It feels like a long time since I last blogged and I’ve been missing it. There’s something soothing about being able to unload the contents of your mind, knowing that there’s at least some sort of audience out there.
Since my last post I’ve been preoccupied with endings: two work commitments of different kinds, one that I had to end for practical reasons and one that was ended when the service’s funding ceased. I won’t go into a long rant about that now, though I could: leaving vulnerable people without support, taking away freedom of choice, ignoring real cost-effective benefits to the community… And I’ve moved out of my lovely bedsitter, in a house of amazingly like-minded people. I’d rented it since I sold my flat in September 2008, and after I bought my house in Devon I’d used it as a base when I came back to London for work. Now, for the first time in over 30 years, I’m not living in London, except in the houses of kind friends who are putting me up as I wind down my work there. Come the end of July I’ll no longer be a London person. I love the place where I live, with its view of green hills, and I have good friends and neighbours here, but I’m feeling deracinated – I think that’s the word – torn up by the roots, shaken about, not quite knowing who or where I am, grieving for I’m not sure what. The shock of Divyam’s death (see my previous post) and the confrontation with mortality had unsettled me already. Too often I go into escape mode, watching TV or surfing the Internet. (Did anyone see the wonderful Arena documentary on Jonathan Miller, by the way, or listen to The Spirit of Schubert on Radio 3?) Sometimes I come back to myself and sit in meditation with what’s there, knowing somewhere in me that ‘this isn’t all there is’. It’s hard doing it, but a relief to stop running away.
But this wasn’t what I was going to write about. At the same time I’m nerving myself to edit the middle section of my novel, which is far too long, and I’ve been trying to get some of my short stories into publishable, or at least submittable, form. The other week I found a few that I’d written twenty or more years ago and put into a collection of writings – a kind of portfolio – that I handed out to friends. The covers of the collection are paintings that I did during a period of intense ‘personal growth’. The book itself, some 400 pages long, written on my old Amstrad word processor and photocopied on A4 paper (the only technology I had at the time), sat on most people’s shelves because it was too big and heavy to read. As well as short stories it contained extracts from a novel I’d written, autobiographical essays, poems, and little sketches that I’d performed on various occasions. I picked it up again last week to distract myself from another loss – a small bag containing all my favourite jewellery, most of it given to me by people who mattered, which I think must have fallen out of the pocket of my rucksack. Strange how when I lose a part of my life I often seem to lose something tangible.
Coming back to that book was a different kind of shock: it made me realise how well I could write then. Thanks to my groups and classes, and of course the MA, I’ve improved a lot, but nevertheless some of those stories spoke with a clarity and intensity that I still aim at, and that made me shiver when I read them. I tried to publish some of them at the time, but while I prided myself on them I didn’t seriously believe they were much good. A few people told me they were but I could easily discount their opinions. I sent one story to Spare Rib (the feminist magazine) and was told that ‘it goes on too long’ – which I think it does – and ‘you need to condensce (sic) it’ and also that I needed to give it a happier ending, when the whole point of it was that it was a depiction of unrequited love. I was incensced (sic) at what I saw as their unintelligent response but could dismiss Spare Rib as not literary; other rejections, from mainstream publishers and magazines, simply convinced me that I didn’t have what it took to be a writer in the wider world. But looking at those stories now I can see no reason why some of them, properly edited and polished, shouldn’t have gone out into the market place with confidence. I could perhaps resurrect them, but some I think are too dated now. Which is sad. “Full many a flow’r is born to blush unseen/And waste its sweetness on the desert air”. Or something like that.
That was then. Now, after a long time in which I was sure I could never publish anything (though I did get a poem into Resurgence, which publishes real poets) I’m getting ready to send out my latest offerings. Not just the novel but short stories and poems as well. Perhaps when I tried before the time to do it hadn’t come; I was certainly much more tentative, less sure of how to go about it. Or perhaps, even though the work was not at all bad, there wasn’t anything I believed in quite enough. Whatever the reason, it didn’t happen and I categorised myself as one of those wannabe writers who delude themselves into thinking they could be published. What’s made the difference now has been encouragement. Without it writers do wilt and fade away – unless, of course, they are so brilliant that the fact is obvious even to them. Or they have enough chutzpah not to take no for an answer. I now belong to a group of talented prose writers that is a huge source of mutual support. However good other people’s work is, I’m able to think most of the time that mine can hold its own. In the poetry and prose class I’d been going to for some years I’d always felt that my writing wasn’t up to standard – there were published poets in the group. When I admitted how I felt to one of the poets it surprised her; it surprised me just as much to find I was doing well on the MA.
Which all goes to show – what? The difference that confidence can make; the fact that we can’t always see our work for what it is; and the fact that progress in writing isn’t always as simple and linear as we might like to think. At its best, my writing from twenty or even thirty years ago is not that much worse than my writing now. What has improved is my ability to revise, to remove the bits that are not so good. And that again depends on confidence: knowing that even if I’ve written something pretty terrible, it doesn’t mean I’m a bad writer and can’t do any better. We all slip up sometimes or lose our way, and it isn’t terminal. First drafts are only first drafts, and are there to be worked on. I’m coming more and more to see the importance of editing and revising. And revising. That’s what being a proper writer, a writer who is seriously trying to get published, is all about.