their place, to find those like-minded, those open to appreciate.

Well rest assured you certainly reside above Turgenev.

If this were happening anywhere other than my imagination he would have laughed uproariously. He would have wagged a fatherly finger in my direction, and said,

Don’t you worry my boy; these things you want will come in the end.

That rising shame, felt so intensely before, worked its way through my body. I saw the headline, Deluded Writer Succumbs To Dostoevsky-Fuelled Madness. Thankfully the rain stopped. A gloomy breeze moved over us. I said,

Pub?

Anywhere particular?

No. You decide.

We walked quickly. With the collars of our overcoats pulled up, hands in pockets, heads down. We didn’t need to talk, to fill each silence, so other writers admired came to mind. Then a drummer worked his way through a warm-up beat. Snapping me out of great writer thinking. We were stood in a pub slowly filling, waiting for a band to play. My friend said,

What do you want to drink?

Something strong.

I couldn’t bear to look at the beautiful faces. Young. Alive. I imagined Dostoevsky saying,

You know I was talking to Hamsun yesterday. Your name came up.

Really?

We agreed that your writing is coming along. And he thinks you are entering a more mature phase.

I don’t know what to say.

We do feel you need to be tougher though. Stronger willed. But rest assured, you are getting there.

Of course if the ghosts of great writers were to appear, I suspect they’d find a place more befitting than a pub in Camden, perhaps a Nobel Prize winner’s convention, or a Knausgaard reading. The reality is that we won’t always be told what we want to hear; we’re out there alone, throwing word bombs from literary trenches. Sometimes it’s easier to daydream of Penguin Modern Classics bearing your name, of conversations with writers admired. Sometimes, instead of asking myself why, what’s the use, instead of fuelling the fire of fear and self-doubt, I might just try asking myself: what Dostoevsky would do?




More Writing About Writing: Some Names Are Bigger Than Others

Photo by glasseyes view (copied from Flickr)
Photo by glasseyes view (copied from Flickr)

I’d been reading more than writing, waiting for a lull. Hiding on long walks beneath high rises, clouds in dying fields. I’d been running in circles, burning calories up steep hills. Forgetting the essay due, of my design, on Kerouac and spontaneous prose. Questioning each word, their truth and cause, I was not prepared for her problems of writers at work.

Morning.

I was reading when she sat in the chair opposite. Planning a silent retreat. I said,

How did it go?

Apparently my piece is unique. No one’s doing what I’m doing.

That’s good.

 Is it?

She put her feet up on the table. Patches of pale flesh were visible from ripped jeans I had never seen her out of. She loosened her long hair, caught in the collar of the denim jacket she wore too well. She said,

You know this is all I have to write.

I’m sure that’s not true.

I’ll rephrase it for you. This is all I want to write.

So?

So if it’s unique, if no one’s doing what I’m doing, it will be much harder to sell it.

Is this one of those ‘it’s all the same’ kind of things?

Maybe.

She waved at someone behind me. Picked up her bag. Took out her purse. She asked me if I wanted a drink. I said no thanks. She asked me if I wanted to join the others in the corner, swapping stories, points of view. I raised the book, heavy in hand.

What’s that?

James Salter. All That Is.

Any good?

Very.

I watched her walk to the counter. So she had something unique, but so many writers were beaten before they started. Beaten by the first sign of rejection, by the cynicism, the ideas of what others thought they should be. I looked back down at my book. Turned to the front page.

Enthralling. Vividly imagined and beautifully written.

Salter gives us joy, eroticism, disgust, beauty, nostalgia, outrage…

Pages of quoted praise before the story starts. This is a problem for me. Senseless seduction. Her fragility was a problem for me, it illuminated my own. Fading from the present, our thoughts of forced emulation, I found myself caught on something said a week before, when stood feeling cheated, coerced, in front of white walls overbearing. He’d been talking new love, or lack of, by a large fist drawn in sepia tones, above the Hammer and Sickle, the red of the USSR.

You know all it’s branding.

You mean propaganda.

No. Branding. You, me, we’re brands of writers now, and if not, you should be.

A group looking for meaning passed us by, their leader, in uniform, quietly shared stories of works with histories of tortured souls. From the window I could see the London skyline wrapped in reds, oranges, fading shades of blue. By the river, drenched in gold, a figure stood, in a way unexplained, levitating it seemed, while waiting for change. He continued,

Think about how to build an audience. Be doing all that shit you don’t want to do.

