Friday, 21 February 2014

Life: Too Short for Regrets, But Long Enough To Be A Writer

I had another birthday last week (and no, you're not getting a number out of me.) I'm reasonably sure I'm still only having the requisite one a year, but sometimes it feels like more; I know there's a sad part of my brain that's still clinging to the fantasy of being thirty, and reality is starting to seriously mess with that now.

I was a writer before I could actually write; by the time I was three I was apparently filling sheets of paper with rows of  meaningless squiggly lines and telling anyone who'd listen that I was "whiting a storwee." At the age of seven I made my first, proper book, with sheets of paper folded in half and stapled through the middle, that had not only a story with real, readable words in but pictures as well. I don't remember much about it, except that it was a shamelessly plagiarized hybrid of Louisa M.Alcott's 'Little Women' and whatever random Famous Five book I'd recently read (and yeah, it probably was as dreadful as it sounds.) Over the next few years I won some storywriting competitions and a playwriting competition twice in a row. It looked very much like writing was going to be My Thing when I grew up.

When I first read Stephen King's book 'On Writing,' it struck me that, even though I'm almost twenty years younger than him, I caught the writing bug at a much earlier age than he did. He's since done pretty darn well for himself, selling gazillions of novels all over the world and acquiring a devoted fanbase the size of a small planet. Whereas I... well, I won't compare my achievements to his, if it's all the same to you - I don't need that kind of kick in the self-esteem nuts, thanks.

Now I'm not begrudging Mr King one ounce of his success; it's very clear from his book that he worked his ass off to get where he's got, and everything he's achieved is down to putting in the graft and never giving up. But, aside from also being ridiculously talented with a healthy amount of self-belief, this is precisely why he's achieved everything he has and... I haven't.

Don't get me wrong; I'm not so arrogant as to think that's all it would take for me to be as successful and revered as him - I'm highly unlikely to reach those heights no matter how much graft I put in. But I do know that now I'd be further along the path to my own level of success if I'd followed his example. He applied bum to chair and churned out those words every single day - even when it was hard, even when it was the last thing he felt like doing - and never letting anything in his life stand in the way or distract him from his goal.

And I didn't. I let everything get in the way; work, relationships, mental dipshittery... you name it. I only wrote when I wanted to write, when I was 'in the mood' to write - when writing was an exciting, considerate lover that got my mojo revving and made me feel good. Which was nowhere near often enough. Writing when it's fun is easy; it's writing when it's hell on earth that sorts the Michelin-starred from the McDonalds Happy Meals. I wish I'd learned that some twenty years earlier.

And it became obvious to me this week, after speaking to several 'older' writer friends, that I'm not the only one feeling this way. All of us mourn our lost opportunities; so many wasted years, missed chances, if only if only, what have I done with my life..? And now, with the free-for-all that is digital self-publishing, it's hard not to look at all these self-pub authors half our age churning out books by the bucketload - and feel like hopeless slackers by comparison. We've already lost the race... and now maybe we're too old and knackered to ever shamble across that finish line?

It's all right for the likes of Edith Piaf, singing "non, je ne regrette rien" - at least she got a hit record out of it. For the rest of us though, it's hard not to count up all those 'wasted' years and think of ourselves as failing somehow. But we're forgetting something; during all those 'wasted' years we may not have been banging out literary masterpieces... but we were doing something equally valuable in the quest to become better writers...

We were living our lives. Filling them with the richness of experiences - of other people, places, professions, cultures, lifestyles - everything. All manner of things that can't be learned from a How-To book or any number of creative writing courses. And all things that add depth and meaning to whatever we choose to write now, when we've looked back over them and turned them around in our more mature minds and made new sense of them.

If you wanted to be an Olympic athlete or a glamour model... well yeah, those are career choices that have a limited age span. But writing isn't. Many of our best-loved authors didn't achieve success until they were well into their forties and fifties - and 'The Camomile Lawn' novelist Mary Wesley was 71 by the time she was first published. You're never 'too old' to be a writer! As long as you can still hold a pen, bash a keyboard or talk to someone else who can (Barbara Cartland dictated all her novels to her PA in the latter years of her career) you can still produce the goods. Time hasn't run out for you - time's only just beginning!

So, if you only started 'taking your writing seriously' at a later stage in your life, maybe there's a very good reason. Maybe you just needed to come to it when you were ready. And there's no shame in how long it takes to do that; some writers are minute steaks, others are pot roasts. Both are equally delicious - but only if they're cooked in the right way, for the right amount of time. Be proud to be a pot roast if that's what you are, because even the best minute steak in the world can never taste like you.

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