A Writer's Life: Moments from the Life and Work of a Self-Underemployed Writer
Author: Sarada Gray
I started my first novel, aged 8, in a draughty vicarage, finishing it 14 years later. My first poem emerged on a Sussex beach in 1965, but I didn’t return to poetry until 2007: I’m still trying to find out why.
I have published short stories, poems and reviews and am a recognised performance poet. I’ve been married 21 years and have two children, Holly, 20 and Daniel, 17; but my husband now wants to be known as female. My struggles with this and its effects on my writing, are the springboard for these Mslexia blog-posts.
If there was ever a sitcom where so little happens and where narrative is stretched to an unbearable degree, it’s Mum. I’ve blogged about series one and two before, and since Michael and Cathy finally – sort of – almost – get together at the end, I’d assumed that was it. But there’s more – and this time the tension comes from the fact that as a couple they are not ‘out’ yet, especially not to Cathy’s son Jason who, still reeling from his father’s death, is giving Michael a hard time. Cathy finds an unexpected ally in daughter-in-law Kelly who eventually tells Jason he’s being a ‘bellend’ but as always nothing is resolved until the final seconds when Cathy and Michael run away to frolic in the woods. ‘What a moment to put herself first!’ complains Pauline, who never does anything but.
They’ve cleverly gone for a new setting this time: the series spans a week away in a country mansion, hired to celebrate Derek’s birthday. Girlfriend Pauline has indulged her snobbery to the utmost in hiring the place for the week: it’s got towels in the shape of swans and when people arrive she tells them all she was ‘just about to take a dip in the pool’, despite it being freezing cold.
My main beef with this is that apart from Cathy and Michael who progress towards union at a snail’s pace, the other characters don’t change. There’s plenty of opportunity for small epiphanies but potential sub-plots such as Kelly’s unacknowledged pregnancy and whether Derek and Pauline will get married, are not developed. Even when Cathy gives Pauline a longed-for slap in the face and tells her to ‘go f*** yourself’ nothing changes: Pauline carries on treating Derek like dirt and he carries on taking it. In fact he abandons self-respect to such a degree that it’s embarrassing.
So on the whole it’s a bit of a Giant’s Causeway of a series. If you enjoyed the first two it’s worth seeing, otherwise it’s not worth going out of your way to see.
I’m back on the yoga philosophy trail again and I caught myself wondering this morning as I hovered on the edge of discipline looking into the chasm of dreariness, where does healthy self-control end and Professor Gradgrind take over? I know it happens but I can’t quite figure out how.
The yoga term for self-discipline – I was living in Spain when I discovered this and it seemed highly amusing – is tapas. This is an individual process rather than something imposed from outside, though external disciplines can help. When I was living in the yoga centre I learned a great deal about myself, particularly that I was not good at getting up at six a m. Then again, getting up at six did help me to push the boundaries of my life. That was a good discipline. On the other hand asana sessions always began with several rounds of sun salutations which at that time I found utterly crippling. Had I been given some modifications I might have found a way into this practice; as it is, even today I still have a mental block about it.That was not a good discipline.
Discipline from outside is a double-edged sword; you have to know what is enough and what is too much. Over the years I’ve learned to take what helps me and ignore the rest, because in the end what matters is self-discipline. If you can’t control yourself you’re in deep trouble– or everyone else is: look at Trump.But here’s the rub: how much discipline is enough?
When I began writing full-time like most people I had trouble getting into a routine. So I imposed one and made myself work from nine till five with timed breaks for tea and lunch. That was fine initially but after a while it exhausted me because that inflexible routine ignored the real patterns of creativity. Sometimes I need to sit in the garden and think. Sometimes I need to read or go for a walk; some days I must finish early or go mad. Then again there are afternoons when I write, oblivious of time, until I’m called for dinner (I know – lucky me not having to cook.)*
Routine is a good servant but a bad master; in the end you have to follow the river of art no matter where it leads.
*Every woman at some point has to stop writing and put the dinner on. That is her tragedy. No man does: that is his.
WordPress has just informed me that it’s eleven years ago today that I started this blog; which means it’s eleven years ago yesterday that I attended a workshop run by Hanif Kureishi and asked his advice on what aspiring authors should do to help the process along. ‘Start a blog,’ he said; and having conducted extensive research (well, I asked OH) I set up an account on WordPress and Bob was most definitely my uncle.
Eleven years, eh? You’d think I’d want to embark on some sort of retrospective; high points and nadirs, most popular posts, top comments, that sort of thing, but frankly I’ve no appetite for that. I would like, though, to think about what this blog has meant to me and what benefits it has brought to my life and writing.So here, for your delectation and entertainment, are my five best things about blogging.