Perhaps he had a point; perhaps I was missing something great writers understood. Henry Miller proofread, translated, and wrote erotica to order. Balzac cut his teeth on hack works under pseudonyms. It seemed there were things that you just had to do. Still I resisted. I played the fool.

Have you heard the new Thom Yorke album? Some of it’s really beautiful.

You would say that. You adore the brand.

We moved on. Stuffed birds, impaled to walls ink stained. Construction site beams, rusted, hung high. I wondered how many previously rejected novels were published once the author had established a ‘brand’? I’d lost count of the times I’d seen that an author’s book, long forgotten, disowned, was being repackaged and sold.

He said,

You’ve got be to original, but familiar. Know your genre, your market place.

And all writers are thinking this?

The ones who’ll make it are.

Slowly we drifted outside. The sun setting over literary puzzles on a sad post-modern day. Had this all been for me? This pep talk gift-wrapped for the soul. I doubted it, but that didn’t matter, each writer’s path was different, mine would not be his.

 

Are you going to this?

She sat back down and moved a flyer, black with gold lettering, across the table. Writers with books to sell were giving readings. Some names were bigger, bolder, than others. I shrugged my shoulders. She said,

I wonder who the big names are?

The big names are just names sold better than the little ones.

She leaned back into her chair and began to play with the curl often residing at the dead ends of her long hair.

Would you sell my name?

That depends on how willing you were to sell mine.

She picked up her drink, went to take a sip, but returned it to the table untouched. She reached for the flyer once again and proceeded to run her index finger over names bigger than ours.

What if you did sell? Do you worry where they might place your work?

What do you mean?

I mean genre. I mean fiction or non-fiction. Other readers also bought.

I wish I had that to worry about.

She stared at the flyer, her hot drink going cold. She said,

I think of my book on Waterstones shelves, by the McCullers. Do you do that?

Yes.

Who do you rest beside?

Celine. Coetzee.

I wonder though, if we’d read them differently without their names.

You might have something there.

Something unique I guess.

I smiled. I thought about the great novels that would be forgotten. Alphabetically ordered on bookshelves, with pages upon pages of pre-story praise. I thought about those names lost in the ordained shadows of the cannon. The faces that did not fit, with their themes unfashionable, their politics obscure. I thought about Jack Kerouac, the failed mystic stuck on the road, lost as a voice for the ‘beats’. His name became a byword, the embodiment of cool, for the hipsters, the bohemians, the mad ones and the freaks. In the end he drank himself to death, washed up, burnt out, ruined by fame.

She said,

I think I’ll go. I want to know who the big names are.

As new writers, as old writers, we might not be the big names, but despite how it seems, there’s a freedom in that. Nothing is expected of us. No restless audience awaits more of our brand. We have time. We have space. We are free to grow into the writers we want to be. Free to experiment, to explore. Free to find out what works for us. Yes, some names are bigger than others, and always will be, but that doesn’t help when you sit down to write.




More Writing About Writing: Performance

Photo by Photo Cindy (copied from Flickr)
Photo by Photo Cindy (copied from Flickr)

Before we all started writing things down, typing, blogging, stories were shared verbally, around the campfire. You know this. Everyone knows this. So readings, to a room full of people, with alcohol sat sweating in glasses, well it’s just part of the tradition, albeit warmer, better dressed, but really nothing new.

So what are you reading tonight?

Oh, it’s just a short story about a grieving millionaire, who might be going insane.

I shrug my shoulders. I don’t know. I take a sip of my beer.

What about you?

His answer is composed, assured, delivered impeccably. I want to cry. Pull the hood of my coat over my face and sob. Why do I do that? I’ve been told before,

You mumble Reece. It seems so rude.

Have a little more confidence. Don’t presume people aren’t interested.

I’ve had a lot of conversations about my writing recently, which is natural given that I’m doing a creative writing Masters. People want to know about your practices, people want to tell you about theirs, this is what writers do so I’m told. Part of me has craved this. Part of me wants to be accepted. I sit though, nodding along, all the while feeling like a charlatan, not knowing what my work is about, not having a detailed account of how I got from a to b. Words are thrown around, didactic, artifice, I don’t know what they mean. I tell myself,

You don’t belong here. You don’t belong.

