Those Saturday evenings when I find myself anaesthetised by the X-Factor hopefuls struggling to reach the top notes and the Strictly couples panting and blinking their way through the judging, other scenes spontaneously swim up from the murk of my childhood memory.
Images of black-clad policeman nonchalantly throwing books onto open fires and Julie Christie staring hypnotically at a ceiling-to-floor television screen, superimpose the sparkle of sequins and tears. The recall is prompted by a discomfiting awareness that as millions of us vote for a chosen few to reach their creative potential each week, our real cultural landscape is being torched to the ground – just as Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 predicted. Beleaguered council officials are gambling on the toss up between their A&E or their local theatre. Education Ministers are busy concocting ways to cull any form of creativity and librarians are pondering the impossible - where to dump millions of books before their places of work close for good.
Mr Bradbury, Fahrenheit may have been a great attempt at predicting our future but you didn’t nearly go far enough.
To say that the value of art and culture is tricky to quantify in today’s austere financial climate is to severely understate the case. While studying Arts Administration at undergrad, we practiced ways of articulating its worth. Applying for funding or simply explaining to confused parents what Arts Administration was and why we would want to study it required a ready argument.
In the post-Thatcher nineties, when value was weighed strictly on a monetary scale, it seemed wiser to stress the currency that culture brings into the treasury rather than the sustenance it adds to the soul. Terms like the Cultural Economy and the Creative Industries were launched - as was a new type of popularity contest.
Now opening-weekend box-office figures benchmark a film’s merit. Book-sales league-tables guide reader’s choices and most people in the Western world can quote how much Fifty Shades has earned E L James.
Financial success has become the starting point to discuss creative success. It would be interesting to see if this shift has led to most creative writing course applicants citing their desire to become millionaires on their application forms. Somehow, I doubt it.
Despite the many rags-to-riches headlines, writing still does not constitute the go-to career for quick and reliable affluence. For the Rowlings and the Jameses, wealth seems to be a surprise by-product of their efforts. Writing is still too insecure, too dependent on subjectivities, too competitive, and prone to too many social, psychological, cultural and economic variables to draw up a guaranteed formula for success.
When some discovered that my book’s heroes are a group of vulnerable teenagers, there were serious suggestions I should throw in a few vampires to ensure marketability. One agent was hooked by my manuscript but said it read a little old-fashioned because the trend was to have a surprise twist at the end. Isolating the winning formula has become a growing preoccupation for readers, writers and the book industry at large. It is our El Dorado.
But we are only human after all, annoyingly cognisant of our own mortality. Like many I coach, I too fret over ways to magic up a formula. Because the frustrating truth of writing is, no matter how fast we turn the page, we cannot read the end to our own story. We have no idea if the three years of hard work shaping and polishing a novel is going to pay off. We cannot guarantee an agent will want to represent us, a publisher will take us on, that the critics will like us, or, if we self-publish, that the reading audience will come. In a time where career choices are increasingly risk assessed, it is impossible to confidently step out on the road to becoming a successful writer. There is no calculation. There is no guaranteed outcome. While most of us would publicly disavow any personal similarity to George Gissing’s highly populist but unscrupulous writer-protagonist Jasper Milvaine, we are secretly haunted by his friend, the talented, tortured and desperately impoverished Edwin Reardon.
So despite all these crazy uncertainties, why do any of us continue to write?
The concept of the Dialogical Self suggests that, in our minds, we are continually holding forums where externalised opinions are debated. Before we put pen to paper we wage war with ourselves about the worthiness of our activity. The scolding voice of David Cameron will inform us that writing our “little stories“ will not bring this country back to its feet. Family members chip in that a starving artist never fed a child. Friends sulk. If you’re not earning who’s going to accompany them to the annual blow out in Magaluf? All in all, it can get Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close in one’s head.
I confessed to my coach that such fears were directly impacting my confidence to share my work. In my head, I conjured scenes of family mealtimes up and down the country and the slamming down of knives and forks. Who does she think she is? She thinks she can make it as a writer? In this economic climate? Like anyone will pay to read what she has to say?
First my coach helped me explore to whom these imagined voices belonged. Isolating their sources helped me to have real and balanced conversations with the people that I needed to, while making me aware of the debilitating impact of own skewed and, slightly, narcissistic imagination. Martin Seligman the founder of the Positive Psychology movement wrote in his book Authentic Happiness:
The key to disputing with your own pessimistic thoughts is to first recognise them and then treat them as if they were uttered by an external person, a rival whose mission in life was to make you miserable.
It is indeed true that most of us do not need anyone else to make us miserable. We can do that quite happily all by ourselves.
Then my coach asked me an interesting question - to describe the process of writing. I was forced to pause, relax in order to listen and remember. The tone of the conversation shifted. I became less anxious, more thoughtful. Putting into words the feeling of writing was very different to talking about the response that others might have to my work. I began to haltingly describe the particular sense of concentration that descends on me when I write. It’s like a downward gear-shift, a slowing down of everything. Then comes a new way of exploring. I experience emotions in slow motion. Pain becomes a burst of shock, then a nothingness, a sad realisation, a long ache. Exhilaration is a skull lifting sensation, an orgasmic rush of cold air pushing out laughter in short bursts. It’s all new. There is a constant sense of discovery. “I end up in this white space,” I say, “naked, whole somehow.”
The practice of mindfulness is to slow down everyday acts, to renew the wonders of being alive, to experience the world the way a child does. Mindfulness can rewire the brain says neuro-scientist Jon Kabat-Zinn, fire new neural pathways that can help heal depression, enable us to come alive to our interconnectedness with our environment and make us more aware of life lived in the present. Given our fast-paced, forward planning, outcome driven existence, mindfulness is a revolutionary practice and writing is my mindful act.
By the time I finished the description, the voices in my head had dimmed. The truth remained as clear as a winter’s dawn. For me, writing has absolutely nothing to do with rising and falling stock values and everything to do with balance and understanding and clarity and a soulful peace. There. Soul. I said it.
Whether my words have any value to others, writing has great value to me. It is how I make sense of the world and myself and it is pivotal to the way in which I communicate.
I echo Zadie Smith’s words:
The very reason I write is so that I might not sleepwalk through my entire life.
I am no longer surprised when coaching clients come to me hoping to find a release from personal frustrations, only to discover a new clarity descends when they begin writing, painting or singing again. It is a simple fact that writing and other forms of creative expression can liberate us. It can liberate those who do it and those who read the messages. Theologian and inspirer of the Civil Rights Movement Wallace Thurman once said:
Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.
If coming alive is not of the greatest value to the world then what is?
Thirty years ago, Ray Bradbury helped a little girl on a council estate to come alive. There was something about the deadness of Julie Christie’s eyes and the aliveness of the burning books that watered a tiny seed. I’ll leave Faber, from Fahrenheit 451, to provide a final image:
It doesn't matter what you do...so long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it into something that's like you after you take your hands away.