where the writers are
On Being Batman

It had to be Batman, always, when I was little. I didn't know why. I didn't have a cape or a costume but I tied my coat round my shoulders and ran round the playground chasing this boy I liked, I was five. Yes, I said, we'd play Batman, I'd be Robin, no problem, so that's what we did. He didn't know that as I was running and pushing girls out of the way of imaginary Riddler's and Jokers I was thinking 'I'm Batman too.' We were both Batman, I couldn't have it any other way.

I was older when I started to realise what the appeal of Batman was above all other heroes. Superman? Spiderman? Whatever, I enjoyed them enough, but they weren't mine somehow. Batman was different. Why?He is more man than bat. He wasn't born a hero with superpowers. He didn't stumble upon a bite by a spider that had unexpectedly great results. What lead Batman to his path was loss, a need for redemption. He has had rotten luck. He does what he does though it's not obvious for him. No flying, no spider skills, there's nothing but Batman and his sheer motivation- the tool belt is an extra, developed to assist, but what came first was loss, a determination to put something right. Was he extra strong? Did he win the lottery of comic book attributes? No- becoming Batman wasn't easy. He's the most human hero there is.

There's something in this I relate to. I came from a working class area. No one in my family ever went to university. We were all about being practical. Wanting to write was a stupid idea, then I left home. I tried not to write for some time, then the effort of not writing was too great.When I was a young writer it was pretty easy. Having accepted I would write, finally, that I just had to and just letting myself do it I felt less like Batman than Superman. I could believe I had talent, I could believe that's all that mattered. I still had time on my side. I had the arrogance of youth and was fuelled on the rush from writing, hope it would lead to something and naivety about the harsh reality of the industry. Then, it got harder. My career looked like it was building. I got placed in a couple of poetry competitions, won a couple, got the publisher I wanted, then BAM! It didn't. Things changed, fast. Just as I thought I was finally coming up, I came to earth with a crash. The industry changed. I had no home for my book. I felt like an idiot for plugging a book I realised would never see the light of day. And literary friends who had been so lovely to me when I was on the up scuttled away.

I'd like to say I put on my cape straight away, but I didn't. I went to bed. I stayed there two days. 'I quit,' I said. 'I'm done.' It was private sort of grief; it was the loss of hope, a dream, and faith in my work. I couldn't explain it to anyone.On Sunday it was sunny, I wrote a tiny story for a little competition on The Pygmy Giant, on the day of the deadline I wrote it and sent it in. I'm not sure why, I felt like hell. It won. So I tried to keep writing, just a bit, with no goal, no hope, no tools in my belt. There were days when I was so depressed I couldn't write a thing, and days when I could. Just as I was starting to have more good days than bad, a fanzine with a badly written review turned up and had me dangling over that high building again, wishing I had wings. I went back to bed. I got up and tried to work. Then it happened, the cliffhanger, the blow you don't think Batman will get up from- someone left a horrible comment about my work online. It was brutal and came at just the wrong time. It was on a site read by most of the UK's poetry publishers and poetry buying public (it turned out the guy hadn't actually read my book, but trashed me anyway- later, he appologised, when he read my work he couldn't praise it enough, but the damage was already done.) I wept for a day. I went back to bed for a week. If I'm honest, I didn't think I'd ever get up. I was punchdrunk, I felt like a boxer who got hit each time he tried to stand up. On the Monday I said, 'There's 5 days left on that competition I had on my to do list- this is the last thing I'm doing on that list. I'll work on a poem a bit for four days, then I can go back to bed.' So I worked, not because I thought I had any superpowers in this area, not strong and unwounded, but on my knees. I sent the poem to The Arvon International Poetry Competition. It was a big one, with over 7000 entries and Carol Ann Duffy judging. I didn't have a chance. I was commended, I came in the top five.

This was in late 2010. I've done my best to keep working since, though logic has told me many times to quit. Why don't I? I'm Batman. Something happened that made me have something to prove- not just to that person who trashed me online, my family and friends, but to myself. I wanted to see if I could indeed write. I had to somehow. So, I've been trying. In the fall of 201o I decided to let myself write short stories more. I wrote them on my MA and wrote the odd one now and then, but I never submitted them in any serious way. What if I try it? I thought. I had a pile of self doubt dumped on me that didn't make it easy to work. I couldn't realistically work on a book with no story reputation, so I took it one story at a time. Just work a little, I thought, send a few things out. Try, one last time. Three months later I won Inkspill Magazine's Short Story Competition. In 2011 I had stories published by Metazen, Pank, Burner, was a finalist in the Mslexia Poetry Competition, had two stories in the local newspaper, and came second The Short Story Competition 2011, amongst other work in magazines and anthologies here and there.

And this year I've tried to maintain a Batman mentality. I won the National Flash Fiction Day competition, was commended in the cafe writers poetry competition, had flash fiction in 100 RPM ebook and several others. I've been a runner up in three other flash fiction competitions, have a longer short story coming out in a print anthology in November (Unthank) and was shortlisted for the The Bristol Short Story Prize. It's not exactly a superpower, I'm not Spiderman or one of those guys, flying from building to building, up there in plain sight with a book coming out and agent in a Robin costume at my side, but it's not bad, not bad at all. I work in the dark, quietly, fuelled by doubt and scared sometimes, but in the space of two years I've managed to acheive goals I didn't dare admit I had - get placed in a short story competition, prove to myself my poetry's not bad, get some stories published, hope people enjoy them, get in a print short story anthology (I'll be in two this year, for longer stories for the first time, The Bristol Short Story Prize anthology and Unthology.) And this is where my stint as Batman should end, isn't it? I've proved something to myself by now, surely? Yes and no.

The thing with Batman is he's never done, those ghosts of the death of his parents come back and he's back in the mask. He may sort out one wrong, but the memory of another keeps coming back. Writing is like that- along comes an acceptance, then along comes a rejection, and there's that little doubt again- what if I'm no good? What if my mother was right and I'm wasting my time? What if I never..? What if they say...? We remember spelling tests we failed, teachers who were mean to us, all those things that make us doubt if we are doing the right thing. There's nothing like writing for self validation, and there's nothing like it for giving your confidence a kicking from time to time (unless you're someone who gets everything they submit accepted, who wins every prize, never lost a publisher, or a dream - in which case, congratulations! You're one of the Superman writers, hurry along now, there are magazines waiting for you to save cats from their literary trees right now.) Me? I'm a Batman of a writer. Mostly, I've gone it alone. I wasn't born with the skills.I fall and bruise and I get back up, not knowing if I have a shot, if it's crazy. My cape's tattered and I ache in places I didn't used to, but I put on that mask and sit at my desk because somedays it hurts more not to.  Being Batman isn't easy, but he's the superhero I love most because of that. He's just not that super. I don't know if he'll win every fight he has, but he keeps trying against all odds. And that's me. That's what being a writer is.