Juggling

So, here’s the thing. When you have a new book out lots of magazines, newspapers and websites ask if you’d like to write something as a means of promoting your book. Invariably the something they have in mind is not the “2,000 words on Flannery O’Connor’s influence on your writing,” or, “A List of the Top Ten All Time Best Casualty Characters,” you’d really like to talk about at length. It is usually more along the lines of “did you always want to be a writer?” or “what are the best books ever written?” or “what is it like being a woman and also writing?” These pieces are very helpful when it comes to promoting books, (and I am very grateful for all of them), but I now have an increasingly long list of articles I’d really like to write and an ongoing fantasy where editors email me, saying, “hey do you know that essay about Brexit/Borders/Protestant identity we asked you to write? Well, forget it. What would you really like to write about instead?” “WELL….” I say, (in the ongoing fantasy), “it’s funny you should ask that.” This fantasy scenario is never going to happen. So I have decided that I’ll just use my blog to post some of the articles I wish someone would commission before I forget what I want to write about. Who knows, maybe Granta or The Guardian, (Ballymena or regular version), will stumble across this blog at the very moment they’re in need of an article about old people/Presbyterianism/medical dramas.

Today marks my two year anniversary as a Freelancer. Last year I wrote a very detailed report about the year after I handed in my notice. You can read it here. It took a very long time to write and I’m not sure anyone read it. Basically, this year has been roughly the same as last year, except I wrote three books, published one, made my first documentary for Radio 4, my first piece of TV for BBC 3, went to India, got damp in my bedroom ceiling and lumbered with an enormous tax bill. Oh, and the side fell off my bath and my car broke down and cost an arm and a leg to fix. But, I also got awarded two residencies and a research grant. I have collaborated with no string quartets this year. Swings and roundabouts. On the whole, I’d say being a freelance writer and community arts facilitator is still about a hundred times better than working for the City Council. Instead of writing up a detailed end of year report I thought today would be a good day to muse on a topic I was hoping I’d eventually get to write an article about.

As many of you know, (see note on roof damp and broken car above), I am not yet able to exist on the profits gleaned from writing books. Instead, like most writers who are not James Patterson, I continuously juggle writing and another job. I’m not going to say I have a second job, or a job which supports my writing. I’m just going to say I have another job, because I don’t view my community arts practice as secondary or even subsidiary. It doesn’t support my writing, my finance are an almost 50/50 split between writing and community arts practice. I’m not simply doing it until I can afford to be “just a writer.” It’s as important as my writing. It feeds off my creative practice and informs much of what I write. I am often torn between the two pursuits. At different points in the year I’m usually more enamoured with one than the other, (it is a little like my twin affections for Casualty and Holby which tend to fluctuate slightly during dull storylines and when the annual special effects budget has been spent), but, placed under pressure, I honestly couldn’t say which I loved more. I love writing. I love community arts work. I feel unbalanced and increasingly grumpy when I’m not able to do both. (Nb. this article, if commissioned by a newspaper was going to be called “How to be Both” but then someone commissioned me to write an article about having two passports and now that title has been used up so this blog now has a slightly unsatisfactory working title).

I’ve been thinking a lot about frames recently. Last year I read Vona Groarke’s Four Sides Full. It’s an excellent long essay on the role of the frame within art. I was reading it, furiously highlighting sections and mulling over her ideas whilst I wrestled through the edits of my latest novel, The Fire Starters. Groarke writes, “the poem is first framed by silence, and then it is framed by noise.” Most writing sits snugly within a border of white space which helps distinguish what it wants to say from the slightly more pedestrian thoughts and words the world bombards us with. As Groarke says, “if no white space cushioned the poem its language would have to brush up against the language of the world. The world where language buys sausages and fills insurance forms. Where it writes rejections and makes empty promises. Where it speaks in parliament and fudges truth and sells cosmetic surgery and guns. And if there were no white space to mark it off, how would we know the difference? They are only little words. Even the innocent amongst them look like repeat offenders, like the lying sort.” Now, most novelists maintain a reasonably thin boundary between the world and the way they’re trying to record it. It’s the poets who’ve truly mastered the art of white space. However, as I read Vona’s essay whilst working on The Fire Starters, trying to bring the East Belfast I know, love -and occasionally feel like burning down- to life, I began to realise that it was really important this book lost its frame. I wanted to strive for a thin, almost fluid line between the world outside my front doorstep and the world I was writing about. It was at this point that I realised how inseparably linked my writing and my community arts practice actually are.

