Four myths about writing

Rosemary Jenkinson challenges four preconceptions about the writing life

Writing is a serious job. Susan Sontag wrote, ‘I always begin with a great sense of dread and trepidation,’ and Nietzsche compared the decision to start writing to ‘leaping into a cold lake,’ but for me it’s like diving into a hot tub with champagne and a bevy of hot studs. I understand that some authors can be crippled by self-expectation, but writing is such a joy I sometimes wake up like a child on Christmas morning longing to unwrap my toys. While I take writing seriously, I can’t, however, take the writing world seriously. Nor should you. Byron hilariously punctured Wordsworth’s pomposity by calling him Turdsworth. Being tongue-in-cheek and laughing at the litterati is great for your mental health. It was Oscar Wilde who recognized the paradox by claiming that, ‘Some things are too important to be taken seriously.’ It’s all to the better if people don’t know whether you’re being serious or not. To quote Wilde again, ‘I usually say what I really think. A great mistake nowadays. It makes one so liable to be misunderstood.’

Writing is the cheapest of all art forms. Okay, so we writers don’t have to buy a grand piano or gold-leaf paints, but the hidden costs are manifold. There are subscription fees for literary magazines, entrance fees for competitions, tickets to be bought for the privilege of watching writers read (some are as wooden as their writing desks!) and don’t get me started on book launches, where the unspoken etiquette is to buy the launchee’s book. These days I feel like I’m part of Sondheim’s Ladies who Launch, but personally I find myself avoiding hardback launches in favour of the cheaper softback bash. I mean, I love books as much as the next bibliophile and they make handy fly swatters in the summer, but how many book shelves can I afford or can a room tolerate?

It’s hard to launch your book on zero cash. In the past year I’ve been to book launches with themed merchandise, cakes and music sets and so I’ve decided to compete with a live sex show for my next collection of short stories. On my non-existent budget, I’ll have to ask my friends to participate, but I’m sure they won’t mind as long as I ply them with wine first.

There are similar problems for playwrights. In theatre we’re expected ‘to be visible’, but ticket prices for plays are punitive. The schmoozing afterwards costs even more as you need to imbibe copious amounts of alcohol in order to lie about how wonderful the show was.

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One extra source of expense for emerging writers is the creative writing class. The irony is that some writers pay for a class on how to fill in an arts council funding form – imagine defunding yourself in order to fund yourself!

It strikes me that many of the most successful writers have writing sheds whereas the rest of us actually live in sheds. In the south, the good news is that there is assistance for writers through Aosdána and the Basic Income for the Arts (BIA) scheme while we in Belfast have the Sweet FA scheme. Currently, I’m contemplating whether to diversify into literary forgeries à la Lee Israel or hacking into J. K. Rowling’s bank account. I’m also writing poetry in the surefire certainty it’ll be better than St Bono’s St Patrick’s Day poem.

Writers get used to rejection. I could have written War and Peace in the time I’ve wasted futilely sending work to literary agents and publishers. It’s as time-consuming as writing job applications and you might as well be turfing your manuscripts into a soul-sucking black hole in the universe.

The hideous business begins when big agencies ask you to look through their agents to find a good match, making you scroll through rambling wish lists of books they’d like you to emulate. An agency recently requested ‘an elevator pitch’ as if I was writing a Hollywood movie. Considering big agencies and publishers have marketing departments the size of Greater Belfast, shouldn’t they be taking care of this? Every agency seems to have a different word count for the synopsis as if they deliberately enjoy torturing writers. And then of course, there is the ridiculous response, ‘This is not quite right for our list.’ What list is that then? The list of A-list celebrities you’d like to be representing in your dreams?

A publisher once asked me to read their ‘commissioning rubric’ which was a long-winded screed about the under-represented writers they were hoping to support. Obviously, I qualify as a woman, but I was somewhat surprised to see that writers like myself from the global minority (people of ginger) weren’t included (yes, I am being tongue-in-cheek in case you’re asking).

I had a publisher recently tell me, ‘We might put out our next call in 2024, but in the meantime buy one of our books.’ If I had to buy a book for every prospective publisher, I’d need more vaults than the Linen Hall Library.

The truth is that the vast majority of literary leviathans I’ve met have been headhunted by agents and retained for years by the same publisher – no wonder they live to the age of ninety while the rest of us are racked with psychic ailments and will probably end up bag ladies like Maeve Brennan. I love small presses as they’ve always supported me but sometimes I think it’s like being in F1, being an equally good driver while racing in less well-financed machinery. In literature, the marketing machine is everything. If there’s one thing I have learnt it’s that the huge reputations of feted writers are as fictional as the fiction they write. As Paul Muldoon stated last year, ‘There are great writers who never win anything.’

Great books sell themselves. I often think of Bukowski who once urged an interviewer, ‘Insult me a little bit. Pour some salt on me. Make me dangerous. Help sell my books.’ To generate drama, Bukowski actually staged an interview with the prior agreement of his wife in which he kicked her off the sofa. I’d never advocate violence, but it’s certainly more colourful than the corporate diplomacy of modern writers.

Fortunately, there is still the occasional controversy. In 2021, Jeanette Winterson staged a burning of her own books in protest at ‘the cosy little domestic blurbs’ Penguin included on her book jackets. It was a clever publicity stunt to help sell books as well as a timely criticism of the blandification of literature. But the wonderful thing for me was that it also highlighted the freedom of being with an indie press like Arlen House – I’m not sure I should admit this, but unlike Jeanette I get to write my own blurbs. If you ever see the word ‘genius’ on my covers, now you know who wrote it!

Rosemary Jenkinson’s sixth collection of short stories is launching in 2023 with Arlen House.