Sunday, 20 May 2012

Turning Points

EDITED TO ADD - it only just dawned on me the catalyst for this thought process was this incredible, moving, insightful post from Sophie at Little Fish, an Oxford band whose integrity and ethos have been inspirational for years. Thank you to her for making me think. Do go and read what she has to say - it's important, and she's so much more eloquent than me.

I started 2012 in a strange and rather unhappy place, and I’ve been there for most of the year since. I was in such a deep rut with my writing that I swore off doing any promotion of any kind for the year and declared 2012 a year when I’d play around creatively and see what happened . That still didn’t work.  

Yes, I was producing some new material for the first time in several months, but the same gnawing doubts and insecurities were there, and they were being exacerbated by increasingly poor general mental health that meant I was becoming more insular, avoiding social situations, getting tetchy and distant.

It feels as though I finally turned a corner a little over a week ago. It came from a convergence of several very dark places that forced me to look right in the face at what was really eating at me, and what I really wanted. Undoubtedly the bulk of what I needed to come to terms with was that I was displacing an awful lot of feelings around my mum’s health struggles. Being able to get that straight with someone as wise and supportive as my wife instantly cleared my head, letting me feel the emotions that needed feeling in the directions they needed pointing at and clearing out a whole lot of other areas that weren’t really their place.

That still left a lot of creative issues to come to terms with, though, and doing so has been hard, because it has involved reopening a lot of very old wounds and resentments. It’s also been hard because some of the things that have been eating away at my enjoyment of all things creative are things I don’t like about myself – most of which come under the heading of stretching myself too thin. Specifically, saying yes to too many things that, whilst important, and whilst for people I love and respect, aren’t things that have anything to do with what I’m best at or what I really want to achieve. I love promoting people, and putting on shows to promote amazing writing, for example, but for a long time too many shows have been less focussed than they should have been because I’ve not selected what was best for the show – the end result of which is that no one gets the full benefit they should have done. Like wise I receive requests to read work on a very regular basis and it’s something I try desperately to do but for well over a year it’s come almost completely at the expense of any time to do my own writing. The problem I have is that even thinking these things makes me feel like a revolting human being – I have struggled for much of my life to understand how people who do their own thing when there are other people they could be doing things for are able to look in the mirror. The very idea of focusing on my own work leaves me with a whiff of self-disgust.

This isn’t intended as a piece of self-absorptive indulgence, but I hope the process by which I’ve turned the corner, the places I’ve had to go and things I’ve had to think through, will strike chords with others who’ve reached a similar sticking point in their creativity. So without going into too much detail, the deep dissatisfaction I’ve been shielding myself from goes back to my breakdown in 2000, which put paid to the academic career I’d wanted pretty much all my life and, if I’m honest, still do. All my writing-related feelings of anxiety and deep unworthiness go back to that.

But they also go beyond, back to schooldays as, as my wonderful friend Michele Brenton puts it, the fat kid with the sweeties. That was me, trying to figure any strategy not to get seven strips peeled off me. And then at university I learned that constantly doing more and more was at least a way of maintaining some kind of social contact with people I knew would never speak to me otherwise. Which made me all kinds of conflicted, because the desire to do what I could was real, and yet any help I gave I ended up resenting, because of the feeling that friendship, acceptance shouldn’t depend on usefulness.

Spooling forward, this is exactly the kind of conflict at the heart of my writing life – a desperate desire to help in any way I can, paired with fat kid with sweets syndrome, the knowledge that the moment I start saying no to requests any kind of meaningful involvement in the writerly community will end. Which means I end up resenting many things I do do.

What I’ve failed to see is what I have a feeling is a shortcome many of us share, and one I’ve written about before but singularly failed to take proper notice of. None of this is a zero sum game. I can’t do my best for what I believe in most – which is to enthuse as many people as possible with a passion for the most amazing work that’s out there, and to fire people up with a passion to let their voices be heard – without reining back and focusing. I can’t do everything. Neither can I do the things I do focus on to the best of my ability if I’m not balanced and centered, and working with the attention it deserves on my own stuff. And if that means doors that have been open to me are closed, I have to accept that, and let my work stand on its own, and make it the very best I can, and do that alongside giving my all to those things I have the knowledge and energy to give my all to, and just hope people understand.

So here’s what that means

First, I am only going to work on writing I believe in. I’ve already taken The Company of Fellows off Amazon. I’m proud of it but it’s a long way from my best work, and it’s not something I can see in my creative future. It’s been hanging around me like a bit of a millstone and I’m relieved it’s not there any more, however much harder that makes it to get taken notice of.

