Saturday, 9 July 2011

Fear and Self-Loathing in Writersville

I’ve just written my monthly post for Kindle UK Authors . It’ll be up on the 16th. It’s about writing groups, and I think it’s distilled the double-edge of collaborative working for me. What you’ll get there is a take on the positives and negatives of working creatively with others. What I want to share briefly here is more personal. Very much like Cody’s wonderful (and no longer available) piece about the highs and lows of her time at Year Zero.

I’ve made no secret of my recent problems with the recurrence of my bipolar. It’s probably been clear that these issues with the chemical screwed-upness of my head have fed into some serious creative issues for me, which regular readers of mine will know is nothing new . Self doubt is like an old sparring partner, the perpetual Holmes to my Moriarty.

First the ups. I can’t imagine not collaborating having tasted what it can do. Some of the most extraordinary experiences of my life have come through collaborations with those head and shoulders more talented than me – and they have opened creative doors and pushed ideas around in my head that just couldn’t have happened on my own. From spending the day working intensely with Katelan Foisy on Lilith Burning to producing Penny Goring’s The Zoom Zoom, talking typography with Marc Nash, and performing a candlelit duet with Cody James, working with my betters has raised my awareness of what is possible to places no one has a right to expect.

But there are also downs. They can never cancel the ups, but they can be immensely damaging. To say this year they nearly killed off my creativity is an understatement though, to be fair, the utter dank skull-scraping greyness I’ve felt at times has been more the cause than the effect of creative doubts, however it may have felt at the time.

There’s a quantitative and a qualitative component to it. First there’s the sheer sense of drowning. I know it’s selfish, and that compounds the sense of worthlessness in my head even more – how dare I want the time to write when there are so many people who need my time more? I know that having the time to create is a luxury, and wanting it when I could be working to promote the million projects more valuable than anything I could produce is just plain wrong. But I do want creative time. I haven’t sat down with a straight head (without guilt at not answering the 10-20 important e-mails from wonderful creative people I get a day, or the feeling I should be doing more for everyone at Year Zero, for my writers at eight cuts) to work on one of my projects for over two years now, and I want to so much. But even having those thoughts makes me want to cut them – physically, literally – from the inside of my stupid head.

But worse is knowing you are second best if that. Art isn’t a competition. I know that. But there *is* art that changes people’s lives, and I work daily with people who produce it. That’s a privilege no one has the right to expect and I am ridiculously grateful. But every day it shows me the gaps. It shows me what I know I can never produce. I tell people jokingly that I feel most of the time like Ferlinghetti, only it’s not really a joke. Ferlinghetti was a really good poet. Exceptional even. But who really thinks about his poems when they hear his name? Ferlinghetti will always be the man who published Howl. And quite right too. I know that I am in a uniquely privileged position to work with people every bit as talented as Ginsberg. And one day maybe just maybe people will hear my name and think “yeah, he was the one who published Penny Goring’s first work” or “wasn’t he the ringleader of that group Cody James used to write with.” And that’s more than I have the right to ask for.


That brings me to the last cause of self-loathing: arrogance. I didn’t start writing to be a Ferlinghetti. I wanted to be a Ginsberg. I still want to be a Ginsberg. It’s something 99.9% of writers must face on a daily basis – how to keep going in the knowledge that you will never be a game changer. Now of course I love writing most of the time – as hobbies go it’s a pretty great one. And it’s taken me to places and introduced me to people who have changed my life infinitely for the better. But still, that dark place remains. That crowded room where you find yourself alone with yourself and the inescapable truth – this is a hobby, at wildest-dream best a career. And yet for the people you work with every day it may well be so much more.

Most of the time it’s a place I can deal with, or at least ignore. But when my brain has decided to swallow a few wappy pills it’s a burning desert of a testing ground, the sun of self-worthlessness roasting me alive, and the realisation of the sheer arrogance, selfishness and stupidity even to consider it a problem provides the extra fat to baste me.

