As we prepare for building work on our flat, we’ve been doing a giant clear-out which feels both cathartic and kind of terrifying. The trick is not to look at anything too carefully, especially written or printed matter, because you can disappear down that temporal rabbit hole for months …
But yesterday a whole pile of correspondence ambushed me; it was sandwiched between some of the kids’ old artwork and exercise books, most of which shouldn’t have been kept in the first place. But there is a time for holding on, and a time for letting go, and suddenly the letting go feels so GOOD …
That pile of paper I’d discovered about was actually mine. It consisted mostly of cover letters to and from publishers/film companies/agents – also reviews of past work. Decades of the stuff, right? I’ve been doing this for nearly half a century.
Reader, I went straight to the shredder and nearly broke the thing by stuffing too much in too quickly and jamming it, so desperate was I to shred my past. But before the machine ate each chunk of sorrows and kindnesses and near misses of which there were MANY, I couldn’t help but glance at each one and reader, I was SHOCKED.
I was one of those fortunate (or perhaps unfortunate) writers to whom success came very young. When I left university with a couple of notable – or at least noted – plays under my belt, I found myself in demand. This was the early 1980s: young women were all the rage – people were suddenly realising we might have something to offer after all, so long as there weren’t too many of us. Not much changes, does it? I was taken on by a big agent and wrote several commissioned plays in the next few years.
It all sounds great, doesn’t it? But the fact was I didn’t really know what I was doing. I wasn’t ready. I wasn’t really capable. I was twenty-one years old, there were no writing courses to speak of, no mentoring, no ACE schemes for emerging writers. I had my agent but my agent just wanted to get me as much work as possible. So, on I stumbled with my hit and miss, working for community theatre companies, repertory companies, coming up with ideas when they were demanded, fulfilling the brief.
All was going well and then, as my thirties approached, along came motherhood. All-consuming, and no internet to go to for advice or understanding, no network of writing mothers to share the difficulties … just a great big void and a lot of sleepless nights. I managed – being a mother has its own rewards as well as its punishments – I carried on writing – oh yes I did, but sporadically and in the spaces between four children.
And in between those children I won a coveted palace at The National Film School (I had never wanted to write for film but I was flattered into taking the place) a purgatorial experience on the whole, but a good stepping stone to getting noticed; I spent years in development hell … as I noted a few days ago from the aforementioned pile of correspondence. (One memorable BBC producer who was particularly keen on a storyline that involved a friendship between women regretfully passed on it in the end because they’d done a drama about a friendship between two women a few years before.)
My agent must have been so exasperated with me: Those letters! I didn’t understand about networking, keeping up connection or even recognising a compliment. I didn’t know the difference between a sadistic rejection (and there were a few of those on the pile) and a helping hand held out or a message of support. As soon as someone didn’t give me an outright ‘yes’, I just backed off and never went back, even though – it was clear from my agent’s correspondence – my agent was encouraging me to do so.
This was forty years ago. Where were my role models? Where was my support network of other young women? My recollection is that although women were welcomed, the men in power didn’t want too many of them, so there was an intense feeling of competition. I do know that my self- esteem was rubbish or I would have made that appointment to go in and have a chat when it was offered, or gone for a script session at the BBC when a producer suggested it, or sent another version to the same producer when I’d written it, or sent the next piece of work to the person who’d asked to see it, or answered my agent when they suggested a meeting.
I didn’t. I just sat in my kitchen feeding my babies feeling tired and hopeless and like a failure.
As I reread those letters, trying to understand myself, I remembered the research about women and writing; that one of the reasons more poems by men are published is because they’re persistent. They believe in their work so if an editor sends it back, they try again, usually immediately. And again and again. Whereas women more often just go and hide.
But the key thing here, right, is that I never gave up on the writer in me. Even when I was up to my neck in motherhood, even when I had porridge in my hair and was sleepless and slightly mad, I knew the writer was still inside me. Even when I had what I now refer to as a creative breakdown and stopped writing altogether, I knew I’d get back to it. Writing was always there because I couldn’t live without it.
Reading those documents yesterday was a masterclass in process, delusion and persistence. I fully understood my own, self-made, shonky creative trajectory for the first time. I suppose what I’m trying to say is that sometimes things take a long time to sink in. Decades, even.
If you’re twenty-five, say, or thirty, or forty or older, and writing for the first time – or you’ve been at it for years, wondering why nobody is recognising your genius, or thinking that you’re not being noticed because you’re shit, probably neither of those things are true. Probably you need ‘tincture of time’ as my doctor uncle puts it. ‘Tincture of decades’ even. Probably the most important thing you can do for yourself is to stay in your process, keep loving the work – the actual graft of it – and not think about what anyone else makes of it.
Learning to write well, sustainably, with focus and depth and freshness is no quick fix. You might be lucky at the beginning, but luck alone will not sustain or nourish you as an artist.
Writing is a calling, a vocation, a condition.
As Marge Piercy put it in ‘For the young who want to’
‘Work is its own cure. You have to
like it better than being loved’
I’ve carried that poem in my heart for decades. I thought, when I was young, that she meant that you have to choose between your work and your lovers, but now I understand it differently. It seems obvious to me now that she means you have to love DOING the work more than you love the attention and admiration of your readership.
Only patience, attention, passion, humility, self-respect, honesty and a ‘a great deal of hard work’ as Elizabeth Bishop put it, will give you a lifetime of doing what you love.
And the great thing is, it’s never too late! Do the work. Love the work and if you love the work you’re doing, that is what will sustain you.
PS The above letter was shredded. I took a photo of it for my daughter first.