...this is what I feel when I read reviews from people who have purchased the book...
I just thought I'd share a thought which occurred to me this morning, after I read a wonderful piece of writing on the subject of friendship and loss. The best writing (for me, at least) makes me stop and think - whether it's to better imagine the story, or to - as in this case - take a look at myself from a new perspective.
The piece in question prompts the reader to talk; to ask, and to try to know one another, before we have no chance to do so. This resonates so very deeply with me, because it is from this very same feeling that I began to write Signs of (a) Life to my children. If you've followed the blog and the website, you'll already know that I began to write about my life following the death of my father; a man I loved but hardly knew. The piece I read this morning centres not around family but friends, and it made me stop and think about my own behaviour.
I have sent free copies of the book to a number of friends - at no little expense when international parcel rates are brought into the equation - because it felt right to do so. Now, I'm wondering why. Am I - as I suspect - reaching out with my writing to people who already know me, and saying that in a way, they have never truly known me - at least, not the entire me? Am I having difficult conversations with old friends, without actually being in the room? If so, they are decidedly one-sided, and the more I think about it, the more I believe that I would love to receive the books of their lives in return...
To my friends, then, I would use Peter Gabriel's hauntingly stark lyrics:
Come on; come talk to me....
This evening I came across a Facebook post from a well-known writing page, which asked the question (I'm only slightly paraphrasing): "When can you start to call yourself a writer?"
My first instinct was to snort, say "Pah!" and scroll down to something else - although I wasn't thinking clearly enough (having woken up after a night shift) to realize why. When I did finally wake up to what bothered me about the post, I considered the following (in chronological order):
Of course, I did none of these things, partly because I have yet to fully develop the bohemian habits of the classically angst-ridden author, but mostly because I don't have a velvet jacket, a pipe of any kind, a local moody European bar, or the slightest idea about whether or not I like Absinthe. Most importantly of all, I do not - and neither for the last few years have I - possess enough hair to even lightly tousle, let alone to be artistic with.
I am, therefore, left with only one option: to brood. Believe me, I can brood - and when the occasion demands it, I can brood magnificently. I quickly decided, however, that this was not such a circumstance, and so I have settled for a normal intensity of brooding, accompanied merely by a light furrowing of my brow.
Here's my issue with the question: it presupposes that some kind of permission is required before a person may be allowed to use the word 'writer' to describe themselves. I wonder who might be the person or group who feels entitled and/or empowered to give out such permission?
Perhaps I have a naive view of writing, but before I ever began to try to put my thoughts together in meaningful and readable ways, I never really gave much mental effort to the idea of who could 'legitimately' call themselves a writer. I think that I always assumed that people who write - whether they're successful or not - are writers. Are people who have written marvelous pieces of work but have yet not found a publisher, not to be considered writers? That doesn't make a great deal of sense to me.
The question is, in essence, rather an unpleasant one, I think. It carries with it an implication of hierarchy, of a recognized standardization around which the term is woven. That's simply nonsense. The spectrum of work is vast, from appalling at one end to transformational at the other. I might, for example, know that a person (and yes I have a very successful writer in mind) has sold a great many books for many years, but consider their work to be absolutely dreadful. That does not preclude them from being called a writer - and neither does the fact that they have made a great deal of money mean that they can be called a writer, either. This person is a writer because he writes (oops I mentioned gender - that's given the game away!).
In response to this question, a number of people stated their belief that a writer is someone who earns money from their writing - and nothing less. I believe that this is a very narrow way of defining the term. I agree wholeheartedly with the lady who stuck her head over the online parapet to say this: "A person is a writer when they write."
If this is not the case, does the woman who walks into an office with an amazing manuscript not deserve to be regarded as a writer until she has secured a monetary deal for her work? Of course not. She was a writer from the moment she sat down and began to work. Who can say otherwise?
I do wonder if some people are a little scared. The internet chatter can be a royal pain in the gluteus maximi, but it is also a forum for incredible talent, and we are surrounded daily by more and more of it. Every day I read things which take my breath away with their beauty, their insight or their passion. Each day I read things online and wish that I had a similar gift. It makes perfect sense that with so many more people having access to the rest of the world and being able to have a voice, that we shall see some incredible and otherwise undiscovered (i.e. previously unpaid) talent coming forward. I think that far from being something to be afraid of, far from taking the view that anyone who hasn't yet earned a crust from their writing is not 'a writer', the literary community has a duty to embrace and encourage such offerings and such talented people.
Writers are people who write, for reward or otherwise.
Let's not make up self-protective and exclusionary rules and labels. It's all subjective after all: if a man with what seems to be very little talent can make millions and millions from stories which I find unreadable, then it must be so. In his own way, he is enriching the world, and he too, is a writer. Everyone who has the courage to put their thoughts on record deserves the same honour.
