A year since I published my novel The River, I have received my first review on Amazon. Thanks to whoever was kind enough to spare a few words (and a generous five stars). I’m glad you liked it.
We’ve all had that moment in our lives. The one where we heard the song, saw the film, watched the sports star, read the book and thought to ourselves; “I want to do that…I want to do what he does…I want to be where she is.”
We’ve all had that moment in our lives. The one where we heard the song, saw the film, watched the sports star, read the book and thought to ourselves; “I want to do that…I want to do what he does…I want to be where she is.” We may even find we are gifted enough to follow in their footsteps, but few of us will succeed. Most of us will flounder and quickly give up. Even if we do stay in the game, we will spend the rest of our lives looking at someone more successful than us and wondering why it’s them up there and not us. We may convince ourselves that this is the year our resolutions will kick in. And in all that time there’s one simple element we have continually failed to grasp…
The Process. I think we’ve all heard this word thrown around when it comes to the creative process: that the real thrill of creativity is not the finished product but the work towards it. The journey, not the destination. I thought I understood this, and yet I didn’t.
I used to be a musician; perhaps I still am, although it feels a long time since I picked up a guitar. Ten years ago, I seemed as wedded to being a musician and songwriter as I now am to being a writer. I wrote song after song and found myself constantly improving my craft, especially my singing. I made frequent solo performances at open mic events and recorded in my spare room where I produced a three-track ep CD which I brought to gigs to flog, and previous to that recorded an album with a friend.
It may sound like I was an archetypal musician, struggling, yet committed, only I wasn’t. I modelled myself in some ways on idols such as Keith Richards, Jeff and Tim Buckley and Nick Cave; all committed musical geniuses. What they also had was a circle of peers and collaborators. Whereas for myself, even though I was surrounded with musicians at these events, I remained insular. I thought I saw myself in my idols and yet I had never even been in a band, yes, I had auditioned for a handful of bands but with little success.
By 2008, I had written another album’s worth of songs that I wanted to record, and so I did, by myself. It was inevitable that I struggled to record these songs I was so proud of. I drowned under the weight of having to act as my backing band; wringing the fun out of what should have been an exciting and rewarding experience. I found myself nervously trying to get the right bass take or wing a keyboard part I just didn’t have the chops for. I toiled over a drum machine program as I tried to bring to life the drummer I imagined playing my songs, you know, the imaginary drummer who played in my imaginary band. Oh yes, and that doesn’t even take into account acting as producer and engineer, moving mics around in my cramped studio, toiling over mixes and tweaking recording software.
The end came soon after. I lost the desire to perform, not out of fear, but because I simply didn’t feel like it. It was around this time I caught the writing bug. For a while, I found myself torn between being a musician and writer, knowing I couldn’t do either one justice without committing to one or the other exclusively.
This conflict went on for the next few years. I attempted a “comeback” in 2011 playing two contrasting gigs; one in a café, the other on the side of a flatbed truck in front of a field of apathetic punters. Both were complete disasters. At the second gig, I hung around feeling more awkward and out of place than I had ever felt during my performing hay day of 2006-2008. When I got on stage, as with the first gig, I had problems with the pickup on my acoustic guitar, and as a result, I had to play the instrument into a mic which I kept catching my strings on.
Even then there was an opportunity ready to fall into my lap: backstage I had heard the promoter talking about how she was booking bands to play places like the Roadhouse and the Academy in Manchester; this was the silver lining of my dark cloud, and yet, I let it float off. It wasn’t my usual social awkwardness around people in the music scene that stopped me from approaching her about future gigs. I think it was apathy.
It was this lack of willingness or desire to make links with musicians and business people that showed I wasn’t in love with the process of being a musician. I held onto it for so long because I thought I was still in the same lineage as my idols. These people, however, had lived and breathed what it meant to follow the path: to know and accept the process. They honed their craft by playing in bands, getting to know other musicians, sitting in on jams and recording sessions; spending hours in a van smelling each other’s farts or lugging gear onto public transport; hanging around in dingy venues waiting to play for a mere 30 minutes if they were lucky. It took me years to realise what the process of being a musician involved, and it wasn’t just writing and practicing alone in my bedroom.
In contrast, as I dove ever deeper into writing I found it was this process which I gave myself over to. Whereas I had struggled to join bands, work with other musicians and become part of my local music scene, I found it easier to interact and network with other writers through courses, workshops, and the internet.
As a musician, I had never felt comfortable or pushed myself when it came to promotion: I never sent a single demo out to a record company or even looked for paid gigs. As a writer, I have since self-published two books, entered numerous competitions and even had a story accepted as part of The Monolith Anthology through Creative Writers’ Press.
This along with the long hours of solitude, the willingness to take and give feedback, disciplining myself to write every day and for the right reasons, is all part of the process.
I think, as a musician, I was seduced by what I saw on the stage or heard coming out of my stereo. While this is how many successful musicians get the bug, I wasn’t willing to accept and give myself over to the rest of it. When it comes to writing, however, I find myself embracing everything about it.
