Malcolm has written a fantastic piece which I hope you will all enjoy reading.
Mistakes in the life of a writer
There’s a guy who takes a wrong turn and gets himself lost in a desert. He struggles across it. Has a grim, horrible experience. Finally gets near the other side, cursing his stars. Sees a caravan parked by a road and heads for it.
What kind of dumb jerk, he thinks, struggling up the last dune, ends up in a lousy desert. Sure hope I don’t make that mistake again!
At the top of the dune, right by the road, there’s a sign facing away from him. He looks back at it as he goes past.
Do not enter the minefield, it says.
That’s a bit like how I feel. I’m forty, and I’m looking back at my life. And I feel like way back there in the distance I made a very large mistake, but somehow, within it, I didn’t put a foot wrong. This large mistake of mine had space inside it for good things to happen. It wasn’t all bad. Still, I don’t want to get carried away and fall in love with my mistake. It was still a mistake.
This had nothing to do with being a writer. It was about being an actor. But it applies, because there’s something similar about both these “roads”. The act of earning money is a response to certain necessities and practical problems. A job or a career in that sense is intended (in part) to make these issues go away, or at least easier. Becoming an actor or a novelist is likely to do the opposite, and intensify them. So it’s important not to add to these issues unnecessarily, by making mistakes, because there will be enough of them as it is.
I’m going to call my mistake: The Mistake of Lack of Knowledge of my Temperament.
It’s easy to forget about your temperament, when making life choices. Remember your GCSE / A-Level in Self-Awareness? Me neither. My school, though, to be fair, did give us something called a Vocational Guidance Report. Reading it now, I wish I’d paid more attention to the dark significance of sentences like: “ … you need to choose an area in which the work load is, at least in part, determined by yourself.” Which roughly translates as: “Whatever you do, don’t become an actor.”
I became an actor. When I decided to follow this path in life, I imagined that because I was so good at acting, so modest, and so much in love with acting, that I stood as much chance as anyone. Wrong! And look, there I am now, twenty two and taking a left instead of a right, entering the vast desert that was London as a jobbing actor, and no matter how much I howl at my past self, there is nothing I can do to prevent the next seven or eight years from unfolding in the way that they did, that is to say—disastrously, that took another seven or eight years to recover from.
Why was I wrong? Because being good at acting does not mean you will be good at being an actor. There is no connection between the two skills—none. So I failed to be an actor. And I should have known I would fail, if I’d listened to that sentence buried deep within the Vocational Guidance Report.
Doing plays at school and university, I discovered, was like being an actor with all the unpleasant bits stripped out—it’s no wonder it’s so enjoyable—and in a sense this makes them a poor and misleading preparation for the life of an actor, which (for most of us) is fraught with stress, difficulty, uncertainty, and compromise. Love of acting alone will not carry you through: if you are temperamentally unsuited to this life, you will suffer the same fate as me.
The life of an actor is like that of a shark. Not only do you have to be constantly seeking work, you have to be built for the task—there has to be something fundamental about your nature that makes you good at it. You have to be able to smell work a hundred miles away, swim towards it with thrashing energy, and swallow it whole before some other shark gets it (and there are thousands of other sharks, all zooming desperately towards the same unsuspecting work). You have to be active, determined, social, tough, and self-confident. Because who gets the work? The actor who is.
I was none of these things. I was a dreamer, an observer, a listener—in other words someone passive. I was a good actor, but I was terrible at leading the life of an actor. I simply did not know how to do it. It wasn’t in my nature. I wasn’t a shark: I was a sea cucumber. If you can imagine a sea cucumber competing with a shark for a morsel of grub that lies one hundred miles away, writhing its body on the ocean floor while the shark disappears from view, you will understand what it was like for me to compete with another actor for work.
This mistake of mine was not abstract. It had serious and lasting consequences, and filled my life with an extraordinary number of problems—all of which were direct or indirect consequences of the fact that I never had enough money. Being poor is no joke. You can manage it with a kind of bravura when you’re young and on your own. It can be both a misery and an adventure. But increasingly a kind of pressure begins to apply. At twenty, you think you’ll be poor for a while—OK, that’s just how life starts out. At thirty, you begin to think maybe this is it—you’re just going to be poor.
