An email out of the blue – a student at Greenwich University asks if I’d be happy for her to interview me regarding ‘My Hidden Mother’, the book I’ve written about Mum surviving the Holocaust. I’m happy to oblige, though I point out I’m a long way from Greenwich. She however is amenable to coming up to Darlington, so we arrange a date. She knows about the book from her grandparents. She gives me their name, but it means little to me, so I ring up Mum who tells me they’re a couple she regularly meets at the bus stop.
This is so random. I was expecting them to be people she’s known for decades.
So next weekend I’m going to be interviewed, and I’m going to have to sound as if I know what I’m talking about as regards writing. I’m going to have to sound like a proper writer. This student is studying creative writing – all I have is an O level in English Language. I wrote stories at school only if they were set by the teacher; never just for the sake of it. I then wrote nothing for decades, didn’t even consider writing until I was in my forties, and then it was purely by chance, and wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t fallen in with some poets in an internet chatroom. I’ve never written a diary and I didn’t spend my teens writing angst-filled poetry. I still don’t write a journal of any kind, which is why my blog entries are so few and far between. When I’m out, I don’t have a notebook with me to jot down ideas. I don’t have paper and pen by my bedside in case I happen to wake up in the middle of the night needing to write down something incredible because I know I’ll forget it by the morning. I was never one of those people who thought they had a novel in them and who were just waiting for the right moment.
The old msn chatrooms were much like facebook today – a right old load of tosh, but with the occasional brilliant conversation. I started jotting down ideas from these conversations, invented characters, threw difficulties at them to see what they would do, and they took off, they flew – and ended up as a novel. Having never written anything longer than three or four sheets of A4 at school, I soon had a manuscript of 96,000 words. In my naivety, I sent it to a few agents. When that got me nowhere, I published with a vanity press – cost me nothing, but I was bombarded with ‘special offers’ to buy my own book at an exorbitant cost, so I sold very few. That book is now thankfully out of print. First novels, eh? Absolute tripe if you don’t know what you’re doing, and I certainly didn’t.
The writing bug had taken hold, however, and within a few years I had learnt the craft properly and had a number of traditionally published books to my name – a poetry collection and three novels.
Did this make me a ‘proper’ writer?
No. When you’re starting out, publication feels like the ultimate goal. Then you realise all you have to do is write something and send it somewhere and someone will eventually publish it. On my website, I used to list all these publications, but I’ve now heavily culled the listings as I’ve realised too many of them are embarrassments. The poetry collection and novels are fine, as they’re out with Circaidy Gregory Press, a very decent indie-press, so I keep them on the list, along with Bridport listings, Pushcart Prize nominations, Butcher’s Dog, Frogmore Papers, etc – but I keep very quiet about some of the others from the distant past before I knew better.
Being published in the right places, however, still didn’t make me a writer, it simply mades me a person who happened to write and who sometimes managed a decent hit.
I mentioned my O level in English Language earlier on. That was slightly disingenuous of me, as it makes me sound as if I haven’t studied writing at all. I have, but I’ve used the internet. I soon realised the chatrooms where people said ‘thank you for sharring’ (sic) were to be avoided at all costs. I drifted instead towards the private, much tougher forums, one of which set me on the right track. I learnt a lot there, but it didn’t make me a writer.
A few years later, I discovered Alex Keegan’s online ‘Bootcamp’, and if you can’t learn how to be a writer there you’re really not trying. I’ve been a ‘bootcamper’ for three years now, and have learnt one hell of a lot – but none of the skills I’ve picked up there make me a writer in themselves.
What makes me a writer is the fact that I’m currently writing every day – averaging around 1000 words – and I’ve been doing this for months now, not even stopping for Christmas Day. When you’re primarily a poet, that’s pretty much impossible, so much of my output at the moment is short stories. They pour out, and they’re initially gibberish, so when they go through the bootcamp mill they’re eviscerated by myself as much as anyone. I fix them if they’re fixable, submit them if they have a chance in one of the better markets or competitions. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t – but the important thing is that I’m writing them, so the idea of a student from London coming up to interview me about my writing no longer seems such a weird idea. This is not a hobby. It’s what I do.