Tuesday, 21 July 2015

The other side of Karma

I've had to sit myself down and do some soul searching.  Finding it was the first problem.  I have it buried underneath so many layers that it takes a bit of digging to get to the real stuff.  Not that others seem to have trouble hitting the tender core.  No matter how much you wrap it up, it's like a tooth, there's always a nerve others can hit.  But getting down to it oneself is a different thing.  You know that something is painful - the crippling, hunched-over, agonised whelp is a bit of a giveaway - you just always don't know why - I mean really, really know.

So book three, written, finished, sort of there in the way you are when you go to an unfamiliar city.  You've done all the planning and got there with your list of things to do, but where you'll actually go is open for discussion.  And I send it off.  To a young agent who takes me out for coffee to meet me (somewhat redundantly since I've never heard back from her so there was little point in us doing the whole face to a name thing), and then to a more senior agent who was sort of nice about my previous book (didn't like any of the characters) and turned it down - a member of the Club of 6 - who I did hear back from eventually, or rather from her assistant who said it didn't have a good enough 'voice'.  'What you have,' says my colleague who read a 'bit' 'is a great voice'.  So go figure.  That's the problem with showing things to people.  One will say you've written three books in one, and another will say you need to make it more commercial.  Another will say take out this bit, and another will say leave it in.  One will say you manage all the different voices so well and someone else will get confused.

In the end you are the one confused.

The first book was only read by my then agent who took two months to tell me her assistant had read it and didn't think it was quite there yet.  That was it.  No encouragement, no suggestions, no 'can't wait to read it when you've pulled it together' just not 'there'.  Like where the fuck is 'there'?  You're suddenly in a car aged five asking your mother if you're 'there' yet without knowing where you're supposed be going, just that it would be good to arrive.  I was devastated.  Like dead dog devastated.  I put the book away in a drawer - well in the furthest reaches of my Dropbox, and forgot about it. Or let's be honest.  I didn't forget about it for a minute, I just told myself I had forgotten about it while continuing to agonise over its failure with a little dash of frustration thrown in.  It's hard when you spend a year or so on something to have it dismissed with a few words.  After I'd licked my wounds enough to wear a patch away on my fur, I resolved to rework it.  I've now done this twice and still never shown it to another soul.  I've reworked it so much that half way through the third time I've forgotten what I'm doing to it.  It's like trying to even up your fringe with a pair of nail scissors.

So, okay, on to number two.  I've written all this before and lost it when my computer crashed.  Time to rewrite I think.  And I do.  In seven months.  I'm fairly pleased with it.  I send it to a friend.  Love emanates for me it, and every step I take on the earth.  He's a good friend.  I should have married him.  So then I send it to the 6 'new' agents, having decided that the old one, who never calls except to speak snappily to others in my office, or otherwise enquires as to whether I'm still breathing unaided (during which time I've had a nervous breakdown and spent a week in the nuthouse, had a tumour removed from my foot, and also spent a month laid out with back pain), has lost interest.  Nobody likes it or me.  Nobody wants me/I'm nobody's child.  People in the office read it.  Three never say a word to me about it - draw your own damning conclusions.  I did.  The other three said conflicting things. Another two liked it.  But no agent. One later insisted she had spoken to me about it, but then corrected herself and said she'd spoken to another colleague about it.  A little bit of me died.

I realise at this point the world is neatly dividing like the Red Sea into those who say - you're crap, give up, and those who say - but there are a thousand agents, keep going, remember Harry Potter/insert another successful book/author here that wasn't placed for ages.

Yep.  I'm in the give up category, deep in my soul, but what's the band aid of denial for if you can't whack one or sixteen on top of the wound?  So I decide to write another.  A lighter tale, with more humour, something of a romp, something simpler, less pretentious.  And I do.  In five months.

'This is the best thing you've ever written' says a colleague.  'I loved it' says my daughter who hands out praise the way David Cameron gives state benefits.  So I give it to another two colleagues and my previous publisher who bought the first book, and three agents.

