This week has been reasonably monumental. The new book has arrived and, thanks to Benjamin Phillipps stunning illustrations and the snazzy, cherry red inlay papers, it looks pretty epic. I can’t wait to start reading from it. On Monday, I got to visit Antrim Primary and write some Postcard Stories with the Primary Fours. It’s always good to spend a few hours with a bunch of eight year olds and remember what unfettered imagination looks like, (in this case, stories about “baldy-making hats” and magic villages, thieving pigeons and “Alien Babbies’). Then, on Thursday evening I caught the train down to Dublin to hear Bob Dylan in concert. Despite the moany eejits on either side of me, this was a thoroughly enjoyable experience, (Dylan live can sometimes feel more like a test of endurance). Bob was on tremendous form, his voice sounded fantastic, and he actually seemed younger than the last time I saw him about three years ago. Finally, at the end of the week, I hopped over to Scotland for a fabulous woman’s writing festival at the Glasgow Women’s Library and a couple of days in non-stop conversation with Peggy Hughes and Colin Fraser, up in Dundee. It’s been hectic. It’s been wonderful and I’m beginning a new week with a head full of ideas and the sort of buzzy feeling I always get just before I have to start writing something new.
I’ve been thinking, (and talking), a lot this last week about artistic freedom. I’ve had brilliant chats with Peggy and Colin, Zoe Venditozzi, Stephen Sexton, (on the last bus back from Bob Dylan), and pretty much everyone else unfortunate enough to stumble into my thought path, about what it means to keep creative boredom in check and maintain an interest in your own work throughout your writing life. On Saturday Val McDermid brought the event at the Glasgow Women’s Library to a close with a challenge to remain curious even after a long career in literature. It was pretty obvious from the way she talked, with unchecked enthusiasm, about things she’s still learning and becoming interested in, that even after dozens of books, she’s still growing as a writer. The same goes for Dylan. Lately, he’s been rediscovering old American standards, collaborating with incredible session musicians, and reworking his own back catalogue in a manner which occasionally infuriates those, (in my opinion), Philistines who just want to hear Blowin’ in the Wind “done the way he done it back in the 60s”, but ultimately shows he’s still developing as an artist, even at the tail end of his career.
I’ve also heard a number of horror stories about writer friends, constrained by the demands of contracts and expectations, who’ve felt forced to write books and stories which grate against the direction of their current interest simply because of an assumption that this is what their established readership wants to read. I’ve been thinking about writers who, because of the eclectic nature of their output -Michel Faber and Brian Moore being the first who come to mind- possibly haven’t achieved the success or sales they could have if they’d stuck to writing sci-fi, or historical fiction, or thrillers, and thus built up a fan base and reputation as a certain kind of writer. I particularly enjoy Moore and Faber’s work because I resonate with the width of their artistic curiosity; (why not write about Catholic guilt one year and disappearing Victorian memorabilia a few year’s later, if this is what piques your interest?) I’m beginning to realise my own creative curiosity is a flighty creature, not content to be pigeon-holed into one particular genre or area of interest. I don’t think I want to be just a magic realist, or just a writer who explores the contemporary Protestant experience in Northern Ireland, or even, just a writer of prose. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed dabbling in radio drama recently. I might write an opera next year. I’m considering an idea I have for a children’s book. I don’t think I could settle for writing variations on the same book for the next fifty years.
What does this mean? I’m not too sure. I just know I’d be absolutely miserable if I was constrained by contracts or reader’s expectations to write books which no longer excited me. I love the idea of having the freedom to be able to follow creative whims and learn from the process of research and development, regardless of whether the end product is successful or not. Which makes me wonder whether I want to be a moderately successful writer after all. (This has, until very recently been my aim). I’m beginning to understand that when you are a writer who no one really knows, with limited success, (I’m talking literary prizes and book sales here, rather than the sort of artistic satisfaction which I actually count as success), you have an awful lot more freedom to write what you want and dive, with reckless abandon, down whatever wee rabbit holes intrigue you. Ironically, when you get to the stage of being as madly successful as Dylan, or say, Neil Gaiman, or Radiohead, you can just do whatever you like artistically and whilst the haters will, to a certain extent, still hate, there will always be a level of interest in what you do, not to mention, an implied trust, (occasionally ill-founded nb. Dylan’s poorly conceived foray into visual art), that your new creative direction will be of worth simply because you are an artist of proven worth.
It’s the artists in the middle who seem most squeezed, those moderately successful writers who appear to be a little constrained by their own success. There’s a pressure to deliver something similar, but better, than your previous book. There’s an expectation that you will be able to stretch the laws of time and space to enable you to simultaneously promote your current book, through articles and appearances, whilst also churning out 100,000 words of brand new, pure gold, literature. There’s the, always present, itch of fearing you are not the writer they think you are. I’m guessing it’s pretty hard to sit in this space and conceive of ideas and projects which will stimulate your own artistic curiosity, (eg. I think I’d like to do a travel book about Crazy Golf courses round the UK/write an opera about the Safari Park at Ballybogey/write a series of short stories based on Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire”*), without wondering how these projects will impact on your existing moderate success.
I don’t really have answers to any of these musings. It’s very unlikely that I will move straight from the, “only people in East Belfast know who I am,” stage of being a writer, to the, “I am as famous as Radiohead,” stage of being a writer. (It is very unlikely that I, or any other writer on the planet, will ever move to the “I am as famous as Radiohead,” stage of being a writer). Maybe, I will someday be a moderately successful writer and not have to pay for my coffee in 5ps and not have to carry my own books to readings in a pull-on suitcase I borrowed from my dad, semi-permanently, in 2014, and this would be nice, but I am already starting to think about the constraints this could bring and how I might not get to collaborate with people I really like on projects which are not commercially viable. I am wondering if there is a way to creatively “put your foot down” now and say, I would always like to be the kind of writer who follows my imagination first and publishers/readers/market trends after. I don’t know. I’m not a moderately successful writer but I do think this it’s good to think about these things sooner rather than later. If nothing else, this sort of thinking is making me a lot more pro-active and executing the slightly crazy side projects and whims, while I still have time and wiggle room.
*All writing projects I fully intend to bring to fruition in the next five years.