Plan A or: Does a caterpillar dream of becoming a butterfly?

advice from a caterpillar

For a change, I’d like to dedicate this post to a friend, who in a recent email dared me to write ‘the definitive statement’ of what it is to be a writer (irrespective of, if presumably not unaffected by, whether it pays). I’d told him how, late last year, I ran into someone I knew from uni. ‘Are you still writing?’ was the first thing she said. A suitable reply might have been: ‘Have you started writing yet?’ (Though it’s years since we graduated, she hadn’t.) But no, I bitched about having received rejections for Christmas. ‘Maybe you need to take a break,’ she said. (And I sympathise: if giving advice is your job, it can be hard to switch those tapes off.) ‘We should catch up,’ she said next – but with whom or what? We’ve chosen opposing directions.

I don’t want to be held responsible for the fates of others (one reason why I quit full-time astrology) – I’d rather push my creative abilities (such as they are) to the max. So it’s a paradox to me when those in supposed high places can’t see the prissy PC little moment of our culture as part of the same syndrome ailing global finance and nature – the latter of which once embraced us but which we’ve lately reduced to a human resource, a museum we can close the door on when bored. The virtual, social media world is the one that’s getting harder to leave.

A real friend, hearing of said rejections, asked did I have a Plan B: as if my Plan A’s past its use-by date. But the plan was only ever to be a writer. And that’s what I am. Implementation was as simple as leaving painting for spare time, the better to focus on writing. And for a while I wrote badly (if with endearing conviction: attracting a bad publishing offer, bad editors and good friends’ charity). Then gradually, I got seduced by technical challenges – not the autistic sort symptomatic of isolation, but those that tend to emerge through exposure to the world of, well, options.

In the early days too much reality would have undone me. I needed to believe my work was publishable. And so when anyone threatened to burst my bubble I got defensive, writing such a rabid letter to a leading ms assessment agency that they gave me a second, more tactful (if no less damning) critique for free. Most of what I wrote for years was disposable or, at best, fertile shit – I wasn’t born with talent to burn and I’d OD’d on occult literature – but as I began to read how-to manuals and analyse all kinds of narratives, I came to realise just how far I’d had my head up my arse. Yet I’d been writing full-time for nine years when I got my first short-story acceptance. And I waited three years for another.

I share this with the awareness that I might sound retarded to those (and that’s most of you) who are less backward at self-promotion. In the last five years I’ve watched my peers – from writers’ groups, uni etc. – win grants and residencies, national novel and story awards that pay. So why not just accept that I’m out of step with cultural trends and give up? How much more shade can one ego take?

When I first started writing I was oblivious to the difference between self-expression and communication. Not that I’d suggest they’re mutually exclusive. The latter without the former might look like ghostwriting or hack journalism. But the former without the latter tends to look amateur – like a linguistic version of outsider art. (And though outsider art is now in, not all fringe doodlers and scribblers have talent.) With whom, after all, is such an artist communicating? To be an outsider, by definition, is to be isolated – whether behind prison walls, through an intellectual disability, or within the alternative cosmos of the visionary or the psychotic — so even if the outsider has a message for society, certain quirks of style may put society off.

Which brings me back to the difference between self-expression and communication.* Simply, it has to do with a sense of reality re your audience: emphasis on the former to the detriment of the latter implies the sort of naivety seen in a child cocooned by parental approval. On the other hand, communication presupposes understanding that even if you could find a mind-reading audience, they’d have needs distinct from yours. And so, at length, I began to ask what it is I get from literature, as well as how to give some to readers on the same page, so to speak.

In my life I’ve experienced maybe six ‘serious’ relationships. At least four of those, while notable for the steepness of their learning curve, never held any real promise of working. Even at their best, I was loved less for myself than for how I made the other feel about themselves: if I didn’t look or act right, or look up to them, their love turned elsewhere, and in an exclusive, not an inclusive, sense. Which reminds me of how some writers flirt with literature: their passion is shallow because it’s narcissistic – without constant praise the infatuation fades. Not loving literature for itself, such writers avoid intimacy and, unaware of what they’re missing, move on out of insecurity, only to fall for the next field of endeavour that makes them feel special.

If what I love makes me feel inadequate (which it often can), I strive to rise to the challenge, to lift my game, to transcend my limitations. And really, it’s not as if literature per se ever spurns me. Sure, its qualified reps reject work that (had I only known how) could have been done better, or doesn’t fit their list/image/ideology. But maybe some editors (or their assistants) and I just don’t have much in common?

Likewise, you and I mightn’t agree on what constitutes ‘literature’ – just as someone’s spouse and lover might get different versions of them (that which one most loves in them evoking the other’s disgust). But the literature I most love offers something new each time I return to it, making me aware of depths and peaks in myself that I can lose touch with by reading too much of what’s hyped in today’s flattened-out culture.

At 21, as an art student living on a pittance and the inspiration that came from books loaned or given by friends or lovers, I never once dreamed I’d become a writer. Does a caterpillar dream of becoming a butterfly? Or does it just munch its way through as much lush herbage as it can? Officially, I’m pinned to the category of ‘emerging writer’: as if the zip in my chrysalis were stuck. But I doubt that any of the above is what my friend had in mind. So, does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in New Hampshire set off a tornado on Amazon? Who knows? The thing is, I’m in love with the quest for – and those ravishing moments of – flight.

* In a 2000 conversation (with John O’Brien and Richard Powers), author David Foster Wallace says: ‘One of the biggest problems in terms of learning to write, or teaching anybody to write, is getting it in your nerve endings that the reader cannot read your mind. […] And actually it’s in conversation that you can feel most vividly how alienating and unpleasant it is to feel as if someone is going through all the motions of communicating with you but in actual fact you don’t even need to be there at all.’

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