The colleagues never mention it again.
The previous publisher who wanted to 'built me' does not deign to respond after three months of silence.  When I eventually drop her a note to say, well I'm guessing the silence speaks a thousand words of no' she fails to respond to that too.  Go Viking.  The Caring Imprint.
Of the three agents, well you've heard the response of two.  The third said by return: 'I'll stop you there as I've just sold a book with the same premise to Quercus.'
I respond.  'Oh yes my friend said there was another she'd seen (she's a reader for Picador amongst others) but she liked mine better.'  Okay, okay, it doesn't sound like the way to win friends, agents or influence people.  I should have added the smiley face. I said it with a rueful smile, but it didn't read that way.  Agent snaps back 'Thanks for telling me that she liked yours better the one I represent.'  Bless, her feelings are hurt.  She with all the power and none of the grace, is offended.  Apparently I was incredibly rude.  'Incredibly rude.'  Not just a bit out of order, but 'Incredibly rude.'  Fuck me and all my sisters.  Really?  I responded by saying that I was merely whistling in the wind and that obviously that since her book was the one with a publisher and an agent, and mine wasn't then we both know which one was the best.'  But nope.  I am, dear readers, 'INCREDIBLY RUDE'.

I had to go home and lock myself in my bedroom after that one.  I felt like a snail that someone had pored salt on.  I mean, who is the one who can afford to be generous here?

That happened before the other agents assistant told me I didn't have a strong enough voice.

So now I do give up.  Why am I doing this?  And thus the soul searching.  It's a good question.  Why am I doing this?  I suppose I want affirmation.  And I get it, but the wrong things are affirmed.  It's rejection, failure and even worse, irrelevance, the feelings of not mattering, being brushed aside, not being good enough, being a nobody, a nonentity, unwanted, of no consequence.

I realise it's not even about the actual rejection, it's about my reaction to it.  It gets through my armour, through all the defences, to the dark, curdled recesses of my poor beleaguered soul, that the act of writing is supposed to nurture, not damage.

I'm not going to be one of those people who gets published on the 19th agent.  Let's face it, the agent is only the first of many hurdles on the way to getting your book not read by the book-buying public. In my ridiculously naivety I thought it would be the easiest part - former journalist, previously published novelist, but no it doesn't work like that.  You're only as good as your next article in journalism.  In novels you're only as good as your last book, or you're an as untried debut novelist who has yet not to sell and prove yourself unworthy of a second go.  Of course, it's all about the book.  Not really about it being good, though that too, but about it being saleable.  Honestly, honestly, honestly, I don't think my book is that great.  It's more than adequate I'd say, and certainly I see books coming through here all the time which in a race with mine I don't think would necessary beat it - though having a publisher already means they have.  It's so subjective.  But I do know it's almost certainly not going to race up the bestsellers chart or win The Orange Prize.  It's a jobbing novel with a beginning a middle and an end.  All three of them are.  But they are my worlds, that I made up, and formed and plotted and can see, clearly, in my head as though they are real places with real people in them.  Maybe that's why I keep on writing.  And fuck it if nobody reads them and they are not given the publishing seal of validation.

Maybe I should start my own Publishing House and call it Second Chance, e-format only, for people like me.  There are so many of us.  I know because with my other hat on I reject them every day.

Friday, 9 January 2015

Make yourself happy

I grew up in an age and place where nurseries were places that raised begonias and pre-school care was being tied to the clothesline to stop me wandering off.  As a result my early learning was somewhat legoless. Access to play-doh was limited (my house-proud mother didn’t like it because it got in the carpet), and paints were considered the messy anti-Christ.  Generally in our house, artistic expression was a euphemism for a tantrum – or being gay - and art was a photographic mural of Loch Lomond on the sitting room wall.

I attribute this lack of kindergarten finger-painting in my formative years to my fascination in later life with all things even vaguely crafty.  Give me a Prit Stick and point me in the direction of a toilet roll, and I immediately come over all Blue Peter. In the seventies I batiked, in the eighties I rag-rolled, in the nineties I papier-mached.  With my own children I built cereal box forts and won the Art Prize at several different schools. When my youngest was born I decided to study fine art full time in the evening, only to have my work was labelled, ‘illustrative’ (meant as an insult) and, even more cringingly heinous, ‘decorative’.  So I changed to design. When life makes you a lemon, then produce, lovely figurative, illustrated lemonade.  I wasn’t going to wait for art snobs to validate me.  Bring on the decoration.

