A writer’s guide to self-reinvention
Rosemary Jenkinson offers some expert and witty advice on how to make it as a writer
Rosemary Jenkinson: I often think being a writer is like being a reality TV star as you have to continually generate your own drama
As George Bernard Shaw said, “Life isn’t about finding yourself. It’s about creating yourself.” The greatest writers are great characters, and writing’s about invention, so start with yourself. The key is to keep rewriting yourself.
I often think being a writer is like being a reality TV star as you have to continually generate your own drama. I’m my own protagonist in life and I’ve cheerfully entered into disastrous relationships just to write about them, but it amazes me how many writers think it’s superior to make things up, as if the gold standard is imagination, when even a simple simile is a million times better if autobiographically observed.
Above all, I try not to make fiction my excuse to sit at home. John Banville, when asked to contribute to a collection of 6-word stories, wrote, “Should have lived more, written less”.
Sound authoritative, not authorial.
You not only have to convince yourself you’re a writer, but everyone else too. Of course it’s difficult to come across as magisterial when you’ve been an anti-authoritarian iconoclast all your life, but I no longer talk with humility about “my wee play” and otherwise try to quell that annoying Northern Irish trait to self-deprecate in anticipation of a slagging.
I remember one of my ex-schoolmates saying to me after watching my play Michelle and Arlene, “Yeah, but it’s not a real job, is it?” Well, it is a real job and I’m my own CEO, my own PR, my own admin, my own everything, so how are you enjoying your conventional, boxed-in, wage-slave job?
When people criticize your work, be glad of the attention.
I know sometimes it’s aggravating to be labelled a female writer or a Protestant writer or whatever but it’s much better to be labelled than have no label at all.
That said, some reputations are ridiculous. For instance, Enda Walsh used to be called a writer’s writer in theatre circles as he was reputed to be admired by writers but no one else – then came the huge success of The Walworth Farce and that label was kicked into touch overnight!
To be honest, most writers are far more troubled by their own inner critic than any outer one. Just as athletes hire sports psychologists to get fighting fit, I’ve always thought writers should employ arts psychologists to get writing fit (if we had the money of course!).
The older you get, the bolder you must become.
Look at the likes of Charles Dickens who toured the London opium dens when he was 57 as research for The Mystery of Edwin Drood. And what about Edna O’Brien trotting off to Nigeria at the age of 86? The brilliant thing is that writing is not for the young but the modern.
Don’t go on a writers’ retreat.
A retreat – what are you, a monk? You should be immersing yourself in the world not retreating; if anything you should be going to a crack den instead. I remember drinking one night in Annaghmakerrig and a mad American screenwriter interrupting us every couple of hours with a sanctimonious bulletin on how much he’d written.
Let me ask you this – would Oscar Wilde have ever gone on a writing retreat? No chance, he’d be holed up in a swanky Brighton hotel with his sexy young lover. The only reason to ever go on a writing retreat is if you have young children and you’d like to foist them on your partner for a week for a bit of peace and quiet.
As Charles Bukowski noted, “The worst thing for a writer is to know another writer, and worse than that, to know a number of other writers. Like flies on the same turd.” Personally, the idea of being surrounded by other writers to me is worse than being trapped in the hotel of The Shining!
Move into your own house.
If you live with people they’ll only debunk the myth. Charles Bukowski, who cultivated an image of wild drinking and womanizing, boldly proclaimed, “I have not worked out my poems with a careful will, falling rather on haphazard and blind formulation of wordage, a more flowing concept, in a hope for a more new and lively path”. Unfortunately for him, his live-in, poet lover, Linda King, later called him out on his self-mythologising by recalling how he honed his writing almost every night: “I don’t think people realise how hard he worked at it.”
Write everything: short stories, poems, novels, plays, essays…
Of course, you’ll not be as good at every form, but these days you need so many strings to your bow and to blow your own trumpet so loudly you’re practically your own orchestra!
Most writers have a lot to write, but don’t have a lot to say. Speak out; make sweeping statements like Colm Tóibín who said of genre-fiction books, “It’s blank, it’s nothing; it’s like watching TV”. John Banville enraged the crime writers, Ian McEwan provoked the ire of sci-fi writers, and Oscar Wilde irked every writer around with “All art is useless”. But don’t waste your time complaining about what other writers say on social media as you’ll just look petty; Twitter is for the bitter. Always remember that the best writers offend; the worst writers are offended.
Don’t worry if publishers don’t recognize your talent; never mind if you didn’t get selected for that latest anthology. Anthologies are just an exercise in cronyism. I’m always reminded of the anthologist, Rufus Griswold, who was incredibly famous in his day. Who, I hear you ask? Exactly! Griswold deigned to select only three of Edgar Allan Poe’s poems for his anthology, The Poets and Poetry of America, choosing to print 20 or 30 poems of lesser writers. Poe later denounced Griswold’s “papery puffery” and the anthology was subsequently buried in the literary graveyard. If you’re not selected, just work happily away in the margins. Know you will do your best work under the radar and, besides, as Mark Twain said, “I was sorry to have my name mentioned as one of the great authors, because they have a sad habit of dying off”.
Rosemary Jenkinson’s new collection of short stories, Lifestyle Choice 10mg, is out now from Doire Press, supported by ACNI. A memoir will follow.