Waving Not Drowning, or, I've Been Preparing For This My Whole Life

It’s here folks!

That moment that we’ve all discussed whilst watching TV shows about the apocalypse; whether zombie or otherwise. The question we all ask is: Who would you want on your side in the event of such and such disaster – and how well could you survive?

Well, I gotta say, me and my hubby have been preparing for this for years. No, we aren’t ‘End of the World’ nuts, or ‘Doomsday Preppers’. We’re artists.

Yes. I did say artists.

In the early 1980s, we were both students at a mediocre university studying Fine Art. Afterwards, we were two of the unemployed millions in the UK. For almost 4 years, we lived off £27 a week. We went shopping once a fortnight – because that’s when one received dole money. We played a single game of pool at the local pool-hall, for 20p. Then we went back to our little flat, and worked.

UK in the 1980s under a Tory government was full of class warfare, hate, violence, unemployment, closures, cutbacks, protests and riots.

When I say worked, of course I mean painted, created, drew etc. We also (to the amusement and puzzlement of friends), had separate bedrooms. He worked in his; the larger one, whilst I worked in the living room. We came together for evening meals, TV ,occasional walks and of course, a bit of fun!

On March 2nd, 2019, I wrote a post called The Loneliness of the Long Distance Writer In light of the current situation; COVID-19, Coronavirus pandemic, in this post, I’m sort of returning to that theme – being alone. Not lonely.

After university, whilst my then boyfriend, now husband, were on the dole, we lived a rather meagre existence. Our rare annual holiday consisted of heaving metal-framed rucksacks with tent around the soggy hills of Wales or Scotland (Note: this is now called ‘Wild Camping’, which involved finding somewhere, in the middle of nowhere, to pitch the tent before it went dark, and balancing a trangier with pan of dried noodles set to cook in water that wouldn’t boil quickly because the air around was blowy and cold, and sleeping with your clothes on, as opposed to staying in a fucking wooden construction on a campsite with hundreds of others and drinking Pinot Grigio. That’s called Glamping). We once found 12p down the back of the sofa with which we bought a bag of chips between us from a mobile Fish and Chip van. On one occasion, he went off for a few days with a male friend, camping in October. I had no money, so lived off Marmite drinks for about 6 days, wrapped up in bed against the cold – we couldn’t afford heating – drawing and watching our tiny black and white telly.

Over the years, neither of us have had well paid jobs. Freelance artist is not a secure way to live. Community artist even less so. The 80s was shit, for us at least. The 90s slightly less so. We did live an almost hand to mouth existence. We paid our bills on time, thus ensuring we had little left for luxuries, you know, things like – nice shampoo instead of washing-up-liquid or soap, food that wasn’t ‘My Mums’ brand, meat!

Then as time moved on, I got a ‘real job’, as a tutor on the YTS/ET (Youth Training Scheme/Enterprise Allowance) scheme that the government introduced. Hubby also got a job. We had money, proper money for the first time! We got married. But I lost my job 2 years later due to cutbacks, and the eventual demise of the training schemes.

Since then we have changed jobs a couple of times. Moved home. Had a child. We made a conscious decision to have only one, as that was all we knew we could afford. We rent from a housing association because we can’t get on the property ladder, even on our joint wages.

This is not a hard luck story.

This is a story about a couple of 50-somethings who were made ready for this event. Our age identifies us as Generation X. There’s been a lot on social media from Gen-X recently. About how ours is the survivor generation, the isolated ones, the latchkey kids who everyone, even government forgot. So a double positive whammy for me and hubby – Gen-X artists, who enjoy our own company, who are NEVER lonely, because we have our imaginations to get us through this – what more could one want!?

