So when you were younger, what did you want to be when you grew up? Did you get everything you wanted? Was it better or worse?
I was recently speaking to a friend of mine whose career as a teacher is now unfolding. Talking to her it is clear that this is something she’s wanted for a very, very long time. I dearly wish it works out exactly as she wants, that she doesn’t regret the choice she’s made and that her calling never becomes merely a job. As with any similar conversation with a smart, interesting friend it got me thinking, how far off what I wanted to be as a child am I now, and is being a writer just another way of putting off being a proper grown up?
As a child I probably wanted to be Indiana Jones, Ronnie Whelan or Biggles, but I became a Civil Engineer, even that kind of happened by accident. In school I wanted to be a pilot, but that didn’t work out, then I thought I wanted to do something with computers. I went for various college courses and ended up studying Engineering, which had the option to specialise into Computer Engineering after the first two years, so everything was still on course. But after two years I decided that computers weren’t for me, so Civil Engineering seemed like the most interesting option, no, honest, so that’s the direction I went. It all seems a little vague now looking back, not exactly pursuing a dream career, just choosing the best of a particular set of options at the time.
I’ve spoken in an earlier blog about how it was while at college that the first ideas of becoming a writer started to creep in. Should I have abandoned Engineering and transferred to something like English Lit, would I have been happier, would I now be a successful, published writer? I honestly don’t know. I do know that one of the reasons I stayed put was because of the friends I’d made. I realise now that they would have remained my friends in either case but at the time I was probably too insecure to risk losing them. I’m not sure what the reaction of my parents would have been to me leaving a course with at least a reasonable set of career options ahead of me for one with only a vague notion of how I would make my way?
So I stayed where I was, muddled through my exams and graduated, all the while keeping my guilty little secret, reading the works of writers I love and thinking someday, someday. I then ended up in what in many ways was my perfect job, working in a bookshop. I love books and I love book people, and even now I spend a lot of time there, generally just helping out and making the place look busy, like a seat filler at the Oscars, but I have the perfect situation, I can leave any time I want.
But I continue with my fulltime job, as time goes on becoming more and more of a job, nothing less. I don’t think there’s anything in the job itself I can change to make it more enjoyable, now that the writing monkey is firmly ensconced on my back, I need the job for little things like keeping a roof over my head, food occasionally and, oh yes, buying books. Like a slogan I saw written on a carrier bag, ‘When I have money I buy books, if I have any left over I buy food’.
So I go to work every day, try to do as good a job as I can, to maintain my sanity as much as anything else, and also because I don’t believe in just pissing these things about, I had to work hard to get where I want and many more would be delighted to take my place, and I wait to go home to write. I don’t try to write in work for two obvious reasons, one, I don’t really want to get fired, and two, I work in an open plan office, I think my colleagues would start to suspect something if my technical reports started to appear on the screen with far too many ‘fucks’ in them. So the best I can do is scribble any ideas that come to mind on pieces of paper, stick them in my arse pocket, and wait to get home.
Anyway, am I where I wanted to be as a child? Definitely not, is it a better place? Fucked if I know?
So anyway, is being, or wanting to be, a writer anything a proper grown up would want to be?
Unless we can be assured of making a liveable wage shouldn’t we all just give up the ghost and go and do something more financially stable instead? Shouldn’t we all find another means of supporting our loved ones?
Speaking from a purely financial point of view I do have, as I said, a job, so I’m not starving in a garret, but the time and effort even I’ve put into writing will never be properly recompensed, unless I get into the Brown or Rowling strata, and a quick look at anything I’ve ever written will clearly show that isn’t going to happen. Instead I should really concentrate on my day job, be the best I can be at that and enjoy the increased rewards, sounds simple.
One of the advantages of not having a wife / partner, or children, is that I don’t feel that time spent writing is time that should be spent looking after someone else, for better or worse, but that’s another set of problems, for another day methinks.
So putting aside any financial or time issues, isn’t being a writer just another way of putting off being a grown up? I know I could never claim to be the most mature forty-one year old, and on good days I do feel that I am understanding things about myself and that my life is coming together in ways probably more applicable to being in my early thirties, there’s obviously a ten-year period or so floating around there where I should really have become a proper grown up, fucked if I know what I did with it? It might be around here somewhere?
Anyone with an anthropological bent could tell me about the role of the story tellers in society, and maybe that’s something we, as writers, still try to fill, but I’m sure the storytellers were always the weird guys sitting by the fire, everyone else was off, you know, actually doing shit.
So do we all, as writers, retain a childlike, immature side, even those, unlike me, with real world responsibilities? Do we all retain that sliver of childhood where we still like to imagine things, make up stories and worlds around us while everyone else has actually grown up?
I always thought that if books were saints the patron saint of writers would be The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde, as it identifies our dual nature, inner and outer world. If that is the case then isn’t there the case to be made for secondary patron saint status for Peter Pan?
Of course, as with most things I’m more than willing to be wrong. Maybe I’m the only one; maybe every other writer is a mature, well-adjusted adult, fully cognisant of their duties and responsibilities and able to indulge their writing hobby as a simple pastime, like Bridge, or Golf? But I don’t think so. I regularly meet some writing friends of mine for drinks, and usually at some time in the evening that same look will creep across all of our faces, that shared look in our eyes, that ‘what the fuck are we doing this for?’ look, where we know we could all spend our time much more wisely instead of slowly driving ourselves insane, taking time away from the rest of our lives to slowly go mad trying to get vague ideas onto a page and then to try to get someone else to like them. And these are writers that are much more successful than I am, with agents, publishers and actual, real, books on shelves, yet we all reach the point where we ask, why?
Maybe it is that inner child, the one that most grownups manage to lock away, to be put aside like those childish things? But when you’re a writer you may try to lock that inner child away in the attic, but he or she will be up there, charging around, making noise, breaking things up, waiting to be let loose again, whether you like it or not.
So is there an answer? No. Is there an alternative? No. Is there a way to be an actual, real-life, mature adult, all grown up and stuff, and still be a writer? Now you’re asking the wrong man there pal.
So in the best tradition of leave ‘em with a song,
there could be only one . . .