I was going to leave it there, but thankfully just writing it down has helped me to move a little beyond self-pity to trying to get some understanding. A week or so back a friend of mine, the concert pianist James Rhodes, wrote a great article about the 0.2 second rule. It's about how in many areas of endeavour, someone will spend the majority of their career trying to make the almost imperceptibly small progression that takes you from being very very good to being superlative. Is writing the same? I've already said it's not competitive - but then neither's being a concert pianist. I'd always thought that in the creative arts a great work would come right at the start of someone's career, before they had the edge edited off. But if writing is like sport, like being a pianist, maybe that's not so. Maybe greatness waits at the end of the journey not the beginning. But that raises further questions. The time and focus needed to hone your work that extra amount - how do you live with yourself being that selfish? Especially if it may come to nothing? At what stage do you accept that you will only be good at something at which you were desperate to be great? How do you cope with that realisation?

I hope you'll join in the questions at the end, maybe share your experiences of extreme self-doubt, maybe just tell me I'm a dick, but do share. And accept my thanks for allowing me to be so self-indulgent.


  1. Wow Dan this is a tricky, cats cradle to unravel to be sure. TV writing is a team collaboration in the US, more often writing pairs in the UK. Film screenplays end up de facto by committee as each draft passes through the executive producer's next choice of writer. But novel writing/poetry has always been solitary. There may be some breakout collaborations happening now, (how I would like to work with designers/typographers as you know), but broadly novel writing is still just the one person and their computer screen. I don't buy notions of shared collaborations with editors and cover designers within mainstream publishing.

    So there is a huge element of our art that is necessarily selfish. us doing it our way, for ourselves in our own time. Yet if it was self-obsessedly selfish, it wouldn't work as fiction - it couldn't communicate to a readership. So there is an element of collaboration with the reader/audience maybe. After all, they remake our work through the act of reading it.

    So our work is bourgeois individualism, but then it is the art of the artist to bust out of that. That has little to do with the collaboration of other artists, beyond shared ideas, zeitgeist ideas, paradign shift ideas etc (think Movements in Art). It is just about speaking to a universal audience and not just to oneself.

    I don't think you have any reason to beat yourself up for standing within the perfumed brilliance of some of your contemporaries and believing you smell rank. First of all that's bullshit. Secondly as you say, some of them may never have their work exposed without your tireless efforts to bring them to the world. It doesn't condemn you to a second fiddle role. But unfortunately that's likely to be a mental battle only you can wrestle with. Part of it will be down to us to help support you as you have supported us, but final word will be down to you.

    The question of settling for one's own mediocrity is one that probably affects most creative artists. It is linked with doubts about one';s work, being derivative, unexceptional, or too way out for acceptance. The way I look at it is a yen for my work to remain within the pool of human knowledge/letters beyond my lifetime. And let's face it, I'll never know if it does or not, so it's moot anyway? Surely we just write first and foremost because we have to, we are moved to. Get the work down on paper or screen, get it finished and then figure out what the hell it's for at the end of the process! Anything else is just negative energy that can take the edge of any work, downgrading it from great to mediocre. Our duty is to give it our best shot and let the work take its own chances.

    marc nash

  2. Firstly, I much prefer Ferlinghetti to Ginsberg. Ginsberg got better luck as a poet, but he wasn't necessarily a better poet. Those are the breaks. You can only puss with the dick god gave you. And Dan you've got a pretty good one (metaphor!)

    You're not selfish; selfish people don't agonise about being selfish. I've noticed that a lot of the brightest, nicest, most selfless people I know worry about their motives a lot of the time, whereas the selfish shits have not a shred of self-awareness go around all smug & happy.

    You've got talent mate; comparing it to the talent of others is like comparing apples to steak. It's not for you to say your more talented than others; but equally you can't comment on if you're less talented.

    Keep fighting the good fight mate.

