by J. K. Fox
illustration: Bradley Wind
It’s the old question: “if you had a million pounds what would you do with it? How would you change your life?” My friend and I were sitting on a beach near Edinburgh, wrapped up against the springtime wind and ogling the brave souls with no shoes on, dabbling in the surf. Having exhausted the conversation potential of “how fast does hypothermia set in”, that million-dollar question arose with comfortable familiarity.
It was a familiarity, however, that had matured alongside our minds, leaving behind the younger years of answering with long lists of purchases, projected freedoms presented to us by such a large sum. Now it struck me with alarming freshness that I could honestly turn to my friend and say “you know, I wouldn’t change much about my life”. I’m no Pollyanna, it is true that I would settle my debts, fly my family around the world, and I’ll admit there is an indefensibly expensive pair of jeans out there with my name on it. However what I meant was, money wouldn’t change the way I am pursuing writing. Neither cash, nor a change in circumstance, can alter the fact that at the root of my days sits an irrevocable love of writing.
And that is the salient point I find myself turning to again and again. In a crippled economy, with the news awash with daily tides of depressing statistics, we in the creative industries need some kind of beacon, some kind of breakwater to hide our sanity behind. And the answer, for me at least, is love.
Of course the pragmatists among us would look towards a million quid as a liberating force. Such a quantity of money would dissolve the need for a nine to five bill pay of a job. However my bills are paid by the environmental sector, and truth be told, I like my work. Would I want to work full time as a fiction writer? Certainly, it’s the crown that sits upon my long-term ambition, however I cannot deny the constant cream-into-butter inspiration my everyday life has upon the fiction I squeeze in at night. Whoever said being in love was easy?
I hear a lot of writer heartache from colleagues. I feel a lot of writer heartache. How could one not? Rejection follows rejection follows the inevitable “why am I doing this in the first place do I really have to go on twitter to make this work?” But in these moments it helps to step outside, both literally and figuratively, breath somewhere quiet just for a moment and remind yourself why you do this in the first place. Bolster yourself against depression with the fact that when you’ve dried your eyes, put your fist through the door, punched someone who is shorter than you, done whatever you have to do to relieve the weight of seemingly unrelenting rejection, you will sit down in the place where you write at the next available moment you have, and you will continue to tell stories. That love you have for writing, that’s the foundation of your fortress, no rejection slip or email can take that away from you. If nothing else, you will end your days writing a completely brilliant journal that your children will publish posthumously, and you can have the Devine, retro active satisfaction of hearing publishers kick themselves for never reading your blog. Wait that doesn’t help?
And you know, if you don’t find yourself fundamentally driven, or even moderately eager, to sit down and hit the paper, why are you doing this to yourself? Take up a hobby. Buy a bicycle. There is no merit to taking a beating when you don’t have to take one. If you’re in it to make money, or win the Booker Prize, or make it to a party where you can sit in Alice Monroe’s lap, forget it. As cheap DSLRs make it easy for everyone to become a photojournalist, so does the varied geography of the Internet make it possible to become a writer. The competition is vertiginous. Thus unless you have a love of the discipline behind you, you are as daft as people paddling on a Scottish beach in early May.
We all create from within our own private fortresses (mark the difference from the ivory tower, a fortress has windows to the outside world). So if you want to fight your way through whatever machinations the publishing world establishes, fortify yourself and your defences with love (the armoured, dedicated kind, not the valentines day kind): love of the act of writing, love of the tradition you are penning yourself into, love of the impulse that first sat you down in front of that notepad or laptop.
It’s always comforting when someone tells you “it’s all going to be ok”, even if it’s just something you need to hear and don’t actually believe to be true. But, rejection slips or not, a million pounds or not, if you pour the foundation for your own creative breakwater everything will be ok. As the oft-quoted Mary Oliver advises in her poem “Instructions for living a life”: “Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.” We are in this for the love of the telling.
J. K. Fox is a freelance writer with short fiction accepted by Stand Magazine and Notes From the Underground online publication. She works in South East Scotland and the Pacific North West of the USA in environmental communications and has previously worked in arts and education.