I try to take comfort from writers like Cormac McCarthy who seems to exist outside the world of literature completely, hovering over it like some moral force. In this day and age though, when the squeeze is being put on the arts, writers, musicians, artists, they need to stick together. Of course we don’t have to like everything, that is not a community I want a part of, but a creative landscape where art is encouraged, and expression is nurtured, well count me in.

Have you done anything like this before?

I look up from my pint. I explain yes, once, at the Stoke Newington Literary Festival. I leave out the details; such as being so nervous I vomited, twice. That I had to drink three double vodkas just to steady my shaking hands. That a beautiful woman smiled at me and I blushed so hard my face almost fell apart.

Am I right in thinking you are doing a Masters?

Yes

How’s that been?

Friends and family have asked me this frequently. Some of them say,

Haven’t all the writers teaching them said it’s a load of bollocks?

Most of the time I cannot be bothered to waste my energy on a suitable, well-informed response. Most of the time I switch my thoughts elsewhere, and allow their voices to drift slowly into the background, melding with the television noise, the coffee shop chatter. I understand most of it comes from a good place; they want to know I am ok. They look at me, thin, pale; I can see the pity in their eyes. They get uncomfortable, what should I say to him? What should I do? Nothing. Remain calm. Follow procedure and this will all go away.

It’s all right.

This seems the right response. The room is filling; the readers, performance veterans compared to me, are relaxing into their chairs. We’ve only just met, now is not the time to rant. If I could, I would have said something righteous, loud enough for the room to hear, but righteousness has no place in the modern world, in the arts, and to be fair I have been lucky, I have had some great lecturers, some that have graced the Litro pages, others that have taken the time to understand me, encourage me, tell me,

You are doing ok. Keeping going.

Yes, this is sugar coating; there is no guarantee these courses will get you anywhere. It will not teach me how to write, it will not teach me some secret formula to getting published, everyone doing any writers course should know this, if you don’t then you are being ripped off, and you have no one to blame but yourself. What I don’t think students need to hear though is the following, said to me once by an author I’ll call Z. Z said,

You guys are getting into this at the wrong time. The market is pretty much dead. There is nothing left really. No money to be made. It’s all tiny, nothing, publishers.

Yes, I know, Z is being honest. This should be applauded. Maybe the other well known, well reviewed writers, who teach courses they say are a waste of time, you know who they are, should be applauded to. Well, no they shouldn’t. If these are Z’s and others’ honest feelings, which I shall not try to dispute, they should really be nowhere near a classroom. They should not be lecturing. Where is their integrity, their conviction in the 3000 word articles they write? Yes the market is changing, this cannot be denied, but this should be an opportunity for the artists to take control, that is unless everyone is happy to read about celebrity diets, and detoxes, and pregnancies, and sex lives, and addiction problems, and cook books, and computer game tie ins, the book of the 3D film, the book of the book about a book, if that is what everyone wants go ahead.

Good evening everyone. This is Listen Softly London…

The room goes quiet. The host has everyone’s attention. I take my crumpled short story out of my bag, the title Auto-Suggestion is in bold type. In my head I start singing the words to the song I took it from. Yes here everything is kept inside. Yes I will take that chance to step outside. Because that is what new writers have to do. They take a chance; they step out into that brave new world, ignoring the X’s, the Y’s, the Z’s, who from rooftops shout,

It’s finished. It’s over. We are the last ones left.

What they are really trying to say is,

Literature is full. Literature is ours. We won’t let you take it away.

A fool would deny the state of things, but a fool would deny it hasn’t always been this way, forever changing. The establishment always fears what’s coming, the Romantics dismissed the Expressionists, Stravinsky was booed out of the opera hall, Dylan was called Judas, the ridiculed of today is usually the canon of tomorrow. It’s only arrogance to think our time is more special than another.

So Artists sick of it all, sick of hearing that you’ve got nothing to say, nothing to produce, no platform to share it, no audience who cares, I implore you, go and claim that brave new world, go and claim what’s yours, because they are not going to give it to you.




More Writing About Writing: The Words / The New

Photo by Dafne Cholet (Copied from Flickr)
Photo by Dafne Cholet (Copied from Flickr)

My girlfriend and I share a tiny box room in her mother’s crumbling council flat. Should we have been more successful?

