THE WRITER’S LIFE
Assembled from old typewriters, sewing machines, cameras etc. (assemblique.com)
Among the many things I do to keep my brain in my skull is compile crosswords. Mine are cryptic puzzles, using a 15×15 grid and symmetrical on at least one diagonal axis. I employ the same methods as other compilers, so anyone familiar with the rules won’t be too troubled by the above clue. And it’s to that end that I attempt to write something which may resonate with others of a similar mindset: It’s in my head and it sounds like a college for large herbivores (11). This could equally be the story of what happened when an antique typewriter and a sewing machine got together (“Brother Singer”?):
One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned, I learned from writing: Defy conventions and where there are two choices, find a third; Keep people on their toes. Because it’s all been done before and people know what to expect. You are the writer of your story and you want it to be different.
It applies equally to life: If it seems like there’s a choice between A and B, choose C. In my case, I was apparently some way through the alphabet when I finally decided what I wanted to do with my life, aged 42 and a bit. I’m 46 and I’ve been doing this long enough now that I no longer feel like a fraud when I tell people I’m a writer.
Recently I realised that I needed a little more order in my days; Some structure to make me concentrate on what really could make me a modest living if I run it more like a business. Given my life, that’s like erecting scaffold around a snowman. But I needed to put invisible dividers between working for myself and one day hoping to make money from it, and working for others, with a similar aspiration. It is difficult and it’s a life which doesn’t take kindly to barriers but the fuzzy ones I have in place are working.
Even before the recent reorganisation of my time, the studio was the main game-changer: Before I lived here, I was homeless. After roughly a year each of living on the streets, sofa surfing and living in an overcrowded pub flat, it’s nice to have a place of my own. Here, the door locks. As such, I don’t have to worry about people coming in uninvited; or a fucking delinquent landlady throwing a lit tampon into the room (another story); or a landlord whose accent was as broad as my contempt for him. Just as I travel with my own portable atmosphere, that guy would do well to carry subtitles. Then I’d spend as much time reading them as I did listening to him. But that’s yet another story. Now I have time to write them.
A door with a lock is obviously a good thing and the metaphorical doors in my life have locks for good reasons; They just lack hinges. Now though, it’s all a bit more under control.
The gig economy hasn’t produced anything much for the freelance writer, which is pretty much what I expected. It’s like pecking around on the ground for the last crumbs of bread and competing with all the other scavengers. Some of the work which is advertised is frankly ridiculous (someone’s idea made into a novel for an up-front fee of $250 anyone?), so amongst the pigeons, it’s easy to feel like a giraffe. But once the freelance work sites are exhausted, I can move on to other things, knowing that I haven’t missed out. There are a couple of freelance projects I’ve bid on and I’ve embellished my tenders with details which many jobbing bidders may have omitted: I’m a salesman and a pimp /whore.
More life lines have become blurred as I’ve felt ready and qualified to join writing groups and engage more with my peers. Writing is a lonely occupation, so peers are important. Depression and alcoholism are also isolating, and it’s been nice to discover some kindred spirits in the writing and blogging worlds.
With hindsight, it’s not been an exercise in separation but one of unification. Writing is my life now but I wasn’t able to embrace such a thing: It all seemed too good to be true, after all that’s gone before. Now I know better. “Stories only happen to those who are able to tell them.” (Paul Auster).
So even when I’ve gone through the emails from the freelance websites and I’m writing my own stuff, it’s not just my life but my job; And that reversal has been the eureka thing: The figurative light bulb above my head. Or maybe I’m the snowman who didn’t think that the sun might come out.
Because whatever I’m doing, I’m my own boss. This is my life, my story and my business. I have clients but I’m the freelance writer. As such, I have targets and deadlines which I’ll be measured on and it’s only me who’ll suffer if I take on too much. My clients aren’t bosses though: I’m still my own boss in a freelance contract, in which I will have set certain terms.
If anyone were to tell me to sit at my desk and write 1000 words in an afternoon, I’d probably go to the park and draw something whilst standing up. With only myself to answer to ultimately, and with a reputation to uphold, I’ll write what’s needed to fulfil a symbiotic contract.
The writer’s life is such that it never stops and part of my mental health problem is simply shutting my brain down so that I might sleep. So am I not antagonising that part of my depression? I spent too long fighting and now I’ve managed to embrace my misfiring mind; My one-time adversary is now my friend. Everything I watch, listen to or read; it feeds the sponge in my head. It was a simple mind trick which allowed me to embrace this. It was challenging: After all, this was my illness but also the life I wanted to make. Before this mental exercise, I had to have a notebook to hand when watching TV, listening to the radio or reading a newspaper. That’s what writers do. I wanted to be a writer but I wanted to be able to concentrate on working and relaxing equally but separately. Now, I can effectively divide or dissect my brain: I can touch-type, so I don’t need to look at the screen. Even if I do, I can cancel the part of my brain which was watching TV and concentrate instead on the sounds. The words then type themselves out in my head and I remember them for later. I don’t know if this is unusual: I know I am. Perhaps I need to be grateful to the poisoned chalice which is my IQ of 147 for something. In any case, the premise was to embrace rather than repel; To enjoy the two being the same: Writing is my life and my life is writing. I just needed to change the way I was thinking.
My fiction writing has benefited from the new, permeable, semi-opaque regime: I’m doing more of it. Well, of course I am; It’s my fucking life. The barrier was accepting something so wonderful as fact, when I spent my life dreaming; mainly nightmares. I’m sure that other writers, depressives or alcoholics will get some or all of what was an unholy trinity for me. Perhaps others will too. A, B, or even C: I got off around Q and realised it’s okay to be different but that there are others like me, however rare.
Although not as prolific on the free-to-view stuff now, I’m busier than ever as a writer and that’s a good thing for a writer to be. Besides the gig work and my ongoing novel, I’m writing some library stories: Fewer but longer and deeper. The next to appear in a ‘zine, then on here will be Echo Beach: a deep and unpleasant slow burner of a psychological horror.
I have sedatives to help me sleep now but I keep a notebook by the bed.
Effectively a message to campers? (2,3,7): To all intents
It’s in my head and it sounds like a college for large herbivores (11): Hippocampus
As Douglas Adams observed, the answer only makes sense if you understand the question you’re asking.