Number One: Readers. As a writer (unless you are writing only for yourself) you need readers, otherwise you’re like an actor without an audience or a priest without a congregation. True, one of the best things about writing for me is that no-one can stop you doing it. I may be ignored by the whole world but as long as there’s breath in my body and sparks in my brain, I will carry on writing; and a blog has the potential to find you readers even if they don’t immediately hook up. Sometimes I get comments on posts I don’t even recognise because they’re so old. Once a post is out there, anyone can find it: I’ll never forget that early thrill of finishing a post and clicking ‘publish.’ At that time I’d hardly published anything in print, so that felt really good.
Number Two: Interaction. Most days I have some interaction with readers either ‘liking’ or following me, and I love getting comments. Reading and responding to comments can spark dialogues and often takes me to other blogs where I can like and comment and follow, and so it goes on. Even though OH is just a shout away, writing is essentially a solitary activity, so this interaction is valuable.
Number Three: Expression. For decades I wrote all my poems, ideas and stories in a series of A4 notebooks but now, if an idea is sufficiently developed, it can go on the blog. I used to suffer a lot from not having outlets and now I have one. It also encourages me to find new and more interesting ways to express myself.
Number Four: Development. A blog gives me practice in writing about all sorts of subjects: it’s primarily about a writer’s life but any topic which occurs to me can be the subject of a post. I’ve developed ideas about politics, I’ve described walking holidays, I’ve reviewed films, books and TV series; I’ve delved into philosophy and religion and I’ve transcribed dialogues between myself and OH for your delectation and amusement.
And finally, Cyril… Number Five: Routine. This may sound horribly worthy and dull, but it’s very important. Practice makes permanent, as they say; and as anyone knows who has suddenly retired from a 9-5 job, it’s hard to motivate yourself without structure. As it happens my working day has evolved over the years to mimic office hours. No fevered early-dawn scribblings or midday doldrums for me: I get to my desk at around 8.30 and work till lunch (12-1-ish). After lunch is usually a ‘dead’ time so I’ll do some gardening or walk to the shops; then it’s back to work between 2 and 3. Finishing time really depends on how it’s going: on a good day I’ll work till six but it’s usually around five as mornings are the most productive time. I don’t work evenings or weekends and I take Bank Holidays off, as I do the whole month of August. This doesn’t mean I don’t write anything – in some ways these are the most productive times – just that I don’t work at writing. There’s a big difference. But it can be hard to establish a routine, and in those early days, writing a daily blog post was an important discipline for me. Nowadays I don’t necessarily blog every day but I don’t like to leave it too long otherwise readers can drift away.
So there we are; eleven years of bloggy wisdom. Enjoy. Oh, and the picture is a rather gap-toothed version of me doing a victory dance after performing poems on the Fourth Plinth.
Sometimes it seems life conspires to discourage you. Not only are your blog stats in the doldrums but you keep hearing about people who are more successful than you are. Let’s face it, that wouldn’t be hard: yes, I’ve had some minor successes but compared to where I want to be, compared to what I feel I deserve for my efforts and talents, I’m basically in the wilderness.
Hang on – haven’t we been here before? Hm. It’s twinging a little memory in the hinterland of my consciousness. There’s a word emerging – san..san-something. It’s not English. Hang on, I’ll get it in a minute… ah yes. That was it.
The thing was, recently I met someone more successful than me. We were introduced to each other excitedly as ‘fellow-writers’ but it was evident that the other person did not experience much fellow-feeling towards me. With hindsight, perhaps that was because they feared I might be more successful than they; however the expectations of others – that we would have fruitful conversations, that this person might be able to help my career in some way, were not fulfilled. Nor did I expect them to be; I’ve had too many such encounters in the past to anticipate that anything will come from them: in my experience few established writers want to come to the aid of the unestablished. Unless, of course, you want to attend their workshops…
However, it brought back all the old gloomy sensations of failure and inadequacy: all the sensations that in terms of what most people think of as success, I am nowhere. Yet if we stop to deconstruct that word we can reconfigure it as ‘now here.’ I know that’s etymologically incoherent but it can be therapeutic: and that brings us back to santosh. Contentment; the practice of being where you are and accepting that this is where you need to be. contentment – as I have to keep reminding myself – does not mean resignation. It does not mean accepting that you will stay where you are. It’s more like GPS; finding your position and acknowledging that the journey has to start (or continue) from where you are: that much as you’d like to be over there on the headland, you must first navigate the swamp.
Besides, I’ve always found petty rivalry most unattractive: which is why I’m not at all envious that Brian has just cycled half-way round the world and is now contemplating another 36-hour fast. I am utterly serene and my teeth are not gritted!
I’ve been thinking about the Archers lately. I went off it for a while during its ‘Eastenders’ phase and then went back. I’m still listening, but I can’t help feeling it’s an uphill struggle; there are too many characters, a proliferation of plots and I can’t keep track of them all.