Maybe. But then I don’t believe life is ever a success or failure, so the size of this small space I call my own does not concern me. On the walls there are a few posters sourced from my interests, designed to inspire. A Fight Club movie poster, Bowie in his Thin White Duke days, Caspar David Friedrich prints. On the door a Countryfile calendar my girlfriend took great pleasure in buying is littered with impressive shots of naturalistic scenes, the sun setting over the ocean, lavender fields blown by the breeze. I sit in a creaking old dining table chair, typing on my stuttering laptop, carefully perched on the chest of drawers that sits beside this calendar. Squeezed against the bookcase containing my literary salvations I cannot avoid the many dates she has circled for my attention. In those circles she has written in her crude child like hand,

Short story due for competition x x x Love you x x x

She never writes which competition, as she doesn’t want me to worry. She says,

I know whatever you write will be well written so don’t worry about trying to impress them, just write it, then send it to me.

Her advice, kind, blind, faithful, is not hard to follow. An avid believer in free writing, I never plan anything. I have a line in my head, an idea of where it may go and then I just write while the ambient music I have on in the background cocoons itself around me, shutting out the over spilling lives of my neighbours. When I am finished, when I feel I can do no more, I send the stories to my girlfriend. Sometimes she says,

Well I know what that one was about.

This is because I invariably write about our life, or my past, and bury it within the cold, glass, neon lit city I am slowly becoming accustomed to.

And I know exactly where I am going to send it. 

Ever since I reached the final of one of these competitions and was published in the proceeding anthology she has become convinced that this is the way to get my writing noticed. Is she right? Maybe. But the more I become immersed in this world of literature not found in libraries or bookshops, the more I am becoming convinced that it simply doesn’t matter.

Earlier on this year I applied for a place on the Creative and Life Writing Masters at Goldsmiths University. Thankfully I was accepted, because I was running out of ideas of what to do next. Recently I was sent the dreaded summer reading list. I say dreaded because I hate reading anything I am obliged to read. That includes books recommended, books forcibly lent by overzealous friends and reading lists packed with award winning, hard hitting, trail blazing pieces of literature. I have always thought that literature has to be found organically, driven by your own yearning, your own interests at that time, because obligation can never really be fully enjoyed.

So far I have read three from the list, all nominated for awards. One of them, marketed as an explosive piece of fiction that would change the reader forever was nominated for the Booker Prize. I am aware that what is written on the back of books is purely marketing, however all of these books have been selected to be studied, selected for prizes, and I can’t help asking why. Of course this is just my opinion, but then I guess herein lies the problem. These competitions, these awards, so important, lengthily discussed, take place every single year. Every year a new classic, a new epic, has to be found. Much of this is driven by industry, as well as our desire for the new, the glossy, the now, but I get the feeling that more often than not it’s a case of the emperor’s new clothes.

Photo by Chris Drumm (Copied from Flickr)
Photo by Chris Drumm (Copied from Flickr)

Last summer I read William Faulkner’s The Sound And The Fury and As I Lay Dying, not because Vintage put Nobel Prize Winner all over recent editions of his books but because what he had written about interested me. I also read The First Circle by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, another Nobel Prize Winner. Should I now compare the two, decide which one is the more worthy winner? Of course not, good literature is good literature, but that all depends on who is reading it.

Like the world of politics flitters from one school of thought to another so to does the world of literature. Idealists weaving paths through the lefts and rights of centre democracy become entrenched in totalitarianism. We are all invited to participate, but inevitably we disintegrate into arguing this is good, this is bad, this deserves your attention, this deserves your praise, until what comes through all seems the same, and malaise and apathy take hold. It’s all just personally informed opinion though. It’s all just yours and someone else’s words. It should never be judged as good or bad, it’s about what it makes you feel, and how do you compare the feelings of one against another?

My legs, confined to a small space for too long, need stretching. My mind keeps asking itself, Is this it? Is this how it was supposed to be? The Thin White Duke catches my eye, the dates on the calendar, my bookcase. Resting comfortably beside my Houellebecq’s, Atomised, Platform, sits Bruno Jasienski’s futurist masterpiece I Burn Paris. Nearly a century ago this book was banned, almost disappearing without a trace, but here it is in my bookcase, hallucinatory, political, a carousel of images seared onto my brain. It found me just when I needed it, despite its lack of exquisite, celebrated epitaphs and approvals.