  3. James, do I sniff Freudian slip :) Interesting you prefer Ferlinghetti. I love Coney Island of the Mind but I'm afraid Howl always has it for me - I wonder if the greater fame of Ginsberg has to do with the obsession in the States (see Franzen, Foster Wallace) for the epic sweep.

    Marc, I'd love to see you working with a typographer - do you know @undividual on twitter - she's an incredible designer. You should also take a look at the latest eight cuts post - Katelan and Mike Lala are doing some incredible work with writing on her body.

  4. Dan, you give and give so much, then you give some more. You’re an inspiration and provide relentless support to those who are floundering in the publishing world. You give such heartfelt, passionate encouragement to every writer you meet. The enthusiasm you show to each and every one is a gift and has the potential to sustain them as they continue exploring their creativity.
    Speaking from experience, you have given me the confidence and the faith to keep going, to keep persevering, to keep doing what I love. You have been instrumental in the last 12 months of my writing ‘career’ and I can’t thank you enough. I’m sorry to hear that things have been difficult for you recently. I hesitate to say that you’re a ‘victim of your own success’ because you’re certainly not a victim, but there does come a point when one cannot give any more, and I for one would not blame you if you took 6 months off to live in a seaside cottage to write and write and write. Oxford would miss you, but sometimes you have to listen to your own needs above all else. If you don’t sustain what’s within, there are fewer reserves left from which to give. The world would be a duller place without your input, but rather your energy takes a sabbatical than peters out completely.
    Thank you, Dan, and please look after yourself.

  5. A Coney Island of The Mind is what I think of when I hear the name 'Lawrence Ferlinghetti'.

    When I hear the name Alan Ginsberg I think of a big beard.

  6. I will add, that, on a much smaller, less generous and less successful scale, I have done a bit of facilitating recently as well as writing my own stuff. This has resulted in results that can be measured, in two books. One by me and one by the person I helped and encouraged. And I feel more proud of, more comfortable about and more able to promote and enthuse about the one by the other person.

    Sometimes that's how it goes!

  7. 'At what stage do you accept that you will only be good at something at which you were desperate to be great? How do you cope with that realisation?'

    I think that's the best question. No, the one I am most interested in. For me, that realisation is never final, it comes at moments and then goes away again, either when I have just written the most amazing sentence in the world, or when I am having a fit of delusion (often that is the same moment).

    But I think writing itself, the physical act, is not arrogant. Like playing the piano, which I used to do in an average way. If we apply ourselves to something it shows we understand that we could be better at it, and that we want to be , and that we are prepared to commit ourselves to being better.

    My aim is to not end up like Marlon Brando (though, there I go again deluding myself that I could ever even share the same planet as such a great), saying wistfully into the camera:

    'I could have been somebody. I could have been a contender'.

  8. Thank you Dan for continuing to have the courage to be open and honest about those very personal spaces. When you are sharing this it is not taken on as a burden, much more a gift.

    In the short time that I have known you it is utterly apparent the positive light in which your peers, colleagues and readers view you. Add me to that list...

    As Bertrand Russell said "The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt."

    And when I think of Ferlinghetti I think of City Lights bookstore. Oh, for Broad St to be as influential.

    Of course there is always a cup of tea and a bit of natter in the shop available for you whenever you need. There are a lot of people on your side, for all the right reasons...

    Rock on!

  9. Elly, at least I have Ginsberg's beard :) One of the surprising things I've learned after writing this is how popular Ferlinghetti's poetry is! The work you do with GPP is, I know, only the tip of the iceberg of what you do but, but I've found it an inspiration.

    Anna :) I'm not taking time out from what I do in Oxford - it's part of what keeps me sane - and appearing on a bill alongside you is always an extraordinary privilege. I may take some time out from my "non-live" activities but only till I'm well and the fog starts to clear.

