Encouragement from an Unexpected Source

Sometimes I annoy some people when I start going on about how I don’t always feel like a writer. People get a bit protective of me. 

“Of course, you’re a writer,” they say.

A good pal on Twitter once kindly said, “Jees, Ken, if you’re not a writer then who the hell is?” 

Nice. Appreciated. Thanks.

And when I look over my page of things I have had produced, in some form or another, I can count up at least eight different radio plays, ten different theatre plays (some with multiple productions), short stories, a short film and getting on to half a million words on this-here blog. I've been very fortunate, more fortunate than many, and had great times with my writing over the years.

But still I don’t always feel like a writer. 

Don’t be annoyed. It’s not you, it’s me. The image I set for myself, when I was young, of who or what I would be as a writer is not anything like the reality I see today. I didn’t think I’d still be the professional guy clocking his full week’s work and then scrambling together the remaining measly hours to get some writing done. I kind of thought there’d be a nice book lined study with a view of a garden and a pipe or two… but only for cover photographs.

I mean, okay, I’m a writer, fine. I just thought I might be more of a writer.

For a while, I thought this occasional perception of myself as a non-writer was all about the money. The fact that I can’t earn a living from my writing. But it’s not that really. I think it’s more about being asked to write. Nobody really ever comes and asks me to write. What I do, I do myself and then I see if anyone is interested in it and, thankfully, quite often, somebody will be. But I don’t get commissioned, hired… asked. I think that’s the root of my definition. I also think this will change from time to time, as it always does.

But let’s not dwell on that for today. Today, I actually feel like a writer, so be happy for me. I got a piece of encouragement, you see, from an unexpected source, and those things are always welcome and good, aren’t they?

It happened like this. 

My son, Sam, needed some pages of his homework photocopied. Let’s not delve too deeply into the technical reasons for this lest we be here all day. It was something to do with two copy books and stuff in one needing to go in the other and… like I said, let’s not go there.

So, there I was, in my office on a Sunday, doing a bit of copybook photocopying. And I have a thing when I’m photocopying, I tend to read whatever it is I’m running through the machine. I don’t have a photographic memory or any ‘Mission Impossible’ stuff like that but I can pick up the gist of a type written page fairly quickly and I tend to treat the photocopying as a sort of challenge to see how much information I can soak up while it’s ploughing through the machine. Recently, a friend asked me to photocopy a script for the musical ‘Oklahoma!’ and I ran a five minute gamut of all the songs and dialogue as the pages sped by. It was fun.

So, yes, here I was copying Sam’s homework and I was, almost by habit, reading the stuff he had written as I copied it. There was History homework and Religious Instruction homework. The Religious Instruction one is much cooler than it might initially sound because it gives the guys a basic grounding in the tenets of all the major religions and that’s a pretty good thing in my book.

So there I was, learning at high speed about various religious practices and marveling at my son’s way of slipping self-amusing gags into his straight-faced work, when something else caught my eye.

It was encouragement.

There was a question to be answered. “What characteristics do you think you get from your parents?” Sam had lots of good characteristic listed from his Mum, quite right too. For me, he said something like this, “I’m good at English and writing because my Dad is a writer.”

That’s it, that’s all.

But it meant something to me. 

I don’t push my writing thing on my sons. Mostly I am the guy who does that other job all day, every day. But there on the page, without guile, was the simple observation that I was a writer.

I have taken encouragement from that. Today, I am more of a writer than I was last week or the week before. I’m planning my little scribbling and submission campaigns with a bit more energy and confidence.

I reckon, if Sam thinks I’m a writer, then the least I can do is try to be one. 


Jim Murdoch said...

