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Tuesday, 22 November 2016

The Practical Navigation of Hardship

I can make a total of seven different dishes based on these.
None of them are nice, but that's not the point.

There's quite a bit of advice out there on how to 'make it' as a writer, but a lot of it seems to exist in a fantasy world of aphorism and affirmation. This strikes me as profoundly unhelpful. Sure, a few encouraging words can serve the purpose of making one feel briefly better about things, but once that's taken care of, what does one actually do?

I've been plugging away at this writing nonsense for a while now, and years of effort are beginning to manifest themselves in incremental gains. This being the case, I thought I might just jot down a few of the (sometimes very hard) lessons learned in this time, for the general betterment of humankind. And also because the vague hippie crap I've encountered along the way really annoys me.


This looks bad, sure, but I can't actually afford a wallet.
If you're going to drop everything and 'chase your dreams', you're going to need a plan. And your head examined. Of the two, though, the plan's probably the most important, and by 'plan' I mean one that exists in the real world. The kind of aspirational maths used by small time drug dealers and Amway Ambassadors isn't going to work here. The inescapable consequence of exchanging security for creative endeavour is going to be financial hardship. Any plan needs to account for this and it's a far, far better thing to choose what you give up than to have it wrenched unexpectedly from you.

In my case I dropped eating out, buying clothing, buying technology of any kind, any and every kind of monthly subscription, drinking in any kind of bar with appealing decor or patrons, and practically any and every occasion involving going outside with other people and frittering away money (otherwise known as socialising). What I kept was food, tobacco and some of the cheaper ways of getting drunk, seeing these as bare minimum for the maintenance of physical and mental health. Of course, these lists are going to be different for each person, but I think their relative proportions are about right for this kind of thing. If you think this all looks a bit bleak, you're right, but it's really just a question of attitude. It's worse than useless to give way to anger or frustration, and the benefit of adapting to a lifestyle like this is the discovery of untapped reserves of discipline, which is always handy.

Apart from sacrifice and various other hair shirts, there's also a positive side to extreme penury if you're able to stay open to it. It's important to inculcate a willingness to do just about anything for work, and with the right attitude this can be a treasure trove of experience and material. I've worked construction sites as a labourer, done highly uncovenanted shifts in various kitchens, taught English and music (just like my Victorian spiritual ancestors), private investigated and written godawful hack pieces for everything from technical manuals to genre mags to international tabloids. If writing's about exploring new worlds, it's not possible to ask for better than this, and it's mainly accessible through developing a tendency to say 'yes' a lot, and some skill at pretending to know what you're doing.

But most importantly, it's time to brace. There's a reason there's a picture of Mi Goreng at the top of this piece. In a country as rich as ours, poverty can easily be bearable but it's rarely ever fun.


Awwww... Nobody cares.
Nobody is going to understand what the hell it is you're doing. 

Okay, that's not a hundred percent true - it's pretty likely that other creatives will, but it's best to assume you're not going to meet any. While the world is full of people who claim to be writers, very few actually are. I've been unreasonably fortunate in this regard, having met a bunch, but fortune isn't something to be relied upon overly much.

So, back to nobody understanding. There's a few key disadvantages to writing as a profession. A big one is that nobody can tell the difference between a person who is writing and a person who is sitting around doing nothing. This can cause serious problems. I remember a long series of friends and relatives who more or less immediately lost faith in the idea that I was doing anything at all. The result of this is resentment and gratuitous advice. The solution is to strike out alone. I'm not, of course, talking about some libertarian bootstrap mission, but rather a willingness to be morally and spiritually lonely. Of all the things that have got me through, the support of friends and family have been important, certainly, but the primary thing has been mental independence. 

Like everything else worth doing, writing requires a lot of time alone and in silence, working very hard indeed without the slightest prospect of reward. This is difficult at the best of times, and it's next to impossible if you care about what other people think of you. 


Insert Affirmation Here
When Anthony Burgess was incorrectly diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour, he was given twelve months to live. Being married and penniless at the time, he set to work on publishing enough material to provide a financial basis for his widow. It's difficult to imagine a greater sense of urgency, but even he found the occasional roadblock he couldn't immediately surmount.

He set himself a target of two thousand words of 'fair copy' per day, and then went on to attack this target in an admirably realistic way. By his own account some of the things which got in his way were rather petty. Hangovers. Arguments with his wife. Brief periods of despair. What this shows is that regardless of how driven and single-minded a person is, there are still going to be occasions where they fail and that this just isn't important. What is important is to just keep going.

I realise as I write this that it's very similar to the kind of nonsense you get on writing websites, usually broken down into a faux-aphorism and set against a nature photograph. This doesn't stop it from being true. It's vitally important to just keep going. Bloody-minded doggedness has achieved a great deal more than sensitive inspiration in just about every possible field of endeavour.

What's worked for me is to make a clinical assessment, at the end of each day, of what I've actually achieved and how I'm currently feeling (yes, gasp in shock). Then I plan the next day according to these factors. Do I need to push some stuff back? Recalibrate my short term goals? Spend a day in the gym or at the bottom of a bottle? Fine. Disappointing, sure, but fine. Just so long as I maintain an absolute faith that I'll stand back up tomorrow or the next day, it's absolutely fine to burn the day just gone. A lot of people will tell you not to beat yourself up, but I disagree. A minor, and above all brief, assault is both necessary and beneficial. And then you just carry on.

I've had a lot of advice from a lot of people over the years, ranging from, "Be willing to set your enemies on fire in a public square,"  to, "The only way to peace is to place a flower on their head in your mind." It all boils down to the same thing, though, as far as I can tell. Our greatest weakness is also our greatest strength - the appalling loneliness of our inner selves can be turned from a wasteland into a fortress, so long as we're willing to pursue a purpose we set for ourselves. I know this because I once wrote something like it for a fortune cookie.

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