    Euan thank you - I talk as much as I can about mental health without boring people or (I hope) coming across as self-pitying. It's a sign of how far things have come that people's reaction is so positive though there's always more to be done so people realise that people with mental health problems are the same as everyone else in many ways, so I'll keep on talking. I'll be in on Tuesday with a bookish present for you to say thank you for your way above and beyond support.

  10. I love Gregory Corso too:

    Last Night I Drove A Car by Gregory Corso

    Last night I drove a car

    not knowing how to drive
    not owning a car

    I drove and knocked down

    people I loved
    ...went 120 through one town.

    I stopped at Hedgeville

    and slept in the back seat

    ...excited about my new life.

  11. It will be great to see you again. And a prezzie? No need, but much appreciated...

  12. Dan - been reading this over and over to think of a response, as I relate to so much of it, but the thing that keeps coming back is the mention of your struggles with bipolarity. I know from my own experiences how these diseases of the brain can affect our view of ourselves, our work and others. Sometimes we just aren't capable of seeing the good or making progress in a direction we'd like - and watching others go forward (seemingly) without difficulty, can create emotional and psychological setbacks.

    As someone who has spent her life dealing with severe depressive illness (I don't have the 'highs' of a bipolar), I can point to almost every moment in my (adult) life where I have set out on a specific path, only to find myself held up over a lack of confidence or some other emotional barrier that really should not exist.

    Too much writing is already out there about the creative psyche and mental illness going hand in hand (Van Gogh, Woolf, etc. etc. Kay Redfield Jameson's work in particular) - and we know what so many of these more famous minds have dealt with and how badly some of it ended. We hear all the praise and the supportive commentary but none of it sinks in or stays. If that question could be answered, we might move on - or never make another thing.

    I admire your writing enormously - the first thing of yours I read, Songs, struck me as being an amazing first novel. If you never wrote another thing, you can point to something most of us never accomplish. And you've written so much since. Do you ever feel yourself trying to 'compete?' I see that in other writers and it really shouldn't be so. We're all so different - but life online make so much seem like a race. We have to 'keep up' or fall behind. Shouldn't be that way.

    I've spent the better part of ten years writing one novel, 15 different ways. Never satisfied with any of them. I sideline myself. Depression sidelines me in waves that are consistent, never-ending.

    People can be nice and say nice things, but nice isn't always useful. Compliments get you nowhere, but they do boost the ego. I'm often convinced of things that, a day later, I don't believe are true. I let an awful lot of people build me up when I was younger, but there was a breakdown and after that I couldn't do what I used to. Trying to leave that behind has been the most painful process.

    Ferlinghetti was a fine example of a human being and an artist - comparing yourself to him is no little thing, but you are not Ferlinghetti. You're Dan Holloway and you already have a strong body of work behind you.

    Don't make a Salieri of yourself - Mozart wasn't that great, not to all of us and Salieri had enormous talent. If he ever truly did compare himself to Mozart, he only did himself an injury. Mozart wrote music of a specific time that did not (to my ears) anticipate anything else. I know it's easy to say 'he wrote for ALL time' but I disagree. There is plenty of Mozart I cannot stomach.

    Comparisons, competition KILL art. They kill every strong creative impulse. They can drive, but mostly to dead-ends. I know not everyone thinks that is true, but there is something said of sports that isn't often said of writing: it isn't about winning or losing, but the taking part. I think this is what can make life better - though the process can be a nightmare.

    I hope you take more time for you and what you need to do for yourself - much as I admire all you do for others (and that is certainly no small thing at all), I hope you do as much for yourself. X

    DJ Young

    PS: sorry I had to post 'anonymously' - Blogger has NEVER been easy to post to from Wordpress or even from Gmail!