Second, I’m going to be a lot more focused about the shows I organise. I spread myself way too thin last year. I want to take the New Libertines format and make it something really successful, putting on shows across the country 5 or 6 times a year, and focusing on those shows publicity-wise, building to a stage where we end up on festival programmes. I would dearly love to do more shows that other people put on, and dearly dearly love to build up to some slots as a poet on the bill, but that will rely on taking the leap of faith to trust my performances to stand for themselves and the work to bring them up to scratch

Third, I am sure I made the right decision to stop publishing other people’s work. It took too much out of me emotionally, almost sent me to a breakdown on more than one occasion. My finances have also changed since I started – I just can’t put the resource into promotion I need to, and there is so much guilt and conflict I just can’t do it. What I will continue to do, and do more of, is promote people through the eight cuts website and in any way I can online.

Fourth, I’m going to throw myself into my own writing, both the writing and the performing of it. And I’m going to promote it, gently and courteously, but promote it nonetheless because I’m determined only to put out there things I’m really proud of, starting with the new poetry collection, Last Man Out of Eden, of which I’m incredibly proud.

Fifth, I will continue to campaign for greater recognition of self-published writers at festivals and in the media, and will work with groups like the Alliance of Independent Authors to further those campaigns – and I will use any platform I have or can develop to make sure that when self-publishing is talked about, it’s not just sales or the so-called successes but the content of books, and the wonderful experimental delights that self-publishing is made for. I’ll devote more energy than ever to the eight cuts mission statement of “overgrounding the underground”. I’ll promote the profile of poetry, and performance poetry within that, and try to bring amazing things to new readers.

Sixth and finally, I want to work on the blog on my main website to make it a more helpful, informative place, focusing on each of the five points above.

So there we have it – self-reflective and self-indulgent, but a series of important realisations about the balance of a life that combines writing, advising, and cultural campaigning that I hope will not only explain but encourage.

And finally finally and most of all, a huge thanks to all my wonderful friends and their patience through my grumpy recent past :)


  1. If it is any use, I have been going through a similar, but not the same, sort of struggle.
    Not out of the woods but currently in a pleasant sort of clearing, eating my packed lunch.

  2. Hey Dan - not self indulgent at all. Speaking as 'just' a reader all you could ever owe me is to write the best books you can. And I do mean *best*, not most commercial or whatever. Write another book as good as 'Songs...' and you can do what the hell you want as far as I'm concerned.

    And speaking as a self-published writer, you've already done as much to "campaign for greater recognition of self-published writers" than almost anyone I've come across - damn straight.

  3. Viv, my very very best. I may well be in such a clearing rather than out of the woods - I don't think we can ever say we're really out of the woods, but we can enjoy those moments in the clearings whilst we have them - that's something Ann and I have both started to try to grasp with illnesses that are cyclic - it will probably come back, so enjoy the times when it's away

    James, thank you - books like yours and Viv's are why we need to keep reminding the world of the riches of self-publishing

  4. What a brave post. Dan, I don't feel I know you well enough to comment on the struggles you've had recently or in the past - however, it sounds like you've come to a turning point of sorts and I'm pleased you have. Balance is the key, I think. True friends (writers or otherwise) will recognise that.

  5. Thank you, Clair :) Yes, balance is such a simple-sounding word but we seem to have anever-ending capacity for not achieving it or forgetting about it entirely.

  6. Once again you lead the way for us others, Dan. Only a brave man can do what you just described there - my hat's off.

  7. This is a brave post, Dan - but you must know how many people care about you and wish you well. We know you can be ill at times, but we're still here while you retreat for a little wound-licking. And we respect the decisions you make - this is obviously the most sensible way for you to go, protecting your health as far as you can, and doing what you love most.

    Indie writers can, and do, stick together. You've been hugely supportive of so many for so long - sometime maybe you can tell us what you need us to do for you?

