I have made many mistakes in my life. We all do. We would not be human if we did not. But the biggest mistake we ever make is not to learn from the ones we have made.
Today, I was talking to an agent who represented me twice in my career and who very generously gave me time to talk over my various projects but, more significantly, my despair at a publishing marketplace that just doesn’t seem to want what I write.
I know it’s not because I have no ability; I have. Lots (*modest face*, as Twitter would say). But in a precarious and ever-changing world, how do you get out there? Do you try to second-guess what people, publishers and audience alike, want? Do you just do what you want to do and hope that the penny drops with someone, somewhere? Do you just write about what you know?
I have published a lot of journalism, but little fiction, which, along with poetry, is how I began my writing career. I had two stories published by Faber in 1984 in Introduction 9, which showcased new, unpublished writers. Six years later, Hutchinson published my first novel, Definitions of a Horse. It was critically acclaimed, even by John Carey in The Sunday Times, but sold few copies.
The heady world of showbiz, London and, for the first time in my life, being paid for writing, incarcerated me in journalism and, as a result, TV presenting. In the intervening time, I continued to write what I called my “real work”, mainly updating my autobiography and trying to re-market it in different forms in the hope of making a sale.
The eagle never landed. It is still trying to fly but losing height as the years go by.
I suddenly realised, during my conversation this morning, that it was pretty much the same conversation we had had several times before. Yet here I was, not in my 30s or 40s anymore but, at the age of 54, still banging on about the same subject matter, the same obsessions, the same failures, the same foibles – and still not getting it published.
Einstein said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. It’s what I’ve been doing in my writing. I know I can write, but escaping my internal landscape and putting thoughts, words and deeds into the mouths and actions of characters is a skill I have to re-learn.
My first novel featured a 50 year old, embittered married man having a nervous breakdown. I was a 30 year-old, content single woman; the only thing my character and I had in common was that we both worked in a school. Yet people praised me for my ability to “get inside” the head of a middle-aged man. I hadn’t done any such thing. I took the emotions that I felt – that we all feel - and put them inside another body and personality, fine-tuning them to that character’s different circumstances. But it was still, essentially, me. A human being.
When I landed my first job on the London Evening Standard in 1988, the brilliant editor John Leese quickly knocked out of me my tendency to say “I” in my job as TV reviewer, even though I was expressing my own opinions. “There’s always a better way to say it,” he said.
There are, of course, many great first person narratives, both fiction and non-fiction, out there, but after this morning’s call – and feeling embarrassed that despite physical changes of circumstance, I still sounded as barking mad as ever – I know I need to start enjoying the third person again – at the very least, for my own sanity.
Not listening to that agent was one of the greatest mistakes I ever made; the other was not accepting an offer on my second novel.
I remember sitting in the restaurant and balking in horror at the advance when the publishers described the picture they could see on the dust-jacket – a bare leg with a glittering frog garter on it.
I should explain that the book was called Kissing Princes and used the Diana/Charles romance as a metaphor for how even, in the seemingly best love stories, princes turn into frogs.
Had I taken the cheque and carried on with damned thing, it would, given the events that followed with the Royal divorce and Diana’s death, probably have made me a fortune. But I wanted to be Tolstoy. At the very least, I wanted to starve in a garret to prove my authenticity.
And I lacked confidence. I was from South Wales, living in London in a bedsit. These publishers must have been wrong. Why would anyone want me?
The last time I left the agent’s office, many years ago, he told me that the publisher “really thought you were going to be the next big thing.”
I walked up the road, sobbing, knowing that I had made a huge mistake. And I felt such a failure. I still do.
The world of celebrity and trivia is big business; heck, bad writing is big business, as is bad television. We are, as I am wont to say, living in the golden age of mediocrity.
There’s a place for that, too – clearly – but I realised today that it’s not where I want to be at this point in my life.
I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my time on the wild side with stars in my eyes under candy-floss lights. But the time to write about it has gone and I missed the boat. I didn’t listen to the people who knew what they were talking about. Shoulda, coulda . . . But didn’t.
Hey, ho. But now, as the TV psychiatrist Frasier says: “I’m listening”. And the first thing I’m going to do is to stop listening to the sound of my own voice banging on about myself. It’s time to change the record: put away the vinyl and enter the emotional digital age.
Much as people enjoy the personal stuff, it just ain’t selling. And I need to eat.
That’s not to say that everything I experience won’t still make it to the page at some point, but it will be in a different form; the reality (albeit a cliché) is that you can tell the truth a darn sight better in fiction that you can in non-fiction.
So, I’m going to take a break from myself and take a walk on the dark side again. It’s where I began and, probably, where I belong.