Have you finished those short stories yet?

No. I ask myself Am I what they’re looking for? But I too am missing the point. I must strive to think not of winning or losing, the stamp of approval, good or bad. The very story my girlfriend submitted, TV Eye, the story that convinced her competitions were the way to go, was rejected by six literary magazines before it received any appreciation. I was told it wasn’t a short story. I was told the structure wasn’t right. I was told it was too experimental, whatever that means. There are always reasons. In the numerous other competitions she has entered me in, I’ve been long listed, short listed, and totally ignored. Literature will always find its audience, however big or small, in spite of not because of the gospel of awards, the preaching of blurbs. For we seek only the right words. Only what’s new to us. Everything else takes care of itself.




More Writing About Writing: I’m Still Here

Football Match

He takes a heavy book from the loaded shelf. Looks at me with a challenging glint in his eye, why, why write? Good question asked a million times before, and answered by greater minds than mine. Why fiction? Even better, entire books have been written on this subject. Isn’t it all just imitation now? Maybe, but surely every age thinks this and while cracking open a beer, cold in hand, wet, while half watching the pre-kick off preliminaries, teams, stats, managers quotes, previous meetings etc, etc, these were not questions I felt equipped to answer.

He’s articulate where I am coarse, educated in areas where I am apathetic, calm where I am angry, wound up, taut. He thinks. He muses. He moves on to Marxist, Feminist, Electioneering theories. He wants to put literature into context. Modern. Streamlined. Did you know? Did you see? Did you hear? I heard the roar in the stand. Saw the first ball kicked. I know I am swigging beer. Thick. Flat. Branded.

So why write? 

A cross comes in from the far side. I am on the edge of my seat wondering is he actually asking me or preparing to tell me.

What is the point of fiction? Why in this day and age do we still bother?

I am aware I am not speaking. I came to watch football and that is what I intend to do.

You got any crisps? 

     What? 

     Crisps? 

The ball is pumped up the other end of the field, two giant men, well groomed, bearded, jump to claim it. One of them falls to the ground clutching his face, the other looks on in disbelief. My friend continues. Where are all the thinkers, the philosophers, the manifestos, ideals for living? Don’t you think writers just write for other writers? Don’t you think they’ve stopped trying to connect, to put forward ideas?

You sure you got no crisps.

He leaves the living room, taking his pacing; his gesticulating arms, and goes into the kitchen. I tell myself that now would be the time to prepare your rebuttal, now would be the time to iron out the creases in the answers for the defence, to find the modern day Sartre, Camus, De Beauvoir. The midfielder brings the ball forward, moving like a dancer, strong, powerful, elegant. A gap opens up, will he go left or right, through the middle. No names come to mind.

Ready Salted or Smokey Bacon? 

     Ready Salted.

A second later a packet of crisps is thrown in anger. Catch. Thanks. Soak the hops with salt. Goal. He sits down next to me and puts his feet up on the table. The replays begin and despite my intentions, my desires, to drink, escape, he has me thinking. Why write? Why fiction?

He takes a swig of his beer, leans back into the deep leather sofa. Literature in its modern form was created…he tails off, or to be more precise I do. He has already claimed my interior monologue with his why write questions, he is not allowed to confuse the issue. I have questions now. Things I want to know. The ball is drilled across the box.

So what would you write? 

     I’m not a writer. 

Goal. Tension rises, I feel as though I am being led into saying well as a writer, which I loathe doing, or into speaking for others, which one should never do, however I want to know what he feels should be being written, so I ask again.

What would you write? 

     Where’s our generations Communist Manifesto? 

     You want to write a new one? 

     No, no, I want new ideas, something relevant to our time, I want…

Some sort of universal truth? 

     Not exactly…it’s hard to explain.

Photo by Clemcal (Copied from Flickr)
Photo by Clemcal (Copied from Flickr)

Yes. It’s hard to explain. We in the west live in what could easily be described as a secular age. We have science, reason, and logic. For us there are no mysteries. We have facts, honesty, and truth. These though depend on perception, mouldable, corruptible. They come with an attached point of view, and who wants to be slapped in the face with a cold, hard, point of view?