Lock n Load

My workplace has now closed for an indeterminate length of time. For me, it’s a kind of bliss – I get to write and read books, and maybe do some drawing. I can plan my next D&D campaign, create maps! It’s marvellous. My colleagues who are neither self-motivated nor creative, are already flooding WhatsApp with inane trivia minute by minute. Two days we have been off work! Two days, and they’re already loopy. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t WANT the virus to spread, I don’t WANT anyone falling ill, I don’t LIKE this situation we’re in, all I’m saying is, I’m with the right person, and we’re ready to roll.

Gimme two weeks, two months, hell, I reckon I could handle two years!

So to the creatives out there – writers, artists, sculptors, musicians, dancers, poets, painters, crafters, et al, I say, this is our time. This is the time for introspection, for personal creativity and development. This is when being isolated, or locked down does not mean disaster. It is a chance to show why art; all the arts, are so important.

Because very soon, the rest of the population will begin to realise how vital art is.

When they haven’t been able to visit a cinema, library, concert hall, theatre, museum, gallery, for weeks, they’ll be gagging for it when this is all over!

So get busy now!

Above from left: Paul Costello (courtesy @costelloguitar), The Poet (courtesy Holy Spirit System), Louise Bourgeois (courtesy East Oregonian)


So You Want To Be A Fiction Writer?

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Where to Begin –

Stop Prevaricating. Easier said than done, I hear you cry. Been there, done that. I have dabbled on and off throughout my whole life (mostly off B.D – before daughter). Then an amazing thing happened, my daughter came of an age in which she mirrored back to me my own criticisms, persuasions, acronyms. She was constantly told as a child to ‘have a go’, ‘just try it’ and ‘just go for it’. I ended my dabbling when she told me to “Carpe diem. You keep telling me, now this is me telling you.” So I did.

Writers are always telling would-be-writers to ‘just write’! I’m going to try and persuade you not to!!!!

If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot,” Stephen King says in his book ‘On Writing‘. Do you already do this? If not, why not? How can you possibly expect to write if you are a stranger to literature in the first place?

I cannot tell you how many times I have been speaking to other people and they say, “Oh, I was good at writing stories in school...” or when I painted:- “I got a B in my art ‘O’ Level, I reckon I could do that...” Really? So why aren’t you doing it? Because you were, or are still, ‘good at something’ is not a qualification for being that thing. You have to WANT to be it. To be a fiction writer, you have to BE CREATIVE! If you aren’t, there is nothing wrong in that, just don’t kid yourself that you can.

In a previous blog I wrote that Writing is like keeping an allotment, in which I was quite helpful (I thought), and kind (for me), about planning, editing and so forth. Now I’m telling you that writing is like rolling around in pig-swill for a huge portion of the time. Where to start? What to write? What’s my style? How do I deal with writers block? How do I resolve this conflict between characters? What’s the difference between Show & Tell? Where do ideas come from? Who will read it? Will I be successful?! I’m not giving answers to any of those questions, why? Because I’m a bitch? No (well, partially), but if you are asking these questions BEFORE you begin your shiny new writing journey – I would seriously question whether this is the right choice for you.

By the way, there is no limit on what age you can begin writing; it may be that you have spent your life working, bringing up a family, and now you’re free to follow your dream. You’re a pressure cooker that has been ‘on hold’ for decades – time to release the flood!

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Who are you Writing For?

And why are you writing? This may sound a bit odd, but people write for different reasons:- for fun, as catharsis, as a way to better understand the world, to escape from the world, for money, a natural progression from previous creative activity, or from journalistic based role, because it’s an itch that needs to be scratched. Whatever the reason, be honest. If you think you’re going to make money from being a story-teller, think again; the successful ones we hear about are few and far between.

Stop trying to please others – write for yourself. Some authors advocate writing the kind of stuff you’d like to read yourself; well if you can’t please yourself with what you’ve written, how can you expect anyone else to enjoy it?

Do you know how many new books get published each year? In the UK in 2017, it reached 4.8 billion! Is your effort going to be picked up amongst all those? If you knew you would NEVER get published, would you still want to write? If the answer is an emphatic ‘no’, read no further, just stop right now and go and watch TV.

