One of the most frustrating things about being a creative is that for a long time nobody takes you seriously. And really, why should they? If, like me, you start producing content in your early teens, then there’s no proof it’s anything other than a phase. There were a lot of people I grew up with who wrote stories as well, who eventually gave up. And of course, being a teenager, chances are the stuff you do produce isn’t all that good.
I knew pretty much from the moment I finished my appalling first novel at thirteen that this was what I was going to do in one form or another for the rest of my life. Sure, for a long time I thought I’d be an actor, but when I imagined my future as a kid it was always in writing. That was where I felt at home, that was what made me feel good. So I knew I was a writer and I knew I would never stop from an early age. But nobody else knew that and so there tended to be a bit of a patronising air from people who I told I wanted to be a writer growing up.
So what can you do when nobody really believes in you? You sure as hell can’t take it personally; any success in this industry is so rare and remains a distant fantasy until it happens. Basically, and this is such a horrible wanky cliché that I can’t believe I’m going to say it, you have to believe in yourself. Wholeheartedly, unreservedly, and beyond the realms of reality. You have to know that this is what you are going to do with your life, because nobody else is going to reassure you.
I just want to clarify something about the idea of ‘believing in yourself’. It sounds inspirational, right? Like something from a hallmark card or the theme of a bad children’s movie. Let me make something abundantly clear; believing in yourself is barely commendable. It basically requires you to be pathologically arrogant, knowing without questioning that this is what you’re going to do and refusing to listen to reason when people tell you to have a backup plan. It means, when some tool tears your work to shreds while you’re young and calls you talentless, you have to be conceited enough to know that they’re wrong, even though it hurts. Basically it means that with absolutely no actual evidence to back up your assertion, you have to think that you’re brilliant. It means watching your friends begin to find success in more realistic career paths, starting to make more money than you and looking for all the world like they’ve got their shit together while you’re still floundering, and you have to be okay with that. Because unless you’re a total prodigy or incredibly lucky, overnight success in a creative industry doesn’t really exist.
You also have to get used to those rejection letters. Because there will be hundreds of them. I’ve lost count of how many ‘thanks but no thanks’ emails I have from publishers, theatres, producers and competitions. And every time it hurts. Every single time. You don’t even get used to it; the older you get without really advancing, the more failure stings, because it no longer feels like something you have to go through to get better, but like a massive fuck you from a world trying to tell you you’re barking up the wrong tree.
But here’s the kicker; even if you feel like you’re not advancing, you are. Every word you write, every amateur play you take part in, every gig you play to an audience of two is making you better, making you understand your art more, teaching you how to get whatever it is you’re creating to the best possible standard. Every single time you indulge your art form, whatever it is, you’re getting closer to where you want to be.
In the grand scheme of things, I’m not especially successful. Writing has started to make me some money, so I guess I’m technically a professional writer, but I still have a day job that I need to maintain to pay the rent. But money was never that important to me. What I really wanted, what I craved for years, was validation. It was for something to happen that would prove to me definitively that I was on the right path, that I am good at what I do. And for every enthusiastic congratulation after a play, there will be a condescending judge at a theatre festival telling you that ‘writing plays is hard’ as if you need reassurance, or a savage review that calls your work thus far ‘amateurism run rampant’. Both have happened to me, and both hurt like you wouldn’t believe, sticking with me far more than any praise ever could.
But then, when something big does happen, when you win that first award or sign the first publishing contract, both of which happened to me within the space of a month ten years after I first started writing passionately, it changes everything. It makes every second of misery and self-doubt feel worth it. And it takes your career from prospective to something feasible. It’s the hand pulling you out of the water seconds before you drown.
I’m starting to see around me good things happening for other creatives I know. One immensely talented musician was invited to America to play at a tribute concert for Jeff Buckley, his idol, and is now living and making music over there full time. Another guy just got approached by a record label that’s really interested in his sound. Other writers I know are finding agents and work in television and some actors have been cast as major parts in feature films, fulfilling lifelong dreams. Each time something like that happens it’s amazing to see because it proves definitively that persistence does pay off. It has to. If you do what you do for years, you can’t not get better. And sooner or later someone has to notice.
Writing words about writing words.