When I reached 25 years of membership, my teaching union gave me a little badge with that number on it. I regret that I didn’t find and wear it when I launched my tenth book Gods and Angels last May because belatedly I realised that I’d been publishing for 25 years. Sadly what feels like a significant milestone wasn’t recognised with a similar badge but it has encouraged me to offer some reflections on sustaining a writing career over a long period of time.
First of all I have been extremely fortunate that I have been published by Bloomsbury for the last 15 years and have had the privilege of working with Alexandra Pringle whose enthusiasm for books and writing remains undiminished. My relationship with them has been a simple one – I write a book and if they believe in it they publish it with sensitivity and professionalism. They’ve never made any demands on me or required me to do anything and I’ve always been treated with personal kindness. For this I am extremely grateful. I wish all writers might have enjoyed a similar experience because I’m aware that increasingly we inhabit a short-term world where everything from employment to relationships seems to come with an expiry date.
There are some things that I’d like to say to younger writers. None of it includes advice about writing because we have a younger generation whose exciting talent needs none. But there are things that have become apparent to me over my writing career and if they’ll bear with me I’d like to share some of them. We know already that except for the few, writing on its own can’t sustain a living and certainly not one that can provide for a family in the way that we’d want, so it has to be combined with something. It’s important that this something is one to which you can commit and which brings its own rewards. If it’s resented it will breed a bitterness that isn’t conducive to creativity. No one owes a writer a living – it always has to be earned. And if it’s any consolation I haven’t always found full-time writing the Promised Land. I am probably less disciplined now than when I was working full-time. I occasionally feel isolated and remote from the world I need to write about. Sometimes during the day the only real life conversation I have is with the postman.
There is probably a tendency amongst some writers, but especially younger ones, to be constantly evaluating their position in some imaginary literary rank order. This is the surest road to madness and despite what our worst instincts might argue, we are not in competition with other writers. What I have come to understand is that all that matters is the work itself and when you embrace that concept you can let go of all the other self-burdening negatives. So the only person I compete with is myself, my flaws of character, my self-imposed limitations, the parts of my life that I regret. And if you’re fortunate enough for a book to find some critical or popular acclaim by all means enjoy it but never ever believe the hype or think that it will lay palm leaves across all your future days. Believe only in your work.
I don’t do any form of social media but I recognise some of its positive qualities. In an often solitary occupation it can forge links with other writers and make meaningful connections with readers. If it’s done in a sustained and interesting way I think it clearly has value but having friends and people who want to be friends, telling you that your work is wonderful shouldn’t be mistaken for a meaningful critical sounding board. Done badly the danger of course is that it runs the risk of being not much more than a series of coy selfies and despite what others in the wider world of publishing might suggest, I think under the radar is not always a bad place to be. You get to keep more of yourself.
Recently Carlo Gébler wrote about the diminishing creative energy that can come with increased age and Sebastian Barry also spoke of getting imprisoned in a style. I understand both these concepts. After publishing my latest book I did consider stopping writing but after a couple of months found the absence of purpose more oppressive even than the demands of writing. My energy levels have not dropped dramatically but they do ebb and flow and if I am to keep writing I need to try and do it when the tide is rising. In recent years I have sought to discover new subject matter even if I guess my style has remained fairly similar. However, the three books that have most affected me recently – A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, Solar Bones and Grief is the Thing with Feathers – have all been described as experimental in style. Their experimental aspects have not necessarily been the source of this personal impact so much as that more traditional quality – the power of story itself. But they do make me question what I want to do as a writer and they also offer the greatest challenge – how in the later stages of a career do I try to break free from what I myself have forged, how best do I want to use whatever time is left to me?
And finally as I metaphorically pin my 25-year badge to my lapel the one thing I do not ever want for myself is to be thought of as part of an establishment – any establishment. To be part of such a thing is to risk being cossetted, comfortable, complacent, and none of these things ever allows you to be a writer. So I always want to be on the outside looking in, giving whatever practical help I can to younger writers and proud to march with others in Belfast against racism, for the rights of the LGBT community and to support women’s struggle against oppression. I believe that in such things and the continuing quiet search for the right words is my best claim on the future and ultimately the best resistance to any dying of the light.