Sunday, November 08, 2015

"The Only Preoccupation"

On Friday, I took some time out to get an injection of literary life at the first National Creative Writing Graduate Fair (#NCWGradFair) , organised by Comma Press at MMU. A day dedicated to thinking about both practice and the business of writing, it was a sell out, though interestingly I only recognised three or four people from the local literary scene, maybe because of a sense that the day was concentrating on the novel - though short stories, poetry and non-fiction were all well represented in the workshops and the pitches.

For the day was split into two halves - a keynote speech from Adam Foulds, Booker shortlisted writer for "The Quickening Maze", followed by parallel panel sessions on  a range of subjects; and then in the afternoon, the foyer of the Geoffrey Manton building was given over to a "speed dating" session with agents and publishers, with around twenty literary professionals available to give a couple of 15 minute one-to-ones with the assembled writers.

I enjoyed the day thoroughly, and with such a complex series of sessions in the afternoon, was impressed that it ran to time and that everyone got to see a couple of literary professionals relevant to the interests they had signed up with. Yet I realised that I was still printing off my literary CV and novel synopsis at eleven o'clock the night before, as I was still a bit in recovery from being away the week before, and hadn't been feeling 100%.

I've heard Foulds read before, but he was particularly excellent giving a lecture and answering questions for an hour about the literary life. Like myself he'd studied on an M.A. in the late 90s, getting into UEA to write poetry, but drawn to prose during the course of his masters. He was already someone with a poetry track record of sorts - and I was reminded of when I went for the UEA interview and found that two of the people being interviewed had already had novels published, one of whom I bought from the University bookshop after the interview! The big expansion in creative writing courses was just around the corner. He talked about how it worked well to have access to two very different poetry tutors (Andrew Motion and Denise Riley) but at the same time finding a peer group of fiction writers.

If Foulds had seemed one of those writers who "had it easy" - with that early career Booker shortlisting - the real story is more complex. Although he found an agent, and wrote a novel, neither of those worked out. He kept going through making the work "the only preoccupation," a quote I tweeted as it seemed such an important point, whilst doing low paid factory or similar jobs - anything which wouldn't take up the mental and emotional energy needed to make a book as good as it can be. Foulds was incredibly generous in his honesty about his own background and working methods - he doesn't show his work to anyone, for instance, writes longhand, a few hundred words a day is a good day - and also gave us a bit of a helicopter view of what "literary success" means. The star of his year was a novelist who published one short book, and has now moved to Australia and is a teacher - whilst other writers varied greatly in both the speed of their "success" and the continuation of it. There is no "career" in being a writer, just the work of the current book, and if - when - that is published, then what comes next off the back of it is totally unpredictable.

The panel sessions I attended - "working with agents" and "hear from the editors" were equally interesting. The local writer Sarah Jasmon mentioned how the serendipity of meeting her agent and publisher only worked because her book was ready, whilst hearing from Richard T. Kelly who publishes "creative non fiction", it was good to understand a little more about the industry's trends and how writers, agents and publishers come together when they chime.  

As ever when I meet publishers or agents I realise that although that relationship isn't the be-all and end-all its quite important in negotiating your way to a certain level. Someone once said to me once said that what my writing needed was not an "agent" or other advocate, but a "friend", and I guess that's part of it. Certainly having other writers I can show work to is important, but clearly, in a highly competitive market (there were perhaps a hundred people at the event), the need to have someone on your side is important. The creative writing M.A. or PhD - though there are so many nowadays - remains one way to improve your chances, and Foulds' view that it gave him time to write (as well as some literary peers) strikes me as very similar to my own experience. Where I went wrong I think was once the novel I'd written had not found a home, not knowing what to do next - and the job I got was full time and what with other life issues, I never completed the actual "next book" (though I would write other things that were very different).

Its been a while since I've been able to make the writing "the only preoccupation", but I don't disagree with it - its just when, how, for how long.... a good day, and more questions than answers at the end of it.

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