I had to smile at J T Ellison's recent post about 'owning your creative past'. For me, this has been the hardest thing in the world to do. It's my guilty secret.
After three decades and several published books, four more in the pipeline and the last volume of the Berkeley Trilogy still to be written, my reticence is very little repaired. This doesn't sit well with the modern imperative to self-promote, blow your own horn at every excuse and ride every bandwagon that's remotely connected to your subject.
I daresay it all started in childhood. My creative past was all too painfully entwined with actual circumstances. I grew up in a household full of tension and mental torsion, where minute signs of independence were conflated into scenes of crisis. Every move had to be negotiated with the wariness of treading on eggshells. Friendships were minutely inspected and undermined in subtle, fretting ways. No one outside the four walls was to be trusted. (This is not the place to go into the whys and wherefores, but to try and outline the effects.)
In that era, happiness meant simply absence of pain. A breather. But always there was a feeling of being under the menacing sky of a world I'd been taught was evil. Mother had a hotline to God and knew better than the Church, the Crown and Parliament how things should be ordered. It sounds funny now, but I don't look upon childhood with fond nostalgia. It felt as though I'd come down the wrong tunnel at birth, into a family whose values were alien and whose truths were travesty, though I couldn't have described it as such at five. The best days were influenced by the atmosphere of an imaginative domain that existed in a limbo between their domestic reality and mine. I was well aware of the precious difference between the two and never confused them. In a strange way, my parents co-operated in their own ignorance, as if afraid of the unknown. Therein, for them, security and 'sanity' lay.
What's remarkable, and even paradoxical, is that throughout those years, I held to a deep-rooted conviction, sprung from nowhere, that the answer was 'out there' in a place where dreams and aspirations could be shared and one could be truly oneself without apology or fear.
A real epiphany came in the second year at Grammar School. I was confined to bed for three or four months with rheumatic fever. Daily, there were lessons to catch up on, notes to be copied, so that there'd be no lagging behind when exams came. But there was also a lot of time for pleasure reading. Among an amazing array of gifts, was a wadge of paperback historical romances. (Only the classics were normally allowed at home and ballet books had to be smuggled under the bedclothes!) I enjoyed those stories so much, it set me wanting to try my hand at writing, just for fun. English and history were two favourite subjects and the scenes of my imagination begged a universe of their own. This was where I wanted to be, in an atmosphere far removed from the one I inhabited. A place where no one could trample. As long as I had a brain, I need never be stranded.
My English teacher enthused over the results which didn't amount to a whole book, of course. But there followed stories and one or two poems. I still have today a letter from actor, Alan Badel, for a poem sent to a BBC Radio book programme which he read. What I learnt was that writing is a muscle that has to be regularly exercised if the piece is to be supple. I also learnt that fiction could capture the genius of truth more neatly than fact.
It all met with disdain at home. Anything that suggested an 'otherness', the glimmer of a foreign vista, was seen as a threat and ignored or suppressed. Strangely, this gave a powerful charge to the muse and created a lifeline. This, and the kind families who were a lasting support.
Some years later, I began to write for real. The guilt of not writing still runs deep and my ways and routines in every other sphere become chaotic if space isn't made. When I don't write, it's as if a light goes out on the world. So I stuck at mining the gold from the dark seams of experience. When, eventually, publication was achieved, there was a sense of validation, but it also felt like a kind of treason.
I have to confess that I didn't enjoy what publication entailed, the mass invasion of the psyche - even if sales didn't soar. I used a pseudonym so that very few people who knew me caught the exposure or identified me as the author of the book. Those who did, some of whom I felt should be let in on the secret, were delighted but sensed they should not infringe too far. In those days, there were no videos, no screen interviews, just newspapers, and radio which was a godsend. (Although, radio is incredibly demanding, since it relies entirely on voice for colour, interest and presentation.) As for my parents, their stony indifference was deafening. I had trespassed into unsanctioned territory.
By the time the second novel was published, I'd gained more confidence. But gone are the days when an author can write a book and retire behind the bulwark of a publishing imprint to contemplate the next. I haven't yet cast off the reserve among friends and acquaintances. In fact, only a handful know that I write at all, and even fewer that I write novels. In our culture of tell-all celebrity, you'd think this was impossible, but in fact it's incredibly easy. Multiple media ensures a constant welter of distraction and it's ironic that in many ways we're still confined to little boxes, consumed by our own agendas.
So how do I approach the dreaded self-promotion? Well, to begin with, Redroom has helped me to flourish and given me courage. This wonderful, tolerant, respectful and engaging community of ours is like no other on the planet, or, indeed, in the ether. Old titles are now enjoying a renaissance with POD. The other thing is, I approach the promotion of my products as if I were a third party. (It does come in handy to have had some experience as a Press Officer and a little in advertising.) So I've now become my own client! This kind of objectivity is crucial for editing manuscripts on every level, so why not carry it forward to the selling phase?
Yes, there are still hurdles to surmount, but I'm on my way. After decades, the two worlds have merged and writing is no longer a fantasy refuge. Instead, reality is enriched beyond measure.
Landscape with Rainbow - Peter Paul Rubens
Causes Rosy Cole Supports
World Vision, International Prison Outreach, Salvation Army, Emmaus Project, Poor Clares, DogsTrust, BUAV (against animal testing) WWT (Wildfowl &...