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Isolation –

We all know writing can be a lonely gig. Hmm, did I say lonely? I’m never lonely – I may work alone, but lonely; never. You have to want to be alone for extremely long periods. For example, you have to world build if you want to write sci-fi, that takes some serious – and I mean serious – inside-my-own-head time. You have to be prepared to miss social events – and not care.

Disconnect yourself from what you might call ‘reality’ and create your own – but be able to re-surface into ‘normality’ and function well. “I have never yielded to reality.” said Philip K. Dick.

Fiction writers spend a lot of time inside their own heads, we stare into space mulling over scenes, dissecting dialogue and listening in on other people’s conversations! Get away from everyone, lock yourself in a quiet place and work.

You do not need to attend conferences on writing to become a writer. All you need is… writing implements of whatever kind you prefer – laptop, iPad, pen and paper, quill, chisel and stone.

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 Let’s Get Critical –

I have read some shit in my time, seriously, there seem to be people who think that whatever they write is worth the time and attention of readers. I have come across horrendous grammatical errors, uncorrected spelling mistakes, and just plain awful stories. Humans, it seems to me, have become less self critical in recent years, the advent of social media and self-publishing sites has led to an abundance of dilute word vomit.

Prepare for failure and criticism. If you are going to ask other people to read your work, then expect criticism; I do. In fact I welcome constructive criticism – without constant practice and critical feedback, I may do the writing equivalent of jogging on the spot.

This goes back to those people who said, ‘Oh, I was good at writing stories in school‘. So what? I won the  100 metres for my school for 5 consecutive years; doesn’t mean I was ever going to be an Olympic runner! If you want to put your writing out there, get a tough skin!

Practise description. Please! I have read stories where – 1. The scene is not described; to the extent that it was unclear if it was indoors or outside. 2. The number of people involved in a conversation was muddled. 3. A different character’s name was used who shouldn’t have even been included!

Also, it must be credible. You can set your story any where, any time, whatever, it can have pink flying elephants – as long as there is a reason for pink flying elephants, then it will work – don’t think because you have a ker-azy idea that it will make you the next Ian Banks or Hunter S. Thompson. Far from it.

As previously stated, Writing is hard work. It may, in fact, be harder than the ‘day job’ I/you do. Why? Because it is all about you – you come up with the ideas, you do the actual work, you put in the hours; it requires self-discipline. Be honest, are you prepared to be that person?

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Never Stop Learning –

So, you wrote your first short story and your friends think it’s great. Is that it then? All you ever wanted has been achieved? Okay, make way for the stalwarts who are still with me.

Just because your best mate says it’s good – DOES NOT MAKE IT SO – and it does not mean you have reached the pinnacle of your (potential) writing career. Keep going, write another, write some more, keep going, and again…

Readers are greedy for more, the audience constantly needs feeding. But that does not mean you have to keep churning out the same old crap. If you want to be a real writer, you must NEVER think you have learnt everything you need to know. Down that path lies mediocrity and complacency, “Nothing is more hostile to art than a culture of complacency.” says Dr. Joseph Suglia.

Expand your reading, try something you may never have read previously; it can be anything, it doesn’t have to be other people’s fiction. Read about coal mines in South America, find out about about farmers markets in Namibia, read about your local area, learn a new language, read about the average number of piglets in a litter (it’s an average of 10-12 ,if you want to know), whatever you do – READ.

I had to learn American just like a foreign language. To learn it I had to study and analyse it. As a result, when I use slang . . . I do it deliberately.” Raymond Chandler.

If I haven’t put you off and you accept all/most/some of what I’ve said, and the urge to expel a creative nugget is wriggling in your belly, bravo!

Now go and write!

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*The author accepts no responsibility for broken hearts or dreams.

*The author does not proclaim to be an expert on the above topic, just a weary reader.