When people ask you what you do, and you take a deep breath then admit you’re a writer, you can expect one of several reactions. On the most positive, if most unlikely, end of the scale, there’s, “Oh, wow, that’s fabulous! You must be so clever!”
That happened in the history of writers exactly once. It was March 17th 1965 to one Mary McFadden, an unpublished author, but deeply loved by her new boyfriend, and, later, husband, Michael. What happened to Mary’s cleverness is unknown. She spent her next sixty years raising a family and writing notes in a series of black, leather-bound journals which did not survive her.
But I digress. A slightly more common reaction to the, “I’m a writer,” confession is, “Oh, wow, have you written anything I might have read?” At least half of the people who ask this question are really saying, “Have you written anything that I might have heard other people talking about having read, or that has been turned into a movie, because I was frightened by Gulliver’s Travels in school and haven’t cracked the spine of a book since.”
Then there’s the snide, “Oh, writing. Anyone could do that.” This response is invariably accompanied by the disdainful sneer. We’ve all experienced that one from time to time. No wonder most of us would prefer to say we voted for Trump or were Nigel Farage’s girlfriend (depending on which side of the Atlantic you’re on), than confess to being a scribbler.
There are incremental steps when it becomes easier to admit when you’re a writer. Owning it when you’re just beginning, before you have any credits and you’re still learning your craft is hard. (WARNING: THERE NOW FOLLOWS AN EGREGIOUS ‘GRUMPY OLD LADY’ COMMENT): Although from what I’ve seen on the internet, a lot of young writers seem to have no difficulty posting first drafts of whatever crosses their minds on the net and calling themselves superstars. I guess I grew up in a different age. (THIS ENDS THE GRUMPY OLD LADY INTERLUDE. THANK YOU FOR YOUR PATIENCE.)
My first writing landmark came in my teens. I was 15, I think, and I won a national poetry competition. God knows how, because I ain’t no poet. Anyway, I won what was, at the time, a fairly decent amount of cash and, for once, my family was fairly flush (I was the oldest of six, so money didn’t stay long), and I was allowed to keep all my winnings. I bought myself a wristwatch and a copy of the Bridge Over Troubled Water album, which was still number one in the album charts, so this was around 1971.
The triumph was more my mother’s than my own. I later discovered she told anyone she met about her daughter who had won this big poetry competition. She probably thought I’d be the next Emily Dickenson. Ha! For her, it was worth the cash for the bragging rights.
I don’t remember doing much bragging about it. In my neighbourhood, bragging equalled bruises, and bragging about poetry would be a certain short cut to a full body cast. Still, every time I hear a track from the Bridge album, I feel a sense of accomplishment. Given the longevity of Simon and Garfunkel’s masterpiece, it was money well spent. As the decades have passed, the memory of that first achievement has been buried under bigger, more noteworthy things, but it lingers with those melodies.
Being faced with naysayers, sceptics and downright bullies, it’s hard to keep faith in yourself, but if you don’t who will? When you’re starting out, you tell yourself, Oh, it’ll be easier when I’m published… when I win a prize… when I’m famous… But although I’m not famous (outside a very small circle), I can tell you with some degree of confidence that all those things are a lie. No matter what level of success you’ve achieved, you’ll still find a challenge.
You’ve just been published? Congratulations! Now you have to get published again. You’re only as good as your most recent sale, you know. And who are you selling to? What do you mean, the literary journal doesn’t pay except in copies? Why aren’t you selling to the New Yorker? Aren’t you a Real Writer?
Oh, you won a prize? Brilliant! How many people entered? Oh, well, that’s OK, maybe your next competition will be bigger, better, more prestigious. No prize money? But you got a cup, though? A plaque? Just a certificate? Oh…
I heard you had a novel published, well done! Who’s the publisher? Never heard of them. Did you self-publish? But you get big royalties, right? Will you be going on a book tour? Oh, an indie press… Well, next time, maybe. You need to hurry up, though. You’re not getting any younger.
The writer’s ego is a fragile thing and it gets battered fairly regularly even without the assistance of a brutal public. Rejection slips and savage reviews, below living wage and failure of a work you have spent years of your life creating, all these things erode the writer’s soul.
Not long ago I was invited to read at a garden party. I arrived to find there were dozens of other people lined up to read too. All but one (other than me) were hobbyists. To add insult to injury, the organisers forgot they’d invited me and I never got to read. My friend who accompanied me was outraged on my behalf and kicked up a stink. Oh, the organisers were apologetic, they’d run out of time, they’d reschedule, etc., etc., but the damage was done. A week or two later, I had dinner with another friend who lives in a very elegant suburb of Dublin. One of her neighbours is a world-famous, award-winning Irish writer. He’s a best-selling author, does a lot for charity, and is internationally esteemed. “You’re lucky,” I told my friend, “To have such a man as your neighbour.”
“He’s not all that,” she said with a sniff. “He never puts the lids on his bins properly, and he’s not very friendly. No one in the area can stand him.”
Fame. It’s not so much you live forever. It just feels that way.
On the other hand, there are the successes. There are letters telling you yes, we’d love to publish your short story / book / poem / article. There are letters from fans telling you you’ve influenced them, or kept them going when nothing else did. There are prizes, even when the awards were tiny, but, hey, you won! There are people who are genuinely happy for your success and who soar when you do. There are handshakes in the supermarket, and surprise bottles of wine at the writers’ group; there are cards of congratulations, and gifts of pens and notebooks, sometimes from perfect strangers. There are books with your name on them and on those lonely nights when the world is cold, there’s Simon and Garfunkel reminding you where it all began.
Your time has come to shine
All your dreams are on their way
See how they shine
Oh if you need a friend
I’m sailing right behind
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will ease your mind
Bridge Over Troubled Water / Paul Simon