Everyone’s at it, it seems to me. All my facebook friends. My comrade poets. My artist buddies. The serious people who have serious ambitions. With our typewriters, trying to tap (literally) into the old ways of writing. Chasing the dream of the novel. Our novel. My novel. By now, my novels.
I see statuses all the time like ‘I wrote 20,000 words today’. Or complaining about writer’s block. Desperate statuses from those who never have their manuscripts looked at. It’s depressing, or might be if I wasn’t generally a character who operates more at manic than depressed.
We all have a novel in us. We’re told. And we all have a million stories, that’s true. But continue to dream of those fat bulging spines with our names our of pseudonyms. For most of us, these spines are real. Paper, cardboard, shiny and ready to be held in our hands. It’s a version of the American dream for intellects.
I’ve written many over the years, none have been published. I’ve done the usual thing of sending to agents, sending to publishers. This has become easier over the years. I’ve had the stock responses to the hallowed first three chapters. ‘I didn’t love it.’
I’ve been published as a poet, as an essayist, as an academic, as a musician, but the novel remains an elusive challenge. No wants them it seems. They don’t want mine, anyway.
And by now, I have many. False starts, half finished paragraphs, scribbles on the back of envelopes that have grown into mountains.
I began at school with a long story about a caterpillar called Dilan who went on a journey. No prizes for working out that I was a wannabe Romantic, a hippy too late for the festival. Realism and naturalism came late to my door. There were others, but this one I remember, filling my exercise book with furious pen and ink, in that royal blue nibbed and nibbled beauty.
My first complete novel I wrote straight after college. It was a thinly disguised life story about a girl who went to college and then went to live in London in a squat. Pretty awful. There’s something about the novel form that killed my writing then. I thought things had to be written in a particular way. I thought I had to use a kind of phrasing that books used. I was wrong. I’m glad I kept it, in its yellow document folder, at the bottom of a cardboard box (now in the attic and too well buried to unearth, which is a shame, as I’m sure there’d be many amusing lines) as it shows me, not how far I’ve come, but just what I was like. With a shudder it throws me back to the late 1980s on a council estate in Mile End that does not exist anymore. I’m chatting to my friends, to friends of friends, Lucy, the white Rasta from Lucca, Antonio from Italy, Paola the librarian, to a generation mostly more interested in taking drugs and making art than reading novels, although there’s a few texts exempt from this generality, Camus, Sartre and Günter Grass. The kind of romantic literature I loved at college is definitely not welcome in these circles.
My next finished novel I wrote while I was a young single mother, living in a council flat in Clerkenwell. I was in my thirties and trying to fight any suggestion that I should settle down and give up my artistic dreams. Writing a novel was something clean I could do without the need for a painting studio. It suited what had become my lifestyle. The fact that the Fortress music studios were squatting in the old police station at the bottom of the road kept me from thinking that this was too much my lifestyle, sitting in a flat. There was lots of dancing on the old rust woolly rug with my infant, and lots of listening to records on my Richer Sounds separates. And a bit of pie-eating in the Fortress café and talking to people on cocaine, or rather listening to them. The novel, ‘The Inner Evolution of Geena Grapelli’ dealt with a young woman who had been through a few things, like myself. My novels were moving with my life. More magical realism was creeping in. My long title was at the forefront of those pseudo nineteenth-century style headings, a bit of a flick to Brit Pop and the short single word band names that dropped the article. Placebo. Smurf. Snuff. Suede. Swatch. Paracetemol. Dirt. Lush. Thrush. Bush. Etc. I decided I liked to be on the early bit of the cultural curve. An early adopter to use terms I learned from a computer context.
A few sniffs from the dog of the literary industry left me bereft again. I returned to the form with a blazing idea after a PhD in history of film and visual media, specialising in the beginnings of the British feature film, its production, its studios, its mogul-characters. I would write about Alfred Hitchcock as a young boy in the East End. I worked in the most interesting research from anarchist and historian Philip Ruff who has thoroughly and cleverly chased down the real Peter the Painter, achieving what the full might of the British police force never did. For those as are not familiar, Peter the Painter was the most wanted man of the twentieth century. This book jumped through many hoops and is not bad. Self-published. Proud of it. Three in the series. Friends have been very supportive. And in writing the first I had mentoring by Jim Kelly, the crime writer (Penguin). Still my only success in worldly terms was knowing that I’d done a good job. I didn’t regret paying for his mentoring as it changed my life, improved my writing and gave me an insight into publishing as well as writing. Still, there was no agent, no publisher for this novel either. That is okay, I haven’t given up yet.
But I find it frightening how today so many are exploiting the kind of desire that I have in this closing market. The many courses, the many services, exploiting not my vanity but my need to create and our ego. Am I just buying into the latest version of self-help books, pricked by a need to improve myself? This desire to write is of course ego-driven as mine notices the constant attention being paid to the famous novelists, even if they famously didn’t have happy lives. I don’t want my life to be pored over minutiae by everyone – I can do that myself, thank you very much. But still this attention paid to the same grand people of history feeds into my belief that being someone is the thing to be. I have great struggles with my ego, it’s an internal wrestling match.
But I’m a musician. There’s a DIY spirit that I’ve lived with in music in the 1980s and 1990s that wasn’t corporate. An attitude that what I was making was as good as anything, better than what was available commercially. I listen back and I can feel a confidence in the expression. That’s it. I’m not a wannabe success. Poets are leading the way in performance, revitalising our lives. With social media there is too much to read, it’s overwhelming. I’m certainly not going to reach a mass audience with my work (unless I go viral, whatever that means but it doesn’t sound pleasant). But maybe I can, address or reach or communicate with a small audience. I have friends (some). I have readers (some). I have an audience that actually like my poetry and music and seek it out, probably as I not only work hard at my artistic output but try to support others.
My latest novel that I completed is about my life as a young woman, squatting in the east end. I guess I’ve reached a time when I look back on my life and draw on all that rich experience, instead of just concentrating on who I am at this point of my life. It’s all the same thing, really, but life is a journey. Called ‘The Squat’, my friend the writer Emma Roper-Evans is proofing the manuscript for me and I’m drawing pictures for it right now, expanding its territory into something new. I don’t know where it will go and what it will do, but it won’t be conventional. I’m going to draw on my circle of creative friends and cook it into something different. I’m ready to look outside my own box and take back the word ‘novel’, reclaim the ideas of innovation, make that mean something to me. I’m going to Tristram-Shandy myself with its ideas of experiment and discover what I might still have up my sleeve. There must be something other than a used hanky.