He continues,

Ok. Has a book ever changed your way of thinking? 

     Written recently? 

     It doesn’t matter.

On this we can’t agree, and giving ground could concede or ultimately change the debate. This is a chess match, and right now I am in check. He wants to know a book that has changed my way of thinking. Another goal flies in, I look up, my team is losing now. He is still waiting. My mind is blank.

Just one book, that’s all. 

     I’ll give you five. 

Why the bravado? Boys will be boys I guess. I’ve read hundreds of books. I could reel off anything, but he’ll want proof. He’ll want a few words, a solid explanation. I take a swig of beer, and another, and another.

Surely it’s not that hard.

Demons. The Plague. Nausea. Fight Club. The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter. Factotum. He cuts me off. He gets it. He sees my point. Then flips it and says,

Well none of those have been written this century though have they?

Of course this is true, but its mouldable, corruptible. Sidestepping I counter by offering, The Road, Cosmopolis, A Death In The Family. Ok. Ok. But why do YOU write? Why is fiction relevant to YOU?

Why? Because I don’t want black and white ‘truth’, I want to make a connection with something else, intangible, grey. Fiction is the fine lines between, the place we go to think, to explore, to stretch our ideas, our manifestos, our escape. It does not need to preach to us, or pressure us; it cajoles, it teases, and draws out a response, a thought, a feeling. Of course I would have felt ridiculous actually saying this, so I shrugged my shoulders, took another swig of beer, and cursed Jesus for the fact that my team had just conceded another goal, for the truth that they were losing.

Turn this shit off will you.

He didn’t. Thankfully he didn’t continue either, I guess he thought he’d won. On my way home something I once read came to mind, access to the artistic universe is more or less the preserve of those who are a little fed up with the world. Going further I would say it was for anyone who wishes to try and understand themselves within it. And this is why I write, to understand, to try and make sense. If along the way someone reads this, that or the other, and they feel the same, or it gets them thinking about something, anything, then great, fantastic. If not, well, it wasn’t meant to be, but I’ll still be here, trying to make sense, trying to find a connection, reading, writing.

 




More Writing About Writing: Shadow Boxing

Photo by Karin Dalziel (copied from Flickr)
Photo by Karin Dalziel (copied from Flickr)

The screen is blank in front of me. This is not about writer’s block. Its glow burns white light into my retinas. I don’t believe in writer’s block. She told me it was a beautiful day out, before leaving. Bass rumbles from the neighbours above and below. Am I sure I don’t want to join them? Yes. Am I sure I wouldn’t prefer getting out, getting some sun, getting lost in conversation, who’s wearing what, who’s eating what, what must be done, fun, fun, fun. Yes, quite sure.

So now it’s just me. And this, the blank screen staring, its judgement clear, its face unmoved, its questions loud and repetitive. Am I worth it? Am I really what you want? Last time I checked there was no gun to my head. Mother wasn’t cursed during my birth. I have chosen this. The solitude, the heart-stop moment when someone asks you what you do and you want to but you can’t say,

I am a writer.

This, though, is an altogether different problem, with different levels depending on your rung on the ladder. The problem today is decisions, not what to write, but when, how long, to what end. The problem is choice, put in front of you. The problem is people, solitude, shadow boxing.

The phone had rung early. Loud. Intrusive. Over the voice of the ‘someone’ selling something on the Saturday Morning Kitchen always on too loud, they said,

Hey what you up to today do you fancy meeting us down the pub?

I said,

Sorry. No can do. Busy.

What all day?

Yes. Writing. It has to be finished. I need to get it done.

Silence. Words cease. Then comes the stuttered oh ok. The, you crack on, pal, maybe another time, eh, always another time. Yes. Maybe. I’ll let you know when I’m free. I can’t complain about this though, they used to argue with me, tell me to give it a rest for a day; you know it’s only a silly story. They would get angry when I insisted; their tone would become childlike. They would say fine, fine, as if it was an adjective, a verb, a noun. I put the phone down. I walked towards the open window. Clouds moved slowly over the moss-covered roof of the high-rise flats opposite. I sighed. She looked at me. Didn’t ask who it was. Continued for a while, preparing her bag. Sun tan lotion. Sun glasses. The dog-eared book she’s been trying to finish for over a month. Then suddenly she said,

You know, once you start getting paid, they’ll understand.

