Thursday, August 13, 2015

Nobody is Waiting for Your Masterpiece

One of the things about growing older, creatively, is that things go at different speeds. Just as a teenager's summer is apparently endless, in your late forties, it is hardly the longest day, before you're catapulting into making calendar arrangements for September. Creativity is different: a poem can be written in an hour, a story in a day, a novel in six months, a song in a couple of hours. Yet, these are as false timescales as how you think time passes whilst waiting for the results of a job interview, or being in the queue at the dentist. In reality, time passes, and how you delineate that time depends on your disposition.

As a systems kind of person I've also liked to see some structure, even to my famously unstructured creative life. Lots of writers are, I suspect, amalgams of chaos and calm; for it takes both to have the emotional whirlwind of a creative idea, and then somehow capture it on paper. That's why so many writers have rituals: favourite rooms and desks; particular notepads, pens or pencils; books lined up or ordered according to colour, size, publisher or the surname of the writer. This pretence at order is a good way to step away from the chaos.

At some point, dear writer, and I swear this will be true, you will settle down to the idea that what you are writing may not just be good... but could be a masterpiece. Another part of you will consider that this is the work that will be your masterpiece - the culmination of what's come before, or the moment your style and substance click in in such a way that they can't fail - that all you have to do is write it. Sometimes you'll start writing in a different way than before; and yes, that heady thrill, is merely a recognition of the novelty of your new work, not anything to do with its intrinsic quality.

But its important that you write something good: of course it is. That's why all those self-help books, "morning pages" and "7 basic plots" are so comforting - and usually written by people who have never written a masterpiece in their life. I like getting my literary advice from the giants. Sometimes they've been so kind as to leave behind a vapour trail of their genius - letters from Kafka, Fitzgerald or Plath - but sometimes we just have to dig deep in the undergrowth of their work. Shakespeare or Proust or Joyce or Cervantes provide ample ammunition in their work. Yet its not just monkeys with typewriters who can't write like Shakespeare. Hell, we can't even write like Agatha Christie or Ian Fleming (though our writers have tried.)

When I first started getting published, the confidence that I had in the work was matched by a sudden realisation that someone else liked my writing. Yet a few poems and short stories here and there, though getting admirable glances from this editor or that, never really turned into anything more. I had people who might be interested in what I wrote next, but because I write such different things, I've always been dreadful at following up such early promise. I realised a long time ago, that however good my work-in-progress might be, there was nobody out there waiting for my masterpiece. And that's still, sadly the case.... the work-in-progress could be the thing everything else has been leading to, but after twenty (or is it thirty years?) I may as well be starting from scratch, no expectations. Rejections come in many forms as well, and in some ways the "never send me anything again" from an agent who'd previously expressed an interest, though rude, was at least unequivocal on where he stood; whilst thankfully I've never had "I like your story, are you writing a novel?" which derails so many promising writers. In some ways the least helpful have been the kindest, "you can really write, but its not for us." For how many of us can "really write?" But take backhanded compliments where you find them, sprinkle with a bit of self belief and carry on....

There's a bit in Jonathan Coe's excellent biography of B.S. Johnson where he steps back and imagines a particular day in Johnson's writing life. "That was a good day," he says, or something similar. Forget about rejection, forget about Johnson's suicide, forget about anything else other than the mundane task of putting words on paper in a pleasing order. Johnson had self belief aplenty (until he didn't) and you could argue that if he didn't produce a "masterpiece" it was this self belief that was at fault - his quirky surety meant that he gave us those strange books of his rather than the imagined book we'd have liked him to have written. This is not uncommon of course, and in all fields of endeavour. I remember a review of "Sign of the Times" by Prince which tore it apart for its first CD being just half-baked demos (but what demos....the best sketches for a new music since "Revolver".) If "Sign of the Times" isn't a masterpiece then what is? We were, of course, waiting for Prince's masterpiece, or rather, like a rarified few artists, his NEXT masterpiece. (It was probably his last.) Even - especially? - our most successful writers and artists disappoint. The "second album syndrome" of "The Autograph Man" probably means we no longer expect Zadie Smith to give us her masterpiece. Like a few other recent writers, a debut novel is as close as we'll get, probably.

There are a few times - a few people - where expectations have been higher. Bruce Chatwin was a successful journalist, and successful personality, moreover, yet his much trumpeted book on "nomads" never materialised. Nicholas Shakespeare, on completing his biography, said it was an unpublishable mess. When you read "In Patagonia" or (his masterpiece?) "The Songlines" there are phrases that come dripping with life, that appear in a slightly different format, in his "letters" (more usually "postcards"). Yet in general, nobody is waiting for your masterpiece. Keats struggled to write the long poem that would surely make his name (it was short poems that did so after his death), Kafka struggled to get anything much published, and even instructed his executor to burn his unpublished works. Morrissey was a "face" around Manchester who it was recommended should go away and write his novel, rather than wait around on the off chance that Johnny Marr might pop around with his guitar. Yet much as I admired the early pages of his "Autobiography", it was more for the light they shone on his real masterpieces, "The Smiths" and "The Queen is Dead."

The alchemy that comes behind successful art means that its hidden, like the Great Oz behind the facade. Beautiful actors or powerful singers might get second or third chances based on their looks or their voice, but writers...poets.... perhaps their intelligence, perhaps their friendship circles, mean that there's faith in them close to home. A book can be accepted and take a year or eighteen months to make the shelves, never mind to be read and acclaimed. Here's the rub, that the masterpiece - whether "Catcher in the Rye" or "1984" or whatever, is being written when there is little or no expectation of one. Yes, Joyce was self-consciously writing a "masterpiece" from the day that the first chapter of "Ulysses" got published; but then again, he was no doubt also doing so with "Finnegan's Wake", and who, other than scholars, reads that now?

So here's the thing: the most exciting part of being a writer is when you not only write, but feel that you get it right. Sometimes you might be delusional, but, the one thing I can say that experience brings, is that you know when you've got a live one - same when you're writing/recording a song. The job then it to get it as good as it can be, and not skyhigh this one over the net, missing an open goal. Because nobody is waiting for your masterpiece, there's something else to bear in mind, when you write it (and you will, you will....) imagine what a surprise it will be. Of course, like "A Girl is a Half Formed Thing", the gap between action and acclaim might be the best part of the decade. But hopefully, McBride did what most of us do in between writing our good, bad and ugly words, she lived, she wrote, she got on with things.

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