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.







On radishes and human nature

The woman was tall, brunette and eccentrically dressed, and she appeared from nowhere. Had she arrived two minutes earlier she would have found me swearing at the car keys (or rather, the loss of them); as it was, she turned onto our driveway to see me sitting in the car about to set off. She was wearing what appeared to be a patterned velvet smoking jacket of Edwardian cut, teamed with a white T-shirt and a boxy black skirt, and when she turned towards us I thought for a moment that she might be crazy. She wasn’t, though. She was friendly.

‘I love what you’ve done with the garden!’ she cried, waving a hand towards the vegetable plot at the front of our house. She stayed a good four metres away, in the English social safety zone, from which one may leave as unannounced as one has arrived. ‘I’m trying to do the same thing, and I wondered if we could have a chat?’ My husband, one leg in the car, one on the driveway, explained that we were late to drop off our daughter, and that she should call back. We’d be happy to chat.

I get this a lot. It’s rather lovely. When we moved to our house the front garden, south-facing and sun-warmed, didn’t have much to say for itself: a path, an awful lot of gravel, and some scrubby lavender bushes. The soil was compacted, uncared-for clay, on which moss grew and even weeds looked sad. The back garden was landscaped and zoned and planted with real plants we didn’t know the names of. There was no space there for a vegetable patch, and I really wanted vegetables. It would have to be the front.

I was in two minds about this: after all, it’s the front garden. It was the first impression of the house, it was inescapably public, and it was – well – weird to grow veg in your front garden. Nowadays it’s terribly on-trend to grow your own, but I wasn’t making a statement. I grew up on an organic smallholding. I have gardened everywhere I’ve ever lived. It’s one of the great passions of my life. I didn’t want to look like I was a hipster in a Dig for Victory phase.

In the end, my desire for salad won out. We cut down the ornamental willow, dug out the lavender bushes and the woody old sage, and I turned over the claggy, resistant clay by hand. I bought old scaffolding planks and laid out raised beds in the shape of the rising sun, then filled them with topsoil and horse manure carted from the local Riding for the Disabled school in the back of our much-abused Ford Focus. I dug great pits in the borders and layered them with sharp sand, soil, manure and compost, and put in currants. I nicked little self-seeded herbs and cuttings from public gardens and planted sage, mint, thyme, marjoram, tansy, rosemary, lemonbalm, hyssop, and winter savoury. I ordered a little plum tree by the royal name of Opal-Krimsk, and put it in when the year was still grim and drizzly. And eventually I had something I could work with.

All of this took time, and sweat, and all of it was public. At first I felt embarrassed. Then the conversations started. It turned out that an awful lot of people loved gardening, and an awful lot of people loved our garden. I’m typing this looking out at it now, and I can guarantee that in the time it takes me to post this, someone will come along and have a look over the fence. This is not to brag about what I’ve created – it’s often less than perfect, with blighted tomato plants or slug-eaten marigolds – the point is that it brings joy. People call to me as I work, telling me they always look as they go by to see what’s changed. When I have too much it gets given away: the patty-pan squash left for the lady with the little boy (‘Put it next to the fence. Not there! The dogs will wee on it’); the lavender plant left for the man whose girlfriend needed pot plants, and the note of thanks in return (‘With thanks, Eric and dog’); the bunch of sweet peas picked for the old lady who wears the same beige car coat winter and summer. And despite there being no gate, no security light and a fence that’s 2 feet high, no-one has ever nicked anything. There was that time last year that something was dug up, but I half think it was foxes, so I’m not counting it.

Several people warned me about the risk of theft. Often they spoke as if I was being naïve. For a while I wondered if I was. As time goes on, though, I realise that your opinion on whether people will steal from me or not has more to do with your opinion of other people in general than your knowledge of our neighbourhood. It’s about your belief in human beings. Yes, people do shitty things. But they also do wonderful things, and often very quietly, and those things often go unreported. Most people are, fundamentally, good. There’s also the small matter of a lot of people not knowing what vegetables in the ground look like, but let’s skip over that.

One person who told me I was silly to plant in public told me that she’d seen people taking things: ‘A man, leaning over and taking strawberries.’ I knew who she meant. I don’t know his name, but I know he’s had a hard life. He’s no older than me, but he’s missing one arm and he has the rambling, disjointed look of someone who’s fought drug addiction. He spends all day walking: out in the car I’ll see him miles from our street, unmistakable in his bobble hat, with his stocky bulldog trotting beside him, going nowhere in particular because it’s the motion that matters. He’s stopped and talked to me from the start, asking which plants are which. Last summer he was admiring the strawberries, and I told him to come in and take some when he next passed. This is who she saw: a drug addict with a scary dog, stealing fruit. But then that’s what I saw, when I met him first. It’s only through putting myself out there, in public, on display, that I’ve learnt more.

All of which is a very long way of saying that creating something in the public view is always frightening, and often embarrassing. It’s what I’m doing now, and I’d be lying if I said I was confident about it. What if it’s no good? What if people dislike it, or make fun of it, or damage it? Well, they may do. But maybe the unexpected will occur, and someone will appear from nowhere to tell you how much they love it. If they’re wearing an Edwardian smoking jacket at the same time, so much the better.