On the most basic level, I write about the community I facilitate workshops in and live in and write in, (often working out of one of the coffee shops where I actually teach community writing work shops). The line between the people I’m working with and the people I’m writing about is non-existent. I regularly come home from workshops full of little nuggets of ideas based upon stories I’ve been told or snippets of conversation. Writing is such a lonely pursuit and, living by myself, I can go days without talking to anyone but the characters in my head. I think I’d be a much flatter, less believable writer if my community arts practice didn’t drag me out of the house a number of times per week, to be with real people, to interact with them and observe how they interact with each other. During periods in my life where I’ve been writing on retreat, in isolation I’ve missed the spark of human interaction. It’s felt a little like trying to paint from memory as opposed to plonking my canvas in the middle of the market square and capturing the world right in front of me.

I fundamentally believe in the importance of community arts. I believe access to the arts is a right every individual should have. I believe the arts here in Northern Ireland have created neutral spaces where people can come together to explore their differences, respond creatively and try to understand each other. As such, I believe, the arts have played an integral role in the peace process and it is a criminal shame and a very dangerous move to so significantly restrict arts funding. Furthermore, I believe art has the possibility to benefit participants health and well-being. I’ve experienced this time and time again in my own practice with older people and those living with Dementia. However, I also believe art shouldn’t have to have a monetary or ethical raison d’être. Creative practice is a good and worthwhile thing in and of itself. The end often justifies the means, but it shouldn’t necessarily have to. Having said all this, and laid out the creed by which I practice community arts, I must admit that I mostly run workshops and projects and events because I am a deeply selfish person and I get so, so much out of the experience.

My community arts practice grounds me. When you’ve been off gallivanting round the world, reading at book festivals where people you’ve never met are blowing smoke up your ass and talking about your significant contribution to the canon, it is absolutely necessary, (for me anyway), to come home to your own community where people will level with you and tell you what they really think of your work; where your participants don’t differentiate between a Booker shortlisting and getting a “wee piece in the Belfast Telegraph;” where folks bring traybakes to workshops and linger afterwards to chat and talk about real important life issues rather than the naval-gazing nonsense which can sometimes pass for important in literary circles. I’d be constantly fluctuating between having the biggest head in Ireland and giving writing up altogether if I didn’t have my participants to keep reminding me of who I really am.

As well as grounding me, my groups have inspired my creativity. I often collaborate with them on pieces, pushing myself to try new mediums and genres in order to best realise their ideas. Over the last few years in particular, I’ve been inspired by the work I’ve done with people who are living with Dementia to radically rethink my use of language. I’ve become fascinated by the loss of language and the constraints this places on meaning and syntax and have been experimenting with using an Aphasia voice to write short pieces of fiction. You can read a little more about this work in this article I wrote for the British Council, (one of the rare moments when the commission fit perfectly with the article I wanted to write). I would not have stumbled into this area of research if it wasn’t for my community arts practice. It’s not the first time a community project has piqued a new interest in me. I’m guessing it won’t be the last.

Or perhaps it will, because I’m coming to a real crisis point in my arts practice. My writing is taking off. Opportunities I’ve worked really hard to achieve are beginning to open up and it would be daft -and a decision I’d no doubt come to regret- not to pursue all the possible avenues to advance my writing career. However, I sympathise fully with AL Kennedy, who in her fantastic essay collection, On Writing, talks at length about how difficult it was to give up her community arts practice when her writing began to demand so much of her time. I agree with Kennedy in principal. It isn’t fair to mess participants around; to be here for one session and absent for the other when some book festival demands your presence out of town. It would be selfishness on my part to offer people anything less than the best of me and yet sometimes my schedule and traveling, (endless traveling), leaves me more tired and less prepared than I’d like to be, for my classes and workshops. It’s a nice dilemma to find yourself choosing between two things you desperately love doing. It is the opposite of when I was good at both Additional Maths and Art and only had one free option for GCSE subjects. Neither of the options on the table right now are incredibly dull and ultimately pointless.

At the minute, I’m managing to juggle everything. I am very tired and consequently have had a cold for most of 2019. My current workload is a little like spinning plates, if the plates were on fire and every so often someone appeared from the sidelines and handed me another stack of plates and I couldn’t tell which ones were Royal Doulton and which ones were bog standard IKEA. I’m pretty wiped out from all this juggling. And I know the day is coming when I’ll have to phase out much of my community arts practice. And that makes me really sad, because I do want to be both things. I honestly hoped there might be a way to do everything at once. The problem seems to be that I’ve decided to be two things which both have the capacity to consume every waking moment. I should have picked less demanding career options. When I was fourteen I completed a project outlining my ideal future career. Back then I was going to be a part time football commentator/ part time fashion designer. I am wondering if I should revisit this plan.

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