After a lifetime of flirtation with the idea, I’ve just discovered that I don’t want to live a writer’s life. All these years I have been shooting myself in the foot for good reason. The lock-in has changed so many of my ideas, I see more clearly now what all my dissatisfactions really amount to. I felt ashamed of some of them for a long time and couldn’t understand why I didn’t fit in better, thought it was arrogance or pettiness or envy, but all along it has just been that I don’t like it. I liked going to work every day, managing to cover up my depression from myself and everyone else, getting energy and fun and input from other people, from the journey to and from the office, a break from myself through some shared activity that didn’t touch my innermost being. I never got used to not going out to work, and struggled hard to find a structure to my days or substitutes for the camaraderie and sense of purpose. And my depression met no resistance.
Now I have been reading – and paying closer attention – to what people do in order to make a living at being a writer, I am shocked to discover how much I don’t want to do those things, how much I have deliberately missed opportunities, how confused, even bitter, I have felt about it. The thought of chasing after commissions, grants, filling up my time with other people’s writing (workshops, mentoring, judging) leaves me cold. I want to do my own writing. The necessity of endlessly chasing after the next thing, writing stuff for the sake of writing, being in the swim, or making money, leaves me cold.
I don’t take part in or listen to podcasts or Zoom events. I don’t want to talk about writing with other afficionados, I don’t much enjoy most poetry readings, especially open mics. I don’t want to write reviews or read or hear other people’s writings unless I already know and like them. I’m not interested in finding the next celebrity reader.
And as for entering things for competitions, journals, anthologies, I have finally come to the end of my patience with the hubris and patronage of editors’ and anthologists’ ‘send us your best work’, ‘write about this currently urgent and pc subject’, ‘help to raise money for …’,’it has to be under 40 lines whether this fits the poem or not – our typeface is more important than your words’. These days people are even asking for fragments or half-finished poems. Sometimes a poem might take years to write, to distil what you really have to say about something, but nowadays anything tossed off on the top of a bus (or the toilet) five minutes after the event seems to be perfectly acceptable. Another pet hate of mine is journals who hold onto your work for months, preventing you from trying to get published elsewhere, having to set up elaborate and in my case useless systems for keeping track. If you don’t want your work edited don’t bother to send it in – this from some pipsqueak of a university student who has been writing for half an hour, compared to my own hard-won 25 years of skill (forgive me. I am 74).
How could I have had the ambition to be a journalist? A reviewer? I picked up a lot of nonsense about writers meeting in the Café Flore, having wonderful conversations about the state of the world, finding solidarity and kindness, and an audience, somehow missing all the pointers to rivalries, fucked-up egos, bullying, spite and nastiness. Even the tiny fringes of the poetry world I’ve stuck my toes in have had various manifestations of these things, much to my distress and the destruction of any good vibes in the community.
What am I then? I can’t seem to stop writing, or sticking my nose in from the outside. My tutor years ago on a Creative Writing degree gave me some advice, which seems much more appropriate now – that I should spend the rest of my writing life in an ivory tower and do nothing about a career, or success. At the time, it seemed cruel, but now I am reminded of my father’s breakdown, when he retired to his room at a conference and dispensed the occasional edict or granted a personal interview from time to time, dressed as the Messiah in his dressing-gown. I think that would make me feel much more comfortable.
I do though have a sneaking suspicion that my disillusion has something to do with just having had my second collection published.