Thursday, 6 April 2017

What being a writer is like (totally subjectively!)

I was having quite a productive day yesterday. I'd done all the re-writes on Em, been to the gym and was mid-way through a set of notes on Nene, when I received the bitterly unwelcome news that I'd been turned down for yet another grant from the Arts Council. Yet again, the only feedback they could offer was that they simply "preferred another applicant." I can only deduce that I'm personally unfundable in the present world of funded arts. This is the third application I've made to the Arts Council which has been turned down with no feedback offered.

These applications, of course, take the best part of a week to fill in properly, and there comes a point at which you have to acknowledge that you're wasting your time. Particularly if the only feedback you're getting is that you scored a full set of marks and that your application couldn't be improved.

At the moment I feel a bit numb. Numb, and a little bit scared about the future. Demotivated. Fragile. It was my last opportunity for some funding to keep me going through the process of rehearsals for Em.

Funnily enough, as I walked up to Highgate Village yesterday morning, I was thinking about what it means to be a writer and how we're constantly on this exhausting and somewhat unstable roller-coaster, which seems to become more exhausting and less thrilling the older we get.

There are, of course, many things that are wonderful about being a writer. Tuesday was a good day, and only yesterday, I heard from a wonderful woman who wanted me to know how important my music had been to her in a period of great flux.

I get a number of emails and letters like this. And I always respond to them because they mean so much. A writer doesn't usually crave fame or huge wealth. But he does crave the knowledge that what he does matters.

There is, however, a certain type of person who feels obliged to trot out a knee-jerk critical reaction to the work that the writer has often taken months, sometimes years to create. Sometimes this comes in the form of a review. Sometimes it comes from an online troll. Sometimes it's from the mouth of a friend immediately after a show who simply can't help themselves. Criticism is both the life blood of the writer and his greatest enemy. If a writer is not ready to hear criticism, usually because he's not in a position to do anything about, he can loose every ounce of confidence. A writer relies on confidence. He cannot write without it. I don't know a writer who doesn't have issues with confidence.

To me, it's really interesting that this particular understanding is more present in the way that people deal with performers. We know actors have fragile egos, so even if we think that they're deluded and talentless, in general, we (rightly) don't have the heart to say anything other than positive things. Unless we're online trolls of course.

A writer pours emotion, love, and a huge amount of small detail into what he does. Writing is, of course, utterly subjective. Some stuff lands for some people and catastrophically fails for others. All writers know this, but if they've spent every waking hour trying to make something which lands, what they don't want to hear is someone saying, "I just don't get it." It's the cruellest, and actually the dumbest critique of all.

One of the most stressful things in this industry is dealing with those who have pots of funds to divvy out to writers, who feel the need to force writers to jump through scores of hoops simply to get their hands on a share of the money. It's known as window shopping within the industry. They ask huge numbers of writers to write song after song on spec, for no payment. If you ask them to justify what they're doing, they'll more than likely say they're doing you a favour by giving you the opportunity to write a song which you might be able to use in the future. Lucky us!

The same people usually also claim to have the super-power ability to tell the worth of a piece of music from a rubbish recording with a piano in a room. We all know they don't, so we invest huge amounts of our own money creating the sorts of demos we feel best reflect our work, knowing that a bad recording of something in the wrong hands can be monumentally damaging.

A writer spends much of his or her day in a world of silence. He emerges from his cocoon, often without the ability to engage effectively with those around him. It often takes a few hours before he feels like a human again. On one hand, we are expected to write passionately and from the heart, but increasingly we are also expected to behave in a manner which has been deemed appropriate by the corporate world. If we cry, we're difficult (unless it's on camera) if we shout, we're difficult, if we panic, we're difficult, if we say no, we're difficult. It is very easy to describe a writer as difficult. The great skill in this industry is being the sort of director or producer who finds no one difficult. This is usually because they inherently know how to deal with the whims and needs of different types of people, so no one feels the need to be difficult around them!

A writer has to deal with rejection on an almost daily basis. He applies for jobs which have already been given to others but have needed to be posted on websites to make it look like rules are being followed. He doesn't hear back from 90% of the jobs he applies to, or the people he writes to. He enters competitions which are won by people who have been asked to apply and then is told too many people have entered the competition for feedback to be offered. He loses out on bursaries because his minority status is not the minority status du jour. 

Paranoia starts to creep in, but we're repeatedly told we shouldn't become jaded or bitter or whinging despite the fact that we feel all these things deeply.

"But you're doing so well," they say, and then the writer thinks about the bucket in his front room which collects the water coming through the ceiling and wonders what "doing well" actually means!

And then you get the people who tell the artist that he's lucky. Or a layabout. Or that the government shouldn't sponsor the Arts. Or that if the job's not paying enough, he shouldn't be doing the work. Or that the sort of work he does should happen in his free time. It's a hobby after all.

The writer doesn't posses the glamour of a performer. People don't really follow writers on twitter. When we try to raise money by crowdfunding, the amounts are desperately pitiful.

When a branch of the arts starts to collapse or stagnate, everyone tells the writers that they must innovate, but when it comes to it, they don't believe the writer they're telling to innovate actually has the ability to innovate, so they approach someone they think is more likely to be the type of person that will deliver what they think the industry will need (or, in real terms, what the industry will fund) but these people rarely want to commit to doing the work necessary to create something that's actually innovative. The truth of the matter is that if we promote good art, we won't need to set out to innovate. Innovation is only effective if it's good.

In short, being a writer is all about taking the hits, finding yourself on the floor, dusting yourself off and starting again. We're like little pieces of elastic. We bounce up and down, following our nebulous dreams. But elastic frays and eventually becomes so worn it simply snaps. Writers have to hope that their elastic is well-made! Ultimately hope is what all writers need.

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