The life of the freelance writer has its moments. Having a book published or seeing your name on screen is always nice – though the self-doubt (I could have done better. Has the director screwed it up? What will people think of it? I wish we’d gone with a different cover) is never far behind. Supping cheap BBC wine or going to exciting book launches is a highlight, partly because they so rarely happen. And I’ve walked down the red carpet at the BAFTA TV awards (I’ve never felt such a luvvy), but I paid for the tickets myself, and let me tell you, it was that or a holiday.
Then there’s the agony of actually writing (when it flows it’s the best feeling in the world; when it doesn’t, it isn’t). Or staring at a blank screen all day, feeling worse than useless (I’m a writer, I’ve done this before. How hard can it be?!). Or the displacement activities and the hours that pass without interacting with another (non-fictional) human being.
Am I doing a good job of implying that the life of the freelance writer is anything but glamorous…?
And finally – let’s not beat about the bush – there’s the money. Or the lack of (regular) money, unless you are a genius and work hard and get all the breaks. (I’m not a genius, but I work hard and have had a few good breaks – but that’s not enough.) As I hinted in my blog earlier in the year, when I launched my script and prose reading services, I’ve not exactly been rolling around in commissions recently. Which is OK, it happens. If writers were footballers, we couldn’t all play in the Premier League – at least, not at the same time. Someone has to play for Accrington Stanley.
Mind you, when you listen to some writers, it all seems so easy. Actually, not easy – that’s not fair – but when interviewed they can sound relentlessly upbeat. A TV scriptwriter, for example, will basically say that s/he wrote for this soap, then wrote for someone else’s series, then created their own, then did another, and it won awards, and then they wrote a movie, and the next thing you know they’re sitting in a Jacuzzi of champagne and oysters. (No names, no pack drill… Oh, OK, you’ve twisted my arm. I’m thinking perhaps of the wonderful Paul Abbott, who I heard (and drank with) many years ago. But then he is a genius, and he works bloody hard, so of course he got the breaks, and wrote amazing things that I can scarcely dream of. I don’t want to sound like Red Dwarf’s Rimmer, always bemoaning other people’s opportunities and ‘luck’.)
Of course, one shouldn’t be surprised if scriptwriters and novelists – the successful ones, at least – talk in these terms (or, rather, unwittingly allow their audiences to think like that). Even in the UK, where we have a complex and antagonistic relationship with success, we still think in a way that could be described as being a facsimile of the American Dream. We’re brought up on a diet of Hollywood movies, and if there’s one thing Hollywood loves (because, naturally, the people making these films have got to the top, and have succeeded), it’s a happy ending, and a Be Yourself or Don’t Give Up message. No one wants to watch a movie about someone struggling against the odds, who contemplates turning away from their vocation, but then decides to keep plugging away – and promptly fails. (Actually, I would, but you can guarantee such a movie could not be made in (mainstream) Hollywood.)
And, of course, we writers are brought up on the hero’s journey (even if we’ve never read Campbell, we’ve seen Star Wars) – on that moment when everything is at its darkest (roughly three quarters of the way through a film), and then suddenly the light floods in.
As a writer, I’ve already had what I thought were my darkest moments – times when money was so tight I ended up spending a few days delivering Thomson directories in Wincanton, before vowing “Never again!” (And, do you know what? Things did pick up at some point after that.)
But only the other day, just when I thought I was content with my status as a Third Division writer, I found myself working in a potato packing plant.
Having endured a tricky couple of years in TV land, I’d signed to a temp agency in the hope of getting some casual office work. Instead I was offered a one-day shift at the spud factory. (No criticism intended of the agency. They can’t magic me the perfect job from out of their bottoms.)
And no criticism is indeed of the spud factory, either. They pay, I think, the Tory Living Wage, and it wasn’t exactly Dickensian in there (mind you, there was almost no natural light, and the work was both relentless and back-breaking, though you were at least provided with ear plugs to drown out some of the constant machine noise). But when offered the job I didn’t really think I could say “I’m an artist! Do these hands looks like the hands of a horny-handed son of toil to you?”, and flounce off to check my newly-acquired Morrisseyesque quiff.
