The view from up here

Just the other day, a fellow writer referred to me on their blog as ‘formidable’. I was delighted. And surprised. You see, I don’t think of myself as formidable. I set up the live lit night Flashers’ Club, but I’m running it by trial and error. I have had moderate success in finding publication for my short fiction, but I have only published three stories. I’ve won a competition, but it was a local competition. Though I was very pleased to win it, I wasn’t competing with the world. I entered the Bridport Prize and not only didn’t get longlisted, I didn’t even get the standard rejection e-mail. I’ve been rejected by Stinging Fly, Litro, Lighthouse and Shooter, and I’m pretty sure I’m about to get rejected by Unthology. I’m writing a novel, but it’s a daily slog and I have no idea whether it’s any good or not – or, rather, I veer between thinking it’s killer and thinking it’s dross.

That’s not to say I deserve sympathy. That’s the life of a writer. I’m quite proud to have been rejected by all those mags, in a badge-of-honour kind of way, and some of the rejection letters were even encouraging ones. Bonus. And there is a quiet voice underneath all the wobbling which says that the novel isn’t awful, but there is a chance it’s not good enough. While I don’t think of myself as formidable, I don’t think I’m useless either.

I’m not sure if this wavering confidence – or, perhaps, this honesty about wavering confidence – is something which is stronger in women writers. Women are socially moulded to take up less space, to be less forthright, less self-confident. Many of us still find self-promotion difficult, because we’re worried that confident words from a woman’s mouth are seen as abrasive or egotistical. Plus there’s the old, boring, but worth-restating fact that the majority of our most-lauded modern authors are white American men. They possess a particular voice, one which is bombastic and complex and artful and brutal. It is a voice which I enjoy, but it is not my voice, and nor is it the only way to write a great novel. Muriel Spark, one of my most beloved writers, does not sound like this, and it’s something I have to remind myself of. It is easy for writers to believe that we do not measure up because our voices are not brutal but subtle, not bombastic but playful.

Though women may be more susceptible to the inner critic, it’s a disease of all writers. In the business of promoting Flashers’ Club I had a conversation with a young writer who wanted to help promote the event. He read widely, he wrote, but he’d only shared his work with a handful of people close to him. He was nervous of reading to an audience. I felt his uncertainty, his fear that maybe his writing was just not good enough. I recognised it because it was my own. It was my own four years ago, and it’s still mine now – just in a different form. I know the fear that in exposing your precious work to the world’s arc-lamps, all its flaws will show.

I gave him some advice. I told him that the fear itself meant he probably wasn’t a terrible writer (most irremediable writers suffer from the Dunning-Krueger Effect), and that the best way to give himself confidence was to get his work out there amongst that of his peers. I told him that by only reading the most brilliant of brilliant writers, he was comparing his startpoint to someone else’s endpoint.

Then I got home, and started to wonder if I had been a dick. After all, who am I to give advice? I’ve had three short stories published. Three. I messaged him to apologise. ‘Honestly, it’s fine,’ he wrote back, ‘it’s always nice when someone offers some wise words.’

Wisdom. I’m not sure I have it; not across my whole life, certainly. But perhaps I have a little bit of it, in places. Perhaps I have a little wisdom for the writers around me right now, at the same stage or just that bit earlier on their writing journey. The thing is, the me from four years ago thought that being published was an impossible dream. Being published meant you had made it. I would have thought someone like me was formidable. I would have wanted to know how you did it, just as I, now, want to know from those just that bit further on that me how they did it. And I know now that they, too, will be sitting there thinking, ‘Jesus, I don’t know,’ or they’ll qualify their advice, because they don’t feel like they’ve ‘made it’ either. None of us do. Not even the most brilliant of the brilliant. There is no ‘making it’. No endpoint at which we are fully trained, incapable or learning more; at which we do not want or need to develop our art.

The view from up here, from this ledge a few feet up the infinite mountain, is this: writing is work. It involves reading, and submitting, and experiencing, and reading, and experimenting, and setbacks, and learning, and reading, and editing, and slogging, and probably some more reading (the importance of reading what you write might need another blog post). It starts as something hoarded close to the chest, something gloated over and feared for, and after that there’s a choice: keep it close and never know, or knock it into shape and send it out into the world. Then the real work starts, and the real rewards. You get knocked back. You retrench. You read. The writing grows, your mind grows. Like physical training, you need to do the thing over and over and over and over to get stronger, to develop flexibility and stamina. Your work gets better. My work has got better. And the wonderful thing about doing this is the world opening out ahead of you. It is the realisation that your ability to write is only 10% innate, and the remaining 90% is what you make it. Everyone else is just the same. No-one is born a brilliant writer. Everyone else is working for it too. You do not have to be frightened to put your work out there, because you know now that its rejection will not be a judgement on whether you can or cannot write, it is a reflection of the stage you’re at in learning your craft (or a reflection that you sent it to the wrong journal, or the wrong publisher, or your work’s wonderful but not saleable, or a reader really hates stories about divorce, or you went over the word count, or you used single-spaced Comic Sans and they threw it in the bin).