Anyway, I gradually came to the understanding (I had it beaten out of me) that I was in the wrong profession. From my mid to late twenties I focussed more and more on writing, which I was very much suited for, as the Vocational Guidance Report had told me.
Well, all I’m saying is that it’s important to be aware of what you’re getting into. You may love writing, you may be good at—but are you temperamentally suited to the life of a novelist? You need to ask yourself this question.
I know, I know. There’s no such thing as “the life of a novelist” (although, there clearly is such a thing, as many people lead it, and they do not all consult one another to make sure their lives are different in every respect—in fact the opposite is true). But let’s assume you’re doing an undemanding nine to five in your early twenties, you have an average amount of willpower and require a normal amount of sleep. I’ll give you a bonus and assume you have no dependents. Your life might look something like this:
You do an eight hour day at work. During the day many people look forward to going home and relaxing—you don’t get to do this, because when you go home you have to write. By the time you get home it’s six o’clock. You’re tired, but you still have to cook dinner, and maybe go shopping first. You cook and eat a simple meal very quickly, and by the time you are ready to write it is maybe seven, that is if there are no delays or distractions, and there will be, because you’ll say to yourself, “I’m tired, I need a bit of a rest before I begin.” If you watch a bit of TV there might be something good on TV, so maybe you don’t get started til eight. Much past that and you are too tired to begin, and you decide to go to bed early, get up early and do something before work. (But if you do this, you will be even more tired the following evening.)
Anyway, you start writing at seven. It takes you about half an hour just to get your mind settled. It is evening and this is when people might email or message or call, so you have to keep your phone off, and this means your friends are interacting with each other without you, which will have predictable results over the years. Before you know it, it is nine o’clock and you are beginning to feel very tired, because you have been up since seven. You’re fighting off all kinds of distractions, as well as the impulse to just stop and relax. But you can’t stop, because it’s important to keep up a feeling of momentum and moving forward. Sometime between ten and eleven you stop, and you’re exhausted. If you’re really into it, if you’re really steaming along, which happens maybe once a month, you might keep going until midnight. Anyway, you get something done, or not, and six months later it could all be in the bin. You go to bed. The next day is the same.
Between all this you have to find time for all the little tasks that life requires to simply keep ticking over. And because you can only just manage to do those and nothing more, all your life does is tick over. So, you have to be able to hold your nerve, and look a certain kind of future in the face.
That’s just the working week. What do the weekends look like?
Friday night comes round. You have a choice—either you write, or you go out with friends for a drink or a meal. Weekends are important for writing, though, because they are the only time in the week when you’re not tired. You have to “protect” the time. So you can’t afford to feel awful. You watch your friends getting plastered. You go home long before anyone else, feeling a bit surly, but OK, you don’t like getting plastered anyway, though you do start to wonder what sort of things happen beyond midnight. Your friends spend the weekend relaxing and recharging, pursuing hobbies, or going to events. You spend it alone at your desk, doing something that is frustrating and difficult and only occasionally rewarding. Again, in six months, it could all be in the bin.
In general the effect of this over the years is one of curtailment. Your life could still flower, but only if you’re aware of these pressures and can take steps to limit their impact. If you’ve chosen an undemanding career that allows you to devote time and energy to writing, then you are unlikely, by the time you are thirty, to be in work that you would have chosen to do for so long, had you not tried to become a novelist as well. You might start to have doubts, and be plagued by thoughts about what you “could have done” by now. Your friends will be “drawing ahead” of you, moving up the property ladder (or just getting on it), starting families, getting their promotions and so on.
Bear in mind that even if you do get published, you are still likely to be in need of work. Because writing novels is not a career, or even a job—it’s an activity. When your irascible uncle asks you what you want to be when you grow up, and you say “I want to be a novelist,” and he says, “Answer the question!” then yes, it’s true, you should in a sense ignore this “realism”. But it’s also true he has a point, and you should pay close attention to what he has to say.
I had no idea whether I was good at writing novels or not. But I knew I was happy in my own company. I knew I had a resilience to having no money, because I’d never had any. And I had no other hobbies or distractions, now that I was drifting away from acting. Whatever free time I had, I could use all of it on writing, if I wanted.
So I took to it—like a sea cucumber to water.