I’ve always been a joiner.  Classes for Italian; classes for cookery; A level history, a part time degree in Arabic; Photoshop for Dummies.  But it wasn’t until I took a short course in Book Binding that time stood still and I fell totally and utterly in love. I discovered that just like love – craft, the making and perfecting of something ; be it the icing on a cake, the seam on a dress, or in my case, the spine of a book - makes you feel like your best, most alive, and most essential self.  In short, Craft is good for the soul.

‘Oh but I’m not creative,’ I hear friends say.  Of course you are. All children draw pictures and all children paint.  They’re given crayons and modelling clay as toys, told to draw’ whenever you need them to amuse themselves, and sticking things with glue is an integral part of the nursery school day.  So why is it that when we grow up so many of us think we’re ‘not artistic’?  Who says?  Few kids turn out a Hockney in the painting corner (though most can manage a Pollock), but it doesn’t stop them being enjoyably immersed and proud of their works of art.

Too often dismissed as the ugly, fat sister of ‘Art’, Craft serves the dual purpose of letting you explore the world of creativity at the same time as developing a skill.  You produce something useful, something beautiful, something that is unique and exists only as a result of your efforts.  A baby without the breast-feeding and the sleepless nights.

What’s more is that, unlike love, where the ideal is to fall only once, faithfully and for life, with craft you can be as promiscuous as you like, and rather than harming you, it actually enhances your life.

From bookbinding – the creation of a lovely, hand-made book with nothing more than card, paper, flour and water paste and a needle and thread – the most prosaic things that everyone has lying around in their house, I got rather carried away with the wrapping paper we used to bind the book.  Why stop at a book cover, I thought?  Then it was box making.  Then I began covering chairs, cupboards and chest of drawers until my children joked that they were afraid to sit down lest they found themselves covered with Paperchase wrap, and sealed with a coat of varnish.

I love colour, though I accept that I may not know how to use it.  I have an eclectic, some would say, eccentric house, but note the important pronoun here.  I. When my  marriage broke down and I was left in the family home, a shrine to all things ‘us’ it broke my heart.  I was surrounded by the things we’d chosen together, the relics of the shared life that I could no longer share.  But then I realised that the house could be a blank canvas for my own taste, my own expression, my own ideas and slowly I began to change it.

After I’d wrapped up all the furniture – I did a course at the Phoenix on Goldborne Road in London, a stockist of Annie Sloane Paints – dear Annie, the patron saint of the lazy decorator.  No sanding, no rubbing down, no prep at all, just whack it on and the ugliest table becomes a canvas.  It’s a fact known to few people that I discovered Shabby Chic back in the day when it was just shabby.  My home is a shrine to the battered furniture that nobody else wants, the slightly tatty, the outright wonky Ikea.  But with a wash of colour, a pot of paint and a bit of footballer’s wife – fake gold leaf – bob’s your uncle and Annie’s your aunt.  I painted the stairs with a pink stripe down the middle and from a place of sorrow, my home has become my solace, my joy, my playground.

My latest venture has been into mosaics.  Catherine Parkinson, an artist from my other food-for-the-soul-venture, my choir, is one of the few people to teach Mosaics in London.    I became instantly addicted.  Not only is mosaic a metaphor for life – just think, you take a lot of broken pieces and reassemble them in a different form, for a different purpose, that is a pleasure to behold (at least I think so).  If you break a plate – worry not, it has a new lif e in your mosaic.  In addition there’s the  sheer, unbridled sense of belonging that comes from sitting in a studio with five other, very different women (yes it has to be said, craft is often a women’s thing) each creating, working, making, while talking gently as the mood takes them.  It’s almost religious.  A quaker meeting with embelishments.  It’s a quilt circle, a knitting bee,  a song, - the sort of elemental thing women have done together down through the ages where you’re not a mother or a wife, just a fellow crafter.  More than a pastime, more than a hobby, craft is something totally life affirming.  Even if you can’t draw or paint in the traditional sense, if you can cut and paste, hold a paintbrush, you can beautify your life.