  13. Elly, that’s gorgeous – Corso is one of the most lyrical of the Beats and that’s something I love

    DJ, thank you :) I don’t feel the slightest bit of competition creatively – except with myself, to make myself better. Comparison is something I do all the time, but absolutely not competition. I’m a collaborator by nature and competition is absolutely inimical to that (I keep competition for bridge!). I do hope it doesn’t come across that I’m competitive with my writing – that wasn’t what I was wanting to get across at al – rather I wanted to show just how insidiously this disease messes with every aspect of your life :)

  14. I second so much of what people have said here and really relate to what DJ has said as well including the praise of Songs and discussion on depression. Some of us are of the easily discombobulated disposition and just rebalancing is an accomplishment.

    One point that struck me was that balance between the selfishness or singlemindedness of concentrating on your art so that you can be the best you can be, reach for that sublime level you sense is there. Well firstly this sublime quality if we achieve it is evident to the reader and not to ourselves once we've been in the muck of our linguistic wrestling and cannot see the shiny anymore. Secondly it is something I continually ask now, having achieved great academic levels and done nothing with it, now a housewife with a brain mushed by constant interuption, I sense what my novel could be but cannot hear my own thoughts. Time is moving on, if I want to create, to finish something I may have to accept that because of the circumstances of my life it will not reach the originally possible heights but that, along the way, I nurtured, guided and encouraged 4 children, surely important if not socially lauded. I could do a Doris Lessing and leave my children with their father for a period of time to pursue a writing career as she did, saying "For a long time I felt I had done a very brave thing. There is nothing more boring for an intelligent woman than to spend endless amounts of time with small children.I felt I wasn't the best person to bring them up. I would have ended up an alcoholic or a frustrated intellectual like my mother."

    I mention this example because, she was gifted, won many prizes but she made a particular choice. For some of us caring for others, helping others is also what we are. It is part of our legacy. It is positively part of who you are and what people admire you for and as you say it is important to you. In the creative life I admire those who are both talented and have integrity and generosity. We need to decide (and this can change day by day) how selfish we are in pursuing our creative needs and how much we give to others while recognizing that we choose both.

  15. Thank you Alison - I get that feeling of time laughing at me a lot these days. You're also right that I think I have to choose both not one or the other, and how those two relate will change on a day to day basis.

  16. Dan, this is such an honest post. I was at an authors' conference last week where we had a session on weathering the ups and downs of a writing career. Nearly everyone in the room spoke of creative envy and ambition. Didn't matter that some were already so far "up" the writer's career ladder you'd think they could want no more, and others had a lifetime of experience behind them. Same feelings at every level.

    Have you read Stephen King's "On Writing"? He believes that every writer can become a good writer with enough experience and/or training in the craft, but no good writer can become a genius, no matter what they do.

    I think every writer has a unique voice, something they do brilliantly that nobody else can do as well, and the very notion of "success" (defined as sales figures) celebrates only a very small percentage of these writers. Others must either try to write differently in order to sell more books, thus compromising their natural voice, or accept that they write for a niche market and remain true to themselves. I always think the happiest writers are those who have managed to stay true to their muse, even if the world doesn't see them as particularly successful.

  17. Thank you, Katherine. Yes, I certainly have read Stephen King - essential reading :) That's a subject I have a post lined up about, in relation to editing. I firmly believe that 99.9% of writers will produce better work from being edited, but for 0.1% their work would be ruined by an editor. It ties in with (and I see there was a post on The Guardian yesterday that went completely viral) a great writer's "best" books being produced later in their career, whilst their "great" works are produced right at the start.

  18. I spend a lot of time telling my 15 year old that she can do whatever she wants - so long as she is prepared to work for it. That there is no limit to who she can be and what she can achieve.

    And then there's the feeling I had round about when I turned 40, when the small voice in my head started telling me there were things I would now never do or be or achieve. It's silly really - I have no desire to change career, but it's hard to finally admit that I can't, that I'm too old to start again. Likewise I'll never be a pop-star or a dancer or any of the stupid dreams we have as children. I don't want to be any of those things, but I don't want to give up the choice either.

    Maybe that's why I still write. In my head I can still be an astronaut or whatever. And I can be as great as I want!