My wife goes around volunteering that sort of information. We’ll be at the doctor’s and somehow she manages to work into the conversation, “…and, yes, we’re writers…” and for some reason when she does I want to crawl into a hole in the ground because it sounds so pretentious. On today’s blog I’ve posted poem #420 which was published about thirty-seven years ago and for which I was paid £1.50. It was the first poem I’d ever had accepted—and by a university no less—and they paid me for my work. It was nothing less than justification. In … your … face … world! Ah, if only I’d realised then how long it would be before I’d be paid again other than with a contributor’s copy or (rarely) two. My father certainly never introduced me to anyone as his son, the writer. And the same goes throughout my life. If people learned I wrote they quite often (if only to be polite and because they thought it was the thing to do) asked if they could read some of my stuff which I would then produce (and too much) and they’d thank me and never mention my writing ever again not even to comment on the stuff I’d spent hours typing out—no printers back then—and gathering into a little booklet for their delight and delectation. (We say that, don’t we? But I don’t think I’ve ever been delectated in my life. Not actually sure what that involves.) Thinking of oneself as a writer is one thing and, like you, something I struggle with despite the fact that all the people I interact with these days only know me as a writer. What I really wanted was to be thought of as a writer before anything else, before everything else: Jim the writer who happens to have a wife, who happens to have a kid, who happens to have a job, to happens to be good at running, who happens to have been born in Scotland, who happens to be musical…

My daughter did a similar thing to your boy when she was over at Christmas. She asked, “How long is it since you retired, Dad?” I haven’t held down a paid job in something like eight years and have absolutely no intention of doing so again. I claim no benefits and whenever I have to complete a survey—we like doing surveys—I tick the ‘housewife/househusband’ box because my wife’s so damn independent I really don’t feel much like a carer either. But my daughter clearly thinks of me as retired. Which I am for all intents and purposes.

I like to see photos of writers’ rooms. Some feel staged but the ones I really like are the least pretentious places you could imagine, a desk and a chair facing a blank wall. I like, too, to see their messy working copies because that really puts it all in perspective. I don’t really know how this imaginary fellow, the “real writer”, works but he is an ideal. He doesn’t exist. I’ve never seen anyone write. I know my wife’s written when we shared an office but she never announced, “This is me writing now,” and so I never had the chance to stand over her shoulder and if I had done she’d’ve stopped. Because we don’t like being watched. Imagine if a plumber arrived or a carpet fitter and said, “Er, do you mind going and sitting in some other room? I don’t like to be watched while I’m working.” So I have to imagine how other writers write. And I imagine they all find it easier than me. Even though they say they don’t I don’t believe them. Because I’m not a real writer and they all are.

Ken Armstrong said...

Funny, I was watching the plumber do something a my house on Friday evening. You're right, he didn't seem to mind my watching and I actually saw how he did it so I can do it myself the next time...

Perhaps that's why we don't like to be watched. :)

Elisabeth said...

To have your writing commissioned might seem like a confirmation of your status as a writer, Ken, but think about how awful it would be to have to write to someone else's agenda.

Still, I'm sure many a blogger would share your doubts. It's good to read that your son doesn't have any doubts whatsoever, about you as a writer that is. Our children can be our greatest source of confirmation. Better even than our parents.

Ken Armstrong said...

Hi Elizabeth, thanks for the comment. You're right, of course, I have spent considerable time writing to other people's agendas... (stops to reflect) ...considerable.

My feeling is that I would gladly try a bit of that if it freed me up to do more of my own thing but it's all pie in the sky anyway. I'll keep on keeping on and doing pretty okay. :)

Kids are better than parents for stuff, I'll go along with that too.

Ian Wieczorek said...

As far as I can gauge, with few exceptions, for creative types self-belief is a commodity that isn't always on the shelves. Like that grand old Duke of York, when it's up, it’s up, and when it's down it's down. (Pause for Viagra ad...) I think there's maybe an element of (false?) modesty about the whole thing – in the way that bigging yourself up in an interviews situation isn’t something that most people feel that comfortable about - and perhaps also a sense that being creative isn’t something to be taken lightly – a fragile privilege, like trying to maintain an orchid in an unforgiving climate. Rather like a stray dog, a metaphorical pat on the head, however perfunctory, results in a rapturous response – that warm glow of achievement – while a kick can leave us cowering, however we attempt to rationalise. The fact that honest art-making of any kind requires discipline, self-evaluation and self-review on an ongoing basis leaves us vulnerable to this zigzag graphline. Without it we wouldn’t be aiming so high, rather we’d be immersing ourselves in a smug but dishonest endeavour...

Ken Armstrong said...

Well put, Ian. Well put. Thanks.