I say nothing, but I know she’s right.

She continues,

Artists think it’s harder to convince the people they don’t know that they have talent. I think it’s harder to convince the people you do know.

This wasn’t about talent though.

It’s not about that though is it.

No?

No. This is about making money. You said it yourself.

She then proceeded to explain that she didn’t think it was as cynical as that. Taking pains to make her point quickly, resourcefully, for packing still had to be done, the sun was moving on. She told me that all she meant was that making money shows people you’re serious. It shows people you’re not just being lazy. Lazy. I was shadow boxing. I was running the endless race. Every day without fail, two thousand words or more. Articles, on books, film, art. Short stories. Memoir. Lazy. This ain’t no party. This ain’t disco. It’s lonely. It’s stepping out into the darkness. There is no promised land, no matter how strong your faith. You must stand naked. Open to ridicule, to the,

So when you gonna give this writing nonsense a rest. Get a proper job.

When are you going to make a down payment?

When are you going to have a child? Grow up? Join the adult world.

What do you say to say to this? How do you defend yourself if the bank balance is not standing strong? Declare your love for the written word. That won’t wash. Tell them it’s not about making money, it’s about artistic purity, about sharing your story. That won’t wash either, unless you are planning on making an appointment with your local psychiatrist, for they will declare you insane, or vain, egotistical, either way you are in need of help.

I remember two years ago. Coming towards the end of my degree. The novella I had to submit had proved problematic. I had aborted one attempt and was in the middle of a Gogol-like meltdown. It’s rubbish. Ludicrous. Waste of time. Hand me the matches. Where is the petrol? Burn it. Burn it. I left the city. Went to my Uncle’s in Devon. I took with me Henry Miller’s The Air Conditioned Nightmare. Patchy but interesting, it follows Miller on a journey around America meeting artists, writers, some of whom have day jobs, well paid, some of whom don’t. Some of them have comfort, acclaim, capital letters, awards, attached to their name. Others have nothing, no food, barely any clothes, just a burning desire to express themselves. It is these artists who have the real battle, the battle against shame, ridicule, self-doubt, humiliation, strong words of course, but what words aren’t strong when art is involved.

At the time I thought nothing of it, well not much. It scared me, but I put this down to the impending completion of my degree, cutting of the strings, stepping out. A year or so later, stacking shelves, yes Sir, yes Madame, right this way, I had my first short story published, ‘The Smile That Broke He’. It was in a tiny online magazine, a drop in the ocean, of the thousands that exist. This didn’t bother me though, receiving the acceptance e-mail, the we really loved your story, is still one of my proudest moments, and I am still eternally grateful to them for publishing it. Miller time came shortly after though. I called my Dad.

Alright son. How are ya?

Just been told I’m getting my first short story published.

That’s great son. How much you getting paid?

Cue embarrassment, humiliation, shame, when I tried to explain that no money would be changing hands, they were not buying my work, they were just happy to share it. Yes, they were happy to share it.

The screen is blank. I don’t have writer’s block. I know exactly what I want to say. The challenge, the battle, is convincing yourself it is worth saying. Because we’re all shadow boxing, artists, writers, musicians. We are not preparing for the big fight though. There will be no weigh in, no stare down. The fight is now, with ourselves, in the shadows of a lonely room on a hot summer’s day.




More Writing About Writing: You Can Write. So What.

Joseph Conrad's Writing Desk. Photo by Ben Sutherland (Copied from Flickr)
Joseph Conrad’s Writing Desk. Photo by Ben Sutherland (Copied from Flickr)

You have a story, a beginning, a middle, and end. Maybe you have a nice reveal, maybe there is no reveal, and you describe it as a portrait, or a snapshot, a look at something not often explored. You think about writing it down, but resist. Silly. It persists though. It torments you. It will not go away. While you’re trying to sleep, while you’re zoning out in conversation, in front of the television, scenes come to mind, characters, the next line after the opening that has presented itself to you.

So you write it down. Possibly you fill it with beautiful poetic language that goes off on beautiful tangents and paints pictures with beautiful painstakingly selected words. Perhaps you prefer a more stripped back approach. Short, sharp sentences that don’t waste a word. Perhaps there is no premeditation and the words just flow, coming at you from places you didn’t know existed, almost as if someone has tapped you on the shoulder, whispered in your ear and said this is the way to go. You get to the end. Then you walk away, leaving pen resting on paper, or the light fading before blackout on the laptop screen.

