The Incomplete Works
"There are many qualities one must possess to be a working writer or artist. Talent, brains, tenacity. Wealthy parents are good. You should definitely try to have those. But first among equals, when it comes to necessary ingredients, is selfishness. A book is made out of small selfishnesses." ~ Claire Dederer
A biography, a kids' book and a thriller — all of them written while working full time as a journalist, at jobs that were unforgiving, demanding and time-consuming. I am, clearly, a masochist.
If you think that the hard part is finding the time to write outside of working hours, you're wrong. There's always time to write. It's just that this is time upon which others stake claims and we — particularly women — usually don't privilege ourselves over others. Certainly not to do something that isn't guaranteed to earn money or praise. "So you write on the side," someone said to me recently, reducing my writing to a quarter plate. It wasn't meant to offend or belittle, but I couldn't help it. Up went my hackles. Because the quarter plate is for an extra serving of bacon or spinach or onion rings. It's for what isn't essential, but is either an indulgence or an afterthought. No, sir, I do not write 'on the side'. I write. Just as I'm not a journalist 'on the side'. It's the reason I can afford to order quarter (and full) plates.
These are the moments when I want to be back in the era of gowns and fans — just so that I can flick my fan to denote savage dismissal and flounce out of the room. Then I think of the corsets etc and give thanks to be born in these corset-less and plumbing-enriched times.
But I digress.
It used to irk me that women artists are asked how they managed to "juggle" home and work. "No one asks the male director how difficult it was for him to balance his family and his film," one woman director I know once grumbled. The more I think about it, though, I'm glad women are asked this question because hopefully, it will give them an opportunity to point out how domesticity is still assumed to be the woman's business. It's considered normal for men to have passion projects and we applaud them for being selfish and making time for their interests. As they should, and as women should too, without guilt or apology. I hope more women will come out and say that they didn't "balance" anything, that some things suffer and other things sort themselves out. What they did do was prioritise themselves and the work they want to do. They scavenged time that really isn't there to do the work that is important to them (possibly with the help of allies and a support system). Is it inconsiderate to give yourself priority over others? Possibly. Will it upset friends and family? Yup. Will they survive this shock to the chauvinistic system? You betcha. Is it worth it? Hell yes.
This anxiety about being good enough is something I find fascinating. It's as though we earn the privilege of being creative only if we're excellent at it. If what you've created is a dud, then how can you argue that you are (with apologies to L'Oreal) worth it? Return to your humdrum existence and cease thinking of yourself as creative. Don't be reasonable and keep in mind that some people are more talented than others, and that doesn't mean the less talented should become wallpaper. It means we, the audience, get variety. While we're at it, who decides what makes a creative work worthwhile? Do we judge it by the money it earns, the number of likes it gets, the crowds an artist can draw, the enjoyment it brings? What's the yardstick and when it's so shifty, why does it even matter?
Personally, I begin on the premise that my writing is most definitely not worth it, but it's how I make sense of the world around me and it's fun. Good reasons to write in an age of nonsense, right? Any moment now, I expect the arrival of what Amanda Palmer christened the Fraud Police. ("We've been watching you, and we have evidence that you have NO IDEA WHAT YOU'RE DOING. You stand accused of the crime of completely winging it ... you do not actually deserve your job, we are taking everything away and we are TELLING EVERYBODY.”) This will then be followed by a tug of war in which Fraud Police say, "In conclusion, we're taking away your Macbook" and I hang on to it like a hulking limpet because dammit these gadgets are expensive.
Annoying as they may be, I'm full of gratitude for all the writers who continue to write despite producing rubbish. Good on them for being convinced that this is their calling even though it's obvious to the rest of us that they're wrong. More of us — especially women — should take a leaf out of their book and just write. (Replace "write" with your chosen creative pursuit.) Ignore the haters, be selfish, and worry about the work being good enough after you've finished it. It's entirely unhelpful to be swamped with doubts before. Enter the self-criticism swamp afterwards, preferably holding the hand of a good editor.
I write fiction because that gossamer space where words turn unreal into real, it feels like home. Despite knowing this was where I belonged ever since I was a child, it's only taken me about 34 years to find my way in. When I did, I was more fragile and lost than I've been in decades. Thinking back to the months I spent on Hush A Bye Baby, I realise I was piecing my self-esteem back together, sentence by sentence. At the time, the only thing that registered was how much fun it was to struggle and succeed at telling a story. Writing reminded me that I'm not the sum of my failures. That whatever else may happen or be taken away from me, in this little cave where I imagine stories, I'm good. I've got stories in my head and I'm selfish enough to tell them.