My name is Liam. I'm a writer - because I write.
Forty eight hours ago, I absent-mindedly opened my email account for the tenth time that day. There's nothing particularly unusual in that, except that I had - in one of my regular fits of moodiness - allowed a 'junk' email to sit in the 'junk' inbox for the entire afternoon. Why? Well I thought that was the best place to let it sit....oh I see what you mean...I'd allowed the item of junk to remain there and fester for a little while so that when I eventually investigated that junk inbox and discovered the anticipated message from a very kind Nigerian person with an unpronounceable name who wanted to give me millions of dollars (...pause to take a breath...), I would gain the maximum amount of pleasure from hitting the 'delete' button.
This is already a pleasurable activity for me, ever since I had the 'delete' key on my keyboard artificially enlarged and strengthened, so that in moments of crisis I could strike it manfully with my fist/head/hammer - depending upon the degree of frustration involved. I commend it to you: it's a wonderful stratagem for dealing with the stress of typographical errors as well as idiots (the ones on the outside of my head). Take my advice though: invest in a very solid desk at the same time.
On the day in question, I clicked on the email page and waited the customary minute for it to do that thing which it is designed to do inside a second. My email program shows me my emails in much the same way as I show my enthusiasm for getting out of bed - in other words: not very well. When the 'junk' box had finally loaded itself, however, there lay a message quite unlike that which I had been expecting. The title of the message - while not exactly promising me a lifetime of successful writing - playfully tweaked my writer's nose with an offer of - appropriately - a conversation. A conversation, no less, about publishing my book!
I have steadfastly maintained that the writing and publishing of 'Signs of (a) Life' (you know, I'm really beginning to hate that little letter 'a' in parentheses - it's such a pain in the rear to type after the thousandth time) was and remains an intensely personal project. I have done it because it was an important thing for me to achieve, and I am quietly proud that I did what I promised myself to do. The money, I have always said, is not important. The idea of being published in the traditional sense (i.e. without my own investment to make it happen) is very enticing, but not necessary.
However, the contents of this email set my heart thumping, holding as it did only the faint, very distant and merely possible prospect of a working relationship with an established, traditional kind of publishing house. For a few seconds, wild fantasies about red carpets, writing prizes, TV appearances and a previously unimagined writer's lifestyle (well, OK, I have imagined it, but never seriously thought it was likely) filled my brain and the enormous space between it and my skull (there's often an echo in here). It lasted just a few moments, and I enjoyed the excitement while it was there, and until reality came back into the room, gave my fantasies the equivalent of a huge wedgie, and calmly (and with some dignity) reclaimed my mind.
I answered the email in the spirit of opening a conversation with the sender, and with exceedingly low expectations. I felt suddenly comfortable again, at peace with the idea that this probably was leading nowhere, might even be some kind of scam, and that I was very possibly wasting the five minutes it took to compile a response. It was email Zen, I tell you.
The next day, I received no reply. Internet silence...hmmm...
Guess what, though - it's OK. It's OK because, despite my fleeting moment of crazed ambition, despite my fantastical, utterly unrealistic glimpse of a different life, I still have all that I had before I imagined something had changed. I still have the comfort of knowing that the people who have read the book have enjoyed it, and I still have the gentle pride of having done what I set out to do three years ago. With this thought has come the realization that the greatest reward - the very best kind of result for me - is to know that someone has enjoyed the open story-telling that lies behind my writing.
I was always a little scared that commercialism might take a hold of my most vulnerable parts, and squeeze while I sweated (well, wouldn't you?) and fretted about book sales or fame. Now, I think I can relax about that. This isn't a competition; it's merely a game, and the game is called "Telling the story of me." I hope people like it, but if they don't, that is really OK too. It's a novel position for me to occupy, but I'm finding that I like it - along with enjoying the knowledge that I passed the momentary test of reason. Now all I need to do is apply this eminently sensible behaviour to just about every other facet of my life...
Happily, however, this experience only makes me want to write more...
The recent events in Europe have predictably dominated the news channels and programs and websites. Everywhere I look and every time I switch on the radio in the car, there are stories about the terrorist attack in Paris. Since I don't watch TV news, I am at least spared the mental torture of watching reporters trying to eke out another 'story' from the same facts.
As a writer, my instinct was to write something about the atrocities (opening fire on unarmed people with assault weapons is an atrocity in any language except that of the criminally insane), but I paused, thought for a moment, and decided against doing so. Why, I asked myself, should I add my tiny, insignificant voice to the clamour of outrage, when it was - and is - all already being said, and repeatedly? What is the point of stating the obvious? A moment's thought on that subject (mixed with a liberal dose of cynicism) brought some guesses to the fore, but there seems to be little point in pouring scorn on a machine which, on this story, is all but out of control. I mean: 'How to help the survivors of Paris' - seriously?
