Still Living LIfe Backwards

Recently, a friend presented me with an old copy of a book called Identities, an anthology of West of Scotland poetry, prose and drama, edited by Geddes Thomson and published by Heinemann in 1981. She had been flicking through it and my name had jumped out at her, three times to be precise. There were two longish prose extracts and a poem. The book is in front of me now and when I read the extracts, the prose in particular, I'm reasonably impressed with my own style, not least because the extracts were from contributions to another book and I wrote them when I was in my early twenties.
As so often now, I read things that I wrote way back when and remember the person I was way back then, so full of hopes and ambitions and interests - and wonder what happened to me?
Well I'm still full of hopes and ambitions and interests . But more and more these days I get the impression that I was a better and far more honest writer then, when all my thoughts were focussed on the writing itself and not on the business of trying to make a living out of it.
I think I fell into a trap of trying to please too many people, and not pleasing myself enough. In fact 'please yourself' has become something of a mantra for me. Not, 'please yourself' in the selfish sense, ie satisfying yourself at the expense of others - but making sure that whatever you do in a creative sense pleases you first and foremost and that you don't waste too much time trying to conform to the demands of a dozen other people who have all kinds of ideas as to what you should be writing about and how you should be writing it.
And if it was a problem for me, how much worse now when the internet has spawned a thousand websites where the blind can lead the blind in the shape of a million opinionated amateurs presuming to give advice to their fellow writers? Me too, but at least I'm speaking from a certain baseline of experience. And I'm a member of a wonderful online group (you know who you are!) which contains many writers of all kinds who are generous with time and support, but equally cautious about giving direct advice, knowing that it can be tricky, only offering it where it is requested. Experience makes you wise, makes you very reluctant indeed to offer hard and fast advice. Rather, you tend to go along with William Goldman's dictum that 'Nobody knows anything'. You find yourself asking questions, trying to tease out of people the way they really want to go but never never telling them what they ought to do.
Meanwhile, reading things I wrote years ago fills me with a retrospective sadness because I seem to have come all round the houses and found myself back where I started. Only seeing it through more experienced eyes of course. And maybe that's the trick. Maybe it's what we all have to do: trying to find a way of avoiding cynicism, of fusing the getting of wisdom with the freshness we once had, when everything was exciting and full of potential, of pleasing ourselves as much as we possibly can.


Anonymous said…
What an interesting post. As a 'new' writer it's even harder to know what to do with advice - 'professional' or otherwise I have gone back at the moment to writing first and foremost for my own pleasure and satisfaction, without trying to second-guess what an editor/agent/critic might require. When I get to the end,I'll take some opinions on board, but I think I'll also be more inclined to 'stick to my guns'. Of course, I'm not making a living from writing (and at this rate never will!)
We do walk a bit of a tightrope. New plays for instance always require input from other people - collaboration is the name of the game and at its best it can be wonderful. (Conversely it can be a hideous experience, but let's not go there!) The very best critics / editors I've had over the years have been able to put into words my own doubts about a piece of work. You always have them but don't want to admit to them. Some people can unerringly hone in on them while knowing how to stand back just enough to give you the space to sort it out for yourself. It's a gift and not many people have it. I've a few friends I trust absolutely to give me the right advice, but they are like gold dust!