  8. Thank you both :)
    I do hope I haven’t made it sound as if I’ve said I’m going to be turning my back on everyone else and doing my own thing, which I’m absolutely not. It’s much more the realisation that you can only effectively support people and projects by doing so in a focused way, concentrating on the things you know most about and directing what energy you have to that. If you take on too many things, as I’ve learned the hard way, none of them gets proper attention. Especially in the three areas of organising shows, which have been too frequent to get the maximum publicity and sometimes too diverse in content in a negative rather than a positive way to really appeal to anyone in particular, thus letting all performers down; publishing; and reading through people’s manuscripts, which I have always tried to do whenever asked but most of the time I’m not able to help with constructively. It still sounds as though I’m being a selfish bugger but the point is to do the most for literature in the most effective way possible, which means I’ll have to say no sometimes when people ask me to run shows, or to support projects because I can only give my full attention to so many shows and so many projects, and it serves no one well to try and go beyond that. I’m strictly talking about writing – I hope that’s clear, and absolutely not friendships – I hope friends will still accept my friendship – that goes back to those deep-seated insecurities and years when someone was your friend only because you did xyz for them as well as (or instead of) providing emotional support, an ear for troubles and a shoulder of comfort. Even talking it through brings on huge guilt but it’s such an important issue to raise in a world where we’re all of us stretched by the exigencies of social media to do more and more for more and more people beyond the limits of what we’re capable of, and if we’re not careful, it can break us

    1. The last thing you are is a selfish bugger, Dan. And you're very clear - keep a boundary around the writing requests, but friends are in a different category. And look around - you have some great friends!

  9. Empathy Dan. And some self reflection as a consequence... so many of the points are so familiar. And so I'll give you the comment (not advice) I so frequently give myself (and so frequently forget) WRITE. WRITE. WRITE.
    You know what. I've read enough of your work to know that you SHOULD write as a priority activity. And not stretch yourself too thinly. I have finally got to the point in my life (this year) after 20 years of earning a living out of writing (lest the word professional sends other readers over the edge!) that it IS my priority and there's nothing wrong with that. I've done my bit for the rest of the world in various guises and I'll still do WHAT I CAN... but I have to balance that - and YOU have to balance that too. You have a full time job for a start (yuk. An evil necessity) and so the rest of your time is PRECIOUS. You are an inspiration in so many ways (and believe me, I'm not a touchy feely 'he's an inspirationy' sort of person) but you really are. That casts a long shadow so you DON'T have to be inspiring and helping others all the time. You can just be YOU and that's good enough for most of us. You have turned that corner now KEEP F**KING RUNNING in the direction of what you WANT in life and what FULFILS you. That will be enough for the rest of us, because we want to read what you write about that. You've even got me reading poetry again (goddam you) which is quite a feat believe me! 'Nuff said. The rest is silence. Dan WRITE. keep WRITING and don't ever apologise for not doing something to help other people because you are WRITING. That is the best way you can help any of us. WRITE.

  10. I'm delighted that it's provided the touchstone for some self-reflection for you, Cally :) and thank you - I should make it clear again tough that I'm not saying my own writing is my top priority - making people fall in love with words has to be the number one priority (I perhaps shouldn't have listed things with numbers - they weren't meant to be a hierarchy), and we have to do that how we best can - and for me that means narrowing what I do and putting more effort into fewer things as well as taking my own work seriously - tomorrow I'll post about the concrete things I want to do to bring people the art they deserve.

  11. Dan, it's wonderful to hear that you're on the path of that elusive thing: balance. You have such a giving nature, but allowing oneself to become (like Bilbo Baggins) "thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread" does no good to anyone. You just end up with a constant feeling of weariness and dissatisfaction, and a sense of failure even when succeeding. Better to spread the butter thickly over fewer slices.

    Sending a virtual hug across the world! And very best wishes for this year's projects, whatever they turn out to be.

  12. Thank you so much, Shayne :) Hugs sent back around the globe :)

  13. What a wonderful, honest post. I empathize, this week is the first time I've put words to paper in any meaningful way in over a year. I had, indeed, forgotten why I started writing in the first place. Most crucially I had forgotten the most important truth - be gentle and true to yourself, because if you aren't no one else will be. That's the hardest part for the one who has always struggled for acceptance, like myself, not losing who I am in the attempt to gain it.

  14. I'm so glad you're writng again, sessha. "Be gentle and true" - that's wonderful advice, and as you say it's so hard when doing that means that you find very little acceptance or what you do - it's so much easier to bend so as to fit in - but in the end we are accepted for something we are not, and that's more damaging to us. If we stay true, in the way you do magnificently, then from those who do accept us we will have something truly rewarding

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  16. Dan, I agree with many of those who've commented above. This a brave and honest post and is yet another example of your skills as a written word communicator. Remember just because you have the wherewithal to do something, it doesn't mean you have to do it. If you do what's right for you then the chances are it will be right for those around you - because that's a healthy way to operate - and like you say, without your health you're no use to anyone.It seems you're on the way to finding a balance that's healthy for you. Be kind to yourself and that will replenish the well of kindness within you. Your stated aims are admirable - so seize the day - and don't fret too much about past and future and remember the graveyards are full of folk who thought they were indispensible.Something I've learned the hard way. More power to you, Dan.