Sunday, 4 January 2015

Time Flies

And I'm back at work tomorrow.  More than two long, lovely weeks at home with nothing to do but relax (at least that was the theory) and it's back to normal.

Just in time really, not that I'm anxious to rise at 6 and brave public transport, nor am I anxious to go into the office first without my regular morning buddy who has left to take another much better job.  It's going to be hard for a few weeks until I get used to it.  But you do.  It's not the individuals so much as the slow, slow drip of people we've lost over the past year that gets to you as slowly, slowly, the death by a thousand cuts, the landscape changes, and I guess one day it will just be so totally barren I won't want to be there either. 

I was sitting on the sofa trying to organise my thoughts - what I needed to do, what I needed to finish, start, arrange, organise, ready for tomorrow, and I realised I hadn't thought about the coming year.  What do I want to do?

For the past several years I've had finish a book at the top of my list.  I've done that now twice, and am half way through a third, but it's the publishing them that's hard.  One I never sent out, the second I sent out but got rejected and need to change it, and the third I'm still working on.  It seems like goal that recedes further each year, seeing the book in print, and I can't say that this doesn't dismay me.  Not because it's a tragedy, but it just seems to be slipping away, that idea I had of myself as a writer, not because I can't write but because the market that would support my sort of writing just doesn't exist in as wide a form as it did even five years ago.  It saddens me to think that my novel was a flash in the pan, but at the same time, I'm proud of it, and if that's to be the only one, then it's a fine one to represent me.  And there's self publishing, too.  I can do that with not too much downheartedness, but just as if I were publishing it with a reputable publishing house, it still has to be in top form, the best it can be, and self means just that, no editor, no editorial advice, no guidance, no feedback.  i gave the last one to several people.  SOme loved it and some didn't say another word to me about it again (draw your own conclusion) and those that did talk to me about it had such differing comments that I was left bewildered as to which way to go in the editing process.  So I did nothing.  There's something a little soul destroying about spending another four months on it getting it into some sort of shape that I feel good about, to sell it for 69p on Amazon and still have nobody read it.

And it's the writing I love, anyway, though naturally you write because you want to be read.  You have an invisible audience in your head and you want to engage this reader.  You don't write just as an exercise in vanity.  It's from an urge to communicate.  Though vanity does come into it, of course it does, otherwise why does one want it published 'properly'?  It's ego, and self-image, and self-worth.

I realise thought that I am, have even, given up on the idea of myself as a writer, a published writer, and am quietly becoming accustomed to the idea that I'm a nonentity, just another scribbler.  It is sad and a bit dispiriting.  But the world does not crack into two, and nobody cries.  I suppose it's life - that you have to scale back your ideas, your dreams even.

Does this mean I'm giving up on writing.  No.  I'm giving up on caring about it as a means to define myself publicly.  I mean, publicly?  What public.  I live a quiet, semi-solitary life and see few people, there is no public.  I like it fine, too.

My resolutions for the next year are to NOT care what people think of me, unless I feel I've let myself done by acting badly towards someone.  But as Maya Angelou says, people can only make you feel small if you give them permission.  I don't.  I don't need anyone's approval.  They don't even need to like me.  I'm fine as I am.

I will always diet because I like the way I look when I'm thinner and I have a wardrobe of clothes that like me better too when I'm thinner.  However, I do plan to make the absolute best of myself whatever size I am.  I have drawers of scarves and earrings and necklaces and I never wear them because I can't be bothered.  Bother, Marion.  They're lovely.  Use them, or give them away.  Enjoy them.  Enjoy being me in all my fat arsed imperfect dyed blonde glory.  Nobody's looking at me anyway.  Even if I weighed 9 stone, I'm past the turning heads stage.

There are more.  But I need my ugly sleep...