After this you fall back into the void you occupied before. You have a story, a beginning, a middle, and end. Maybe you have a nice reveal, maybe there is no reveal, and you describe it as a portrait, or a snapshot, a look at something not often explored. It’s worse though. Now you’ve written it down. It exists. Now there are things that are maybe subject to change, and you are aware of these things, these imperfections, these disfigurements upon the beauty of your creation. These things need to go.

So you go back. You return. This is what everybody does. You should too. So you edit it, proofread it, give it the once over, perhaps taking out those beautiful tangents that don’t exactly work, perhaps taking out those redundant words in your short sharp sentences. You scrutinise your dialogue asking yourself if in fact someone would really say that, and if so would they say it the way you have written it and has it got across the way you planned. You start to question yourself more. Does the story do exactly what you want it to? Does it portray what you hoped it would? Are your characters fully formed? Are they believable?

You walk away again, as if spurned by a lover, rejected, unwanted. You don’t want to think about it, talk about it, it was all folly anyway, how could you have been so stupid. You can’t write, and if you can, so what. But you start zoning out again. The conversations become murky, the television scenes become random. The end that seemed to limp across the finish line, the beginning that does not quite pack a punch, suddenly these seem less objectionable, suddenly you imagine that you may have been being too hard on yourself.

So what did other writers do? What did other writers say? Some of them said write what you know. Some of them said write what you can imagine. Some of them planned every piece of work. Some of them liked to just write, seeing where the story went as they went along. Some of them liked to listen to music. Some of them liked the sound of coffee shops. Most of them talked about the importance of redrafting, of the craft. But others said that redrafting went against what they believed literature to be and that talk of craft was ludicrous. You find yourself lost. It is too late to walk away though

So you go back. You return. Scrutinising without remorse every single word, looking for hints or clues, either for your own failure and hideous self delusions or more secretly, and never audibly, flashes of your undiscovered genius. Both scenarios are played out. One read through leads you to tears of despair; the other leads you to tears of joy, or subtle nods of approval, at this new knowing within the cosmos of the self of your obvious flair, talent, and insight. Then what. Once all is settled, once the story is ready to be read, what next?

You don’t know anyone in publishing, and they won’t take anything from anyone unknown. You don’t know any literary agents or even how you would go about getting one. You trawl the internet, the literary magazines, the bookshops, where websites, articles, and books all exist on how you can get published, how you can market yourself, sell yourself, promote yourself, how you can maximise your potential, all want your attention, your money, your subscription. You read and you read. You make phone calls. You send e-mails. You sit and you wait. You sit and you wonder. You sit and ask yourself if it is all really worth it.

Some say you have talent, some say they liked your work but it is not quite for them. Others ask you about your social media presence, your experience. Others want to know what the story is about, who it is aimed at, where you see it fitting with the current market, and how they would take your work forward. You ask yourself all of this. You ask yourself why you wrote it. Who you wrote it for? What type of person if anyone is going to want to read it? You ask and you ask and you can’t seem to answer. You only wanted to tell a story, but it seems that the world of literature is full.

You see an advert for a Creative Writing course. It’s at a university you have heard of. It’s being taught by an award winning author. Perhaps a qualification will make them see you’re a serious, perhaps a qualification will make them recognise your experience, perhaps a qualification will make them know who you are. So you apply. They want to see some work. You send them some. They like it. They accept you.

You count down the hours, the days. You tell everyone you are going to be a writer. You are going to learn everything you need to learn. The course starts. You get good marks. You make friends with others like you. You discuss all the great things you are going to write. You graduate with high marks. You have a new story, a beginning, a middle, and end. You send it out. Some say you have talent, some say they liked your work but it is not quite for them. Others ask you about your social media presence, your experience. Others want to know what the story is about, who it is aimed at, where you see it fitting with the current market, and how they would take your work forward. You can write yes, but so what.

Reece Choules is represented by our bespoke literary agency, Litro Represents, and will be appearing at the Stoke Newington Literary Festival as part of the Litro Live! event on Sunday 8 June. You can find full details of Litro Live! in Stoke Newington here.