Without this exposure, this apprenticeship, my writing would have forever been a point rather than a line. I might have written, but my self-doubt would have been stronger, because I had no reference points – my own, or others’. The critic and the egotist would have loomed large, squabbling unchecked in my brain. They’re still there, but nowadays if they’re annoying me I can batter them with evidence.

Seeing yourself through someone else’s eyes is always revealing. It gives perspective. I tend to give the inner critic a bit more leash than the inner egotist, because the odds are on her side rather more. And I’ve seen what happens when writers don’t have that critic. Bad, bad things. But maybe the critic deserves a little less scope, because it turns out I’d forgotten how daunting those first steps were. How gruelling this little climb has been, and how lovely the view is when you look out, not up.

 

 

 

 

 

Dear Diary

I’m re-reading George Grossmith’s The Diary Of A Nobody: it’s one of those books that you keep on the bookshelf in the bedroom, because you know it won’t be long before you take it down again.

I first came across the Diary when I decided to read the Observer’s 100 Greatest Novels list. This was before I had a baby, so that project’s on hold at the moment, but it introduced  me to some of the writers I now most admire (and a few I now know are Not For Me, but let’s be positive here).

The comic diary of Mr Pooter, City clerk and suburban everyman, was serialised in Punch magazine, 1888-89. The book version, re-ordered and supplemented with new material, was published in 1892. Nothing very much happens: some egg and cress is sown, dominoes played, and items are painted with enamel paint. It’s this that makes it so wonderful. The Diary is a little snapshot of ordinary middle-class Victorian life, and it is startlingly familiar. Take, for example, the pony-trap which the Pooter’s son Lupin acquires when he gets a job as a stockbroker. Lupin, in his flashy new ‘box-coat’, takes his parents for a drive:

‘His conduct was shocking. When we passed Highgate Archway, he tried to pass everything and everybody. He shouted to respectable people who were walking in the road to get out of the way; he flicked at the horse of an old man who was riding, causing it to rear, and, as I had to ride backwards, I was compelled to face a gang of roughs in a donkey-cart, whom Lupin had chaffed, and who turned and followed us for nearly a mile, bellowing, indulging in coarse jokes and laughter, to say nothing of occasionally pelting us with orange peel.’

This is instantly recognisable. Substitute the pony-trap for a BMW convertible and we’re in the 21st century. Then there’s family friend Mrs James, who doesn’t believe in disciplining her son Percy:

‘Two or three times he came up to me and deliberately kicked my shins. I gently remonstrated with him, and Mrs James said: ‘Please don’t scold him; I do not believe in being too severe with young children. You spoil their character.”

We’ve all met a Mrs James. There’s something startling, and a little disconcerting, about realising that a spoof written 125 years ago could just as well apply today. Part of the reason it is so recognisable is that the world of the 1890s was a world on the edge of modernity: the patterns of peoples’ lives and thoughts was not all that different to those of the 21st century. Their motivations and their preoccupations are very like ours. By contrast, the thoughts and lives of people living in thirteenth century London would be positively alien: not just because of the differences in physical culture and beliefs, but because very fundamental concepts, such as what makes one thing recognisably similar to another, were understood differently in the Middle Ages than they are now.

The language of the Diary, too, is accessible, needing only a few footnotes to be completely comprehensible. We just need to know that ‘B. and S.’ is brandy and soda, and we’re away.

The format of the book is also one that’s still very popular today. From Adrian Mole to Bridget Jones, we know how to read a comic diary; and arguably, the reason that these books exist is because the Diary inspired them. I read Adrian Mole first as a teenager (worryingly, I found him entirely sympathetic) and all of Sue Townsend’s wonderful books later in life, and when I read the Diary of a Nobody I suddenly understood where they had come from.

Finally, it’s the warmth of the book that will keep me re-reading it. Mr Pooter is a little ridiculous, a little pompous – but only in the same way that most of us are, at times, a little ridiculous and pompous. He’s not a character who’s invented to be pilloried, but a real person: basically good, occasionally misguided, dealt his share of triumph and humiliation. Reading the Diary makes me realise that sometimes I should take myself a bit less seriously, because most of the things I fret about are universal. We all want to to be popular with a certain crowd, or worry we’ve made fools of ourselves, or get annoyed at our friends. The Diary, much like A Far Cry From Kensington, or Cold Comfort Farm, is one of those books I turn to for personal solace, because I like what it tells me about how to live. And on top of that, like the other two titles, it’s wonderfully funny.