The way I see it, the process is like a circuit board, every part of it linked to the other, every connection essential; it just depends on which process or circuit board one can best interface with.
The rest of the world is not your family. It doesn’t know you, it has no need to be polite to you, but they are your peers, and by and large they tend to know what they are talking about, and their opinions and advice can be priceless.
So, you’ve just finished the first, second, or even fifth draft of your short story, novel, or play, etc. You’re feeling very proud of yourself: your masterpiece, your baby, the thing which you have toiled over is ready to be pushed out into the world. You’re ready to share your genius with everyone. You send it out to friends and family, and so the ego stroking begins: sure, not everyone reads it, but the ones who do have nothing but praise for it: they’re so impressed you wrote a story, they say things along the lines of, “I really liked it.- Well done,” and “I wish I could write.”
The “feedback” you’ve received is so positive the next step surely is to post it online to a site such YouWriteOn, or Writer’s Café. You may even have the confidence to join a writer’s group where you can blow everyone away with the story your parents loved so much. And so you do, but it doesn’t go as planned, in fact it comes as a great shock when some random person you’ve never met before says something along the lines of, “I didn’t like the ending-I didn’t care much for the characters-there’s too much telling and not enough showing.” This feels like a hard slap in the face from a cold, wet fish. None of it is a personal attack on you (or it shouldn’t be), but you can’t help feeling like it is. Yes, they pointed out the positive aspects of your work, but it’s the negative one(s) which stay with you.
So, with your bubble burst you slink back from this experience to lick your creative wounds. You may find you never get over this, or perhaps, after a short while has passed you may want to go back to your work and take another look at what the person in the writer’s group or on the site said, maybe begin to see the story from another perspective and why a particular character or scene didn’t ring true. You might even find referring to these critical points helps to make the story better. So you get over the experience and grow from it.
A few weeks or months down the line, you finish another piece of work and are again eager to let friends and family see the fruits of your labour. Again you are rewarded with nothing but positive reviews. So again you let strangers read it, but once more there is criticism about certain elements of the story. You wonder why these people are so quick to point out the less than perfect elements of your work. What do they see that your friends and family don’t? It’s not as if they don’t like you, they just don’t seem to think everything you put out is a hundred percent wonderful for some reason. Then it hits you: they are being honest. Something your friends and family are far too polite to be.
And this is where so many writers go wrong. Through well meaning, yet ultimately damaging kindness, friends and family end up constructing a monster. A huge beast held up by the scaffold of their ego which, despite its size will crumble with just one critical prod. If you are this kind of writer, or any other kind of artist then you will probably end up as the deluded pop star wannabe who springs into the audition room of X Factor or American Idol expecting to blow the judges away with their unique rendition of My Heart Will Go On, only to leave the stage in tears when they are told they just haven’t got it: Rejection hurts, reality bites, yet honesty has a refreshing sting to it.
The rest of the world is not your family. It doesn’t know you, it has no need to be polite to you, but they are your peers, and by and large they tend to know what they are talking about, and their opinions and advice can be priceless. And it is also something you should never stop seeking out. I believe the best education you can get in writing is to do it every day and to always seek the opinion of others. I’m not saying you have to slavishly follow their every opinion, as it’s ultimately you who knows what is best, but you will know when their opinion is right.
I remember posting a story online which I was quite pleased with, I received three pieces of critique: one said my sentences were ridiculously long, while another said I went into too much detail which they felt was holding the story back. Where once my ego would have been wounded by this, instead I made notes of the points they made and systematically used them to improve my second draft. If I hadn’t the story would not have reached its potential and I would have carried on wrapped up in a deluded bubble, thinking no one in the outer world recognised my literary genius.
I’ll say it again: constructive criticism is invaluable and harder to come by than one might think. This isn’t to say you should take on board any and all criticism of your work. I have been unfortunate enough to be on the end of one particularly barbed review of my work which was nothing more than a bullying and arrogant attack which failed to point out any positives and seemed to revel in its criticism. This is where the art of constructive criticism comes in: if you are critiquing a piece of writing what you should be hoping to do is provide helpful insight and pointers into how the work could be improved, not turn it into some kind of personal attack which is used to pump up one’s own ego while at the same time destroying the ego of the writer, who for all you know may have only just started out on their journey. I find the best way to critique a piece of work without destroying the artist in the process is by using The Sandwich Technique in which you start off by acknowledging the positives in the writing (believe me, there’s always something good to be found in even the worst writing) and then go on to helpfully show where you feel improvements could be made. It also doesn’t hurt to display some empathy by pointing out how you may have made some of the same mistakes yourself and how common this can be. Then you finish off by reiterating the positives of their writing and expressing how you hope you were of some help.
So, the next time a relative waxes lyrical about your latest offering, or a complete stranger points out a glaring plot hole, put your ego to one side (easy than it sounds, I know), take a step back and try taking in the fuller picture.