* Did you dream of being a famous and successful writer, when you were little?
* By the time you reached the age you are now, how famous and successful did you imagine yourself being?
* And when you really think about that last question, does it provoke an emotional or physical reaction? Tension in your body, a sick feeling, a tightness in your throat, tears?
Early talent – and the praise and encouragement that comes with it – can be a double-edged sword. At eight or nine years old, even as a teenager, it is easy for a gifted story writer to imagine they might be a genius on the brink of being discovered. As teachers or parents heap praise on those early achievements, it is natural to fantasize how it will be, in the future, when they will be (it is surely inevitable) a respected and prize-winning author, a household name, amply supported by their royalties.
Then eighteen arrives. A Born Writer steps across the threshold of adulthood and suddenly finds themself in a pool of aspiring writers of all ages, many with experience, wisdom, university educations, years of reading and writing practice behind them, all vying for places in publishers’ intrays and competition shortlists. It is no longer enough to be ‘good for your age’. With determination, with effort, with artery-bursting oceans of self-belief, one or two Born Writers will actually break through in their twenties. Others find life gets in the way. The practicalities of earning money, for example. Relationships with people who don’t understand the need to lock oneself in a room for hours every day and empty the contents of one’s head onto page after page. And sometimes, the advent of children. “There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hallway,” said Cyril Connolly, and though many women have wished him wrong, few have proved him so. Then there’s the early knock-backs as you discover you’re not the fresh-minted genius your English teacher convinced you to imagine. The depressing thud, week after week, of self-addressed manilla envelope on doormat as your undoubted masterpiece fails to entice yet another pair of editorial eyes.
You wake up one morning, aged 28, or 35, or 42, and You Are Not A Writer. The worst thing of all is, your dreams are the reason. Where once they were huge and wonderful, with the passing of time they have became a huge and unscalable edifice, or a cast-iron yoke on your shoulders. The dreams that used to inspire you now haunt you, for the longer you’ve failed to attain them, the more weight they’ve gained, until now they hang on you so heavily you can’t move under them at all.
I remember my own crisis of faith a few years ago – a couple of poetry books published, a few hundred copies sold, scraping by through a combination of teaching creative writing and public art projects, but clearly not the new Virginia Woolf. And I remember the moment when I gave up on that; when instead of thinking “I’ve failed. I haven’t made it” I said to myself ”Do you know? That’s alright. I’m not doing too badly. I’ve books with my name on the spine, some people say they like them, and I haven’t had to do a non-writing-relating job since the year 2000. I’m making (some kind of) a living as a writer. Actually I’m pleased with that. That’s enough for me.”
And it’s like when you’re looking for love, desperately lonely, desperately looking for some special person to walk into your world and turn it upside down, and they don’t come, and they don’t come, and after a couple of years you’re completely hung up on how everyone nice is taken, everyone great bloke is married or gay, and everyone else is either after a quick shag or is a borderline psycho. And eventually, when you’re utterly exhausted by trying so hard and failing so miserably, you say out loud “I GIVE UP!” and you do something symbolic like putting your angst-ridden diaries on a bonfire, taking up the cello and buying a cat. And within a fortnight, blow me, if someone who has been on the periphery of your life for ages but you’d never really noticed doesn’t start dropping in for coffee, and a few weeks later a drawn-out goodbye becomes an “Oh, HELLO!” and within six months, you’re standing in a waterfall in Costa Rica getting married. True story.
Well, it’s like that with writing too. As soon as I let go of the burden of ”the failed dream”, and got on with just doing what I love, and loving it, everything I had dreamed about started showing up in my life. Big book deal with great publisher? No problem. Endorsement from respected writers? How many would you like? Publicity department pulling out all the stops to do the promotion? You got it.
So if your childhood dreams have become a burden, dismantle them. Take them apart and drop them. Say out loud “I am X years old and I am not a famous and successful writer but that’s okay, I’m happy with where I am right now”. (And dismantle all the stuff that brings up, until you can say it and it’s TRUE!) It’s not that you shouldn’t have dreams; it’s essential to dream. But it’s only working in your favour when those dreams are light and cloud-like – when thinking about them makes you float, makes you joyful. When old dreams are crushing the life (and writing) out of you, you’re better off without them. Get back to foundations again, clear the ground. Imagine your childhood dreams as some ghastly 1960s concrete edifice that looked okay on the drawing board, but hasn’t worked out very well in practice and needs not just re-facing, but demolishing. Get back to your foundations; clear the ground.
Only then will you be able to start writing again with passion and enjoyment. And it’s passion and enjoyment that will build you a fresh new dream, gently, brick by brick.