Not only that, but there’s little diversity. Yes, I know it’s a village but in all the time I’ve been listening there’s only been one Asian character (Usha is hardly ever heard nowadays and might even be out of the series, it’s hard to tell) and no black characters at all. There is a gay couple and I’d like to know what’s happening with them and Lexi; I’d also like to know what’s going on with Helen and Lee, Brian and Jenny, Neil and – much as I dislike him, Justin – but like a merry-go-round with too many cars, you only see them once in a while.I lose track.
I’m not harking back to the days when the Archers was cosy: in fact those days never really existed. There were always murders, drugs, affairs, illegitimate pregnancies… many who are now pillars of the establishment (eg Elizabeth) were quite wild in their youth. What I miss is knowing the characters. I feel like a teacher with far too many pupils: I can’t get to know them all because I don’t see them for long enough. And don’t get me started on how many voices sound similar…virtually the only new character I recognise is Leonard, because he’s the one with the Yorkshire accent.
I miss Nelson and Jethro; I miss Walter and his elephants and the silly stories they used to have. I miss Bert Fry. Apparently still alive but how would we know?
It just doesn’t feel like it used to – but then nothing does. I expect I’m just getting old.
I’ve been thinking some more about this idea of continual innovation. It’s not, ironically, new: I think it was Trotsky who came up with the idea of perpetual revolution, and although communism as he and Marx intended was never actually practised (what do I think of Soviet communism? It would have been a good idea) I can’t help feeling it would be terribly wearing. Because what we have now is perpetual innovation; perpetual change, perpetual upgrading. Goalposts are moved daily. Targets are shifted weekly. Marriages break up or break down, people redefine themselves, those who deplored tattoos now have them all over their bodies – and so it goes on. When I look at the news I see names I don’t recognise, and it’s not only ‘celebrities’ (when I watch Celebrity Mastermind I rarely know any of the contestants) but also politicians. I had really no idea who Gavin Williamson was until he was sacked and half of the cabinet are strangers to me.
But could it be that I’m just getting old? Possibly. It’s very hard to know, though – I mean, how do you measure the changes you grew up with against the changes my children are experiencing? Douglas Adams had a very pertinent comment to make on this, and he’s right – but how do you tell if today’s innovations are speedier than yesterday’s?
I guess we have to go to history for an overview: in any case there does seem to be a consensus that change is speeding up. In all probability this won’t continue: history teaches us that periods of rapid change often give way to slower times with an absorption of what has gone before. Or we could look at nature: consider a river, say, running quickly as it starts, forging down the hillside and then gathering itself together, slowing down as it reaches the plains and then winding leisurely towards the ocean. Nothing that grows fast carries on fast, except for one or two plants and they’re generally parasitical.
WordPress is determined to get me to use the new ‘editor’ which does things in blocks; why, I do not know, but like many such innovations they push you to accept new forms by making the old ones less and less attractive. But I resist change, not because I am a hidebound reactionary but because of the energy it takes to get to grips with something new. This is a constant feature of life and a continual problem for those of us over – ahem – fifty whose brains do not process new information as quickly as younger cortices can. But since wordpress has inexplicably downgraded the version I was using, it’s a choice between remembering something old and getting used to something new, so here I am trying to get used to my writing being ‘levelled up’, whatever that means.
I don’t consider myself particularly old, I’m pretty much on the ball and far from being ga-ga, but my life is a series of challenges which demand that on a regular basis I get used to something new. New things that have come at me in the past few years include: internet banking, online tax returns, contactless payments, wireless computer mice, ‘casting’ TV, mobile bus and train tickets, virtual kitchens (not for me but still) self-service checkouts (I’m still resisting these) and loads more I can’t bring to mind.
You might say, what’s the big deal? None of these things is particularly difficult, after all, and many of them make life a lot easier. It’s true that now I’m used to it, internet banking is very useful; it’s true that contactless payment is faster and easier and doing my tax return online is a doddle. But the point is I had to get used to all this stuff first. It’s as if you’re walking along a path quite happily but every few minutes someone tugs your elbow and says, ‘there’s a much better path up here.’ And then if you doggedly keep on using the old path they put obstacles in your way. And in the end someone comes down and says ‘this path is closing now. Please go to the new path.’ Just as HMRC are now digital by default, you have to apply for Universal Credit online and without internet shopping lots of avenues are closed to you. This stuff is largely driven by young men in Silicon Valley; it excludes the poor and the elderly and anyone else who can’t get their frontal lobes around it; and it’s very tiring. I want things to stay the same for a bit now, OK?
Then again perhaps the ultimate plan is to make all the free forms of WordPress intolerable so that we all upgrade to a paid plan. I wouldn’t put it past them…