Today’s guest post is by London writer Mark Piggott. His published novels to date are Fire Horses and Out of Office. He’s also had major features in the Times, Guardian, Independent, Mail, Express, Sunday Express, Telegraph, Observer and more. His website is at: www.markpiggott.com.
When Barack Obama was elected US President in 2008 “The Onion” ran the headline “black man given nation’s worst job”. Much as I found their take on events amusing, even being President during this period of such economic misery can’t compare to what really is the worst job in the world: writing.
It’s not the mechanical act of writing itself that’s the problem; I’m never happier than when I close the office door, switch on my laptop and begin to chart new worlds. Like most writers, this is where I’m happiest: making stuff up, creating narratives that fit. It’s when I’m forced to emerge from my own space, deal with real people, many of them in positions of absolute and oft-abused power over my own destiny, that I struggle.
Yes, I realise that a writer moaning about their lot is a rather unseemly spectacle; and yes, I have done my fair share of ghastly jobs, including cleaning toilets, sweeping the streets and once – as a school caretaker – having to empty a freezer of decomposing rats, eyeballs and horse’s lungs after some kids pulled the plug just before a sweltering weekend.
However what makes writing truly unique – even among the more creative – ugh – “industries” – is that you have so much power over your own input – and yet so little. When writing your book you have absolute control over its contents; every word, every sentence, is down to you and you alone. For a writer, this should not be a daunting prospect, rather an exciting opportunity, or rather, an infinite combination of possibilities.
Once your novel is finished, on the other hand, you are drained of all power; from being a little god you are just another worshipper at the feet of the true masters of the universe, the real writer’s blocks: the agents, publishers, bookshops, critics and reading public.
This transition from omnipotence to impotence is perhaps one source of the crazed psychosis many writers suffer from time to time (or maybe most or all of the time, our symptoms somehow suppressed). We create then become useless; we are parents whose children have flown the nest and barely remember to call.
A musician can make music and stick it on YouTube, a painter can daub on derelict walls and their creation is deemed valid, judged only by its own innate skill. A writer – and particularly a novelist – does not have this option. They must be validated, preferably by some vast multi-national corporation, whose own ethos may be the antithesis of everything that writer holds true, or they are nothing: they are not writers, no matter what they write and how well they do it.
(It has been explained to me, for example, that because my books are published by a small independent – Legend Press – rather than some gigantic conglomerate which is doubtless a key part of the military-industrial complex, I can’t be much cop as a writer. Maybe they’re right; but this attitude – held even by those of what used to be quaintly called “the Left” – smacks to me of perverse logic.)
So: you work on a novel for months or years; you send it off into the blue; if you are lucky (luck always plays a part), you may secure some sort of publishing deal. Even then you’re nowhere. Unless some sharp-eyed critic decides to make you their flavour of the moment or some bookshop deems you worthy of a push in the right direction, your books won’t sell; or rather, they might sell but then the bookshop won’t order any more from your publisher because – hurrah! – Here comes another one. Writers: there’s one born every minute.
Most writers get one or two breaks, but if their books don’t break the bank they’re finished, in a worse place than any of the poor souls fretting out there without a writing credit but with big dreams. The unknown author at least has potential; the published, under-performing author is old hat, their embarrassing recent history best deleted.
A couple of years back I met the lovely writer and critic Al Alvarez. He asked my then five-year-old daughter what she wanted to be when she grew up. To my gratification she replied: maybe a writer.
Oh no, don’t do that… anything but that!
Indeed: anything but that. Do anything you can to avoid the misery, self-loathing and poverty of being a writer. If however you cannot do anything else, if you MUST, then maybe you might make it – whatever “making it” means. I used to think a book or two on the shelf would suffice; it does not.
Onward I march, almost to the end of a draft of book four, while book three still languishes, my agent and publisher skirting issues and polite in conversation as only two people who have absolutely no emotional investment in my project – my book – can be.
If no-one buys my books, why write? Every time I close the office door and turn on the laptop I am in a sense depriving my children: of financial security, of at least some emotional energy. I don’t know why: it’s just always been there, the one constant in a narrative I would otherwise find indecipherable.
At least I have the answer to one question, a question that haunts so many people who like the idea, maybe, the presumed prestige, of the label: I know what I am.
Lately I’ve been reading a lot of the strangely neglected William Saroyan. His voice is fresh and modern and kind, and he has much to say about writing. As he says, in Calouste Gulbenkia when a cousin asks him: “Am I a writer?”
The proper answer to that question would be, ‘If you can ask such a question, you are not a writer’.
I’m always meeting people who explain that, if only they had the time, they would write a great novel – or at least one that would sell a great many copies, which I suppose is a form of greatness (he said, grudgingly). Perhaps fearing yet more competition I tell them: don’t bother. Don’t do it.
Do this instead: go to a bookshop and buy a book. A real, old-fashioned book with pages of paper that fan beneath your fingers. Not necessarily MY book (though it might as well be mine as anyone else’s, books by Andrew Blackman for that matter) – just buy a book and read it and even if you hate it remember what I said about writing. Without you, we are nothing. We do not exist. We toil away in our book-lined hovels like so many monkeys.
I would give anything not to write. I resign from this self-appointed (inescapable) post daily, look around vaguely for a “proper” job (what else can a writer do? Not much), boycott the laptop, try to stop the voices in my head whispering these ideas, characters and situations, determined to teach the world a lesson. Of course nobody notices.
So I begin…