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.