As it turned out, and without wishing to be melodramatic, my day in the spud factory was just about the worst day of my life.
Actually, that’s not quite fair. I think “worst working day of my entire life” would be more scrupulously accurate – or, more seriously, the worst day that did not involve death, life-threatening illness, or a trip to the courthouse. (Long story, and not for this blog.)
Over the spring and summer I’d been teetering on the edge of what might have been clinical depression (it was never formally diagnosed, but my missus is a GP, and she lives with me, so I’ll take her at her word). That mental fragility certainly didn’t help. Neither did the fact that, on my breaks (15 minutes in the morning, 30 minutes for lunch, 15 minutes in the afternoon), I found myself thinking “OK, this is it. I’m no longer even a Third Division writer. I’m someone who works in a potato factory who happens to also be a failed writer.”
That makes me sound terribly grand and ooo, get her. To be fair, I’ve got nothing but respect for the people who do this sort of thing (though I observe in passing that I was the only British person in my group. Post-Brexit, you can say what you like about Eastern Europeans (the fascist tabloid press certainly do), but, by goodness, they work hard). And – because the work is so relentless – when you’re in the midst of it you can only really think in terms of open up the bag, shuffle forward to receive spuds, drag it and turn it so that it can be stitched shut, throw it onto the pallet with the label upwards, return for another bag. Repeat, and repeat, and repeat, until you reach an almost Zen-like state where you’re not even sure you exist any longer.
But I worked eleven and a half hours that day. I’ve never felt more tired at the end of my shift (in my defence, though I’m not unfit – three hours of kickboxing and kendo most weeks – I had recently suffered an apparently unprovoked deep vein thrombosis, which meant I hadn’t done anything remotely strenuous for a while). I felt 48, going on 148. My ears rang. Everything ached. My brain was empty, bar the thought, Was that more like purgatory, or hell?
Oh, and I never want to see another potato as long as I live.
As I say, bless the people who work there, but no, it wasn’t for me.
So, was this me, as a writer, at my lowest ebb? (Was that day – for those of you who know Blake Snyder’s approach to movie structure – the All is Lost moment, followed closely by the Dark Night of the Soul, where the hero hits rock-bottom and wallows in hopelessness…?)
Well, possibly. (I must stress again, I know it’s a First World problem; I know that plenty of people in the world would think safety from bombing and famine worth an infinite number of days in the spud factory. But if never wanting to return to that place, after one day, makes me a bad person, then, yes, I’m a bad person.)
And can we now expect a turnaround? Will my story – the narrative I retrospectively impose on my own life, and writing life – be ever-upwards?
We’ll see. In truth, I wanted to write this blog – only my third in six years! – the day after my stint in the potato packing factory, as a corrective to any woolly notions regarding the glamorous life of the writer, or that any artist’s career is always and resolutely going in one direction. (The fact that I’m doing this via a blog hints at one of the problems with having a ‘professional’ website. I can’t exactly talk about how hard things are, or getting turfed off various TV shows, there, on the front page. It’s got to be good news. It’s got to be positive.)
But I didn’t get around to it, and a few days later, I started to get busy. And blow me down if I’m not now busier than I’ve been in years. Half of the projects and sniffs of interest I can’t even begin to announce, but, as you’ll see from my web page (www.martinday.co.uk), I am now the Wessex regional rep for the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain, and as of next week, I will be an Associate Lecturer in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University. However, a lot of these opportunities and hints of work stretch back to the early summer, and often beyond even that – and an expression of interest butters very few parsnips. It’s certainly not impossible to imagine a future where the writing income dries up again (not that the Writers’ Guild position, though lovely and an honour, is paid), and I find myself contemplating the real world of work – even work in a potato processing factory.
So, what am I saying? Possibly that good things come to those who wait, as the Guinness ads used to indicate – but that no one ever tells you how long you might have to wait for something, as Micawber said, to turn up. That sometimes being a mere Third Division Writer ain’t so bad. And that the writing life – hell, life in general – is damn hard sometimes, and it doesn’t always fit into tidy Hollywood narrative arcs.
And yes, dear reader, of course I was back on the spuds – within 24 hours, as my waistline will testify.