What troubles me about the stampede towards the moral high ground (I know they're galloping - it's getting pretty crowded up there) is that the dust being kicked up is obscuring the different perspectives on the whole issue. Also, anyone attempting to swim against the stream will be condemned by the mob mentality - witness, for example, teh criticism (and of course, abuse) of anyone declining to replace their FaceBook profile picture (that most important of all symbols) in favour of a French flag, or even worse, presenting their arguments for not doing so...
As a writer - and someone who, having witnesed and having been involved in more than enough conflicts to last a long lifetime - I have no interest in provoking conflict. Online, I've voiced my view on the media coverage of the incident, and how it differs so wildly from the coverage of equal or worse atrocities in developing countries. Even that felt like treading a fine line between peace and conflict.
Why? - well, because our social media world is becoming a place where, sadly, mob rule is the norm. Forays outside of our small groups of friends risk attracting internet trolls and their companions. This week, we are expected by the internet mob to show unconditional support for the people of Paris and France (English MPs even conducted business in French for a short time as a show of 'solidarity', for goodness sake!).
I happen to think that the real story is much broader than that: it's about the nature of war and the modern industrial world's inflated sense of isolation from acts of war. Civilian casualties inflicted by NATO bombings, for example, have been all but forgotten. It would seem that the value of a human life is dependent entirely upon geography - or maybe, skin colour. It's always been true, of course - how else, after all, could the plight of the displaced and illegally occupied Palestinian population be so effectively ignored, and for so long? The real issue is huge: it's about the nature of human values.
Paris will never be entirely forgotten, but in a few short weeks the machine will find a new 'cause' with which to flood our collective consciousness. The bereaved will always feel the pain and horror of their loved ones' deaths, but the truth is that the world will continue to grind around on its axis and its orbit, and the human race will continue to make the same kinds of appalling mistakes. Perhaps there is something to write about, but not yet - not until the loudest voices have been distracted by the next spectacular and exciting story.
I know, I know - but give me a break, I have to try to at least pay for my website!
Christmas is coming: Turkeys are beginning to wonder why the human with the shotgun keeps polishing it and looking at them in that funny way, Geese are finding that they are inexplicably gaining weight, and Homesteaders have begun to dig out ancient recipes for making Plum Duff, and Everlasting Christmas Cake (90% sherry).
This will be my fiftieth Christmas, but this year, the season of goodwill (at least, it is wherever I have lived) is a little different to those that have gone before. This year, the season is being graced with something new: an opportunity that has never presented itself before now. This year, for the very first Christmas, you have the opportunity to make a gift of 'Signs of (a) Life'. Please: calm yourselves.
The eBook represents ridiculously good value at significantly less than one cent per page. If you prefer a different flavour of apples, that means more than three hundred words per cent. That's a pretty darned good bargain - and get this: some of the words are quite long! I've even gone to the extraordinary lengths (for me, anyway) of stringing the words together in sentences which make at least a modicum of sense - no wonder I was exhausted...
If the eBook doesn't sound to you like the sort of gift that will sufficiently annoy one of your relatives, allow me to recommend the paper or hardback versions: significant lumps of paper which will almost oblige the recipient to open them and least scan the introduction. It may soothe your frayed purchasing instincts to remember that if you do so, you will, at the very least, be ruthlessly inserting a picture of giant underpants into your victim's house - at least for the duration of Christmas day. Now there's some motivation!
If you do feel so moved to purchase a copy (in whatever medium) - and all joking aside - please accept my thanks in advance, along with my genuine wish for enjoyment on the recipient's side. The link below is that of my publisher, although the book is available through all the usual major online bookselling services - the only difference for me is that direct purchase through my publisher drastically improves the meagre sum I am paid per book.
No matter how or where you buy it, once again you have my heartfelt thanks and my wishes for many smiles, titters and chortles. If you wish to guffaw - well, that's a choice you will just have to make for yourselves.
An uncomfortable position to be in, when surrounded by a media frenzy:
It's not my habit to pay a great deal of attention to online advice - I think that I may have alluded to that before today - but after being recommended to take a peek at one particular bright and breezy fellow's work, I was pleasantly surprised. I particularly enjoyed the fact that what was - for me, at least - a new notion was prompted as a result of watching him talk enthusiastically to the camera about ME. What's that? Of course he was talking about (and to) me! There was nobody else in the room, dammit!
ANYWAY, the notion that he poked my tiny brain with was a simple one, but one which I now think that I've been quietly avoiding.
The question was: do I have a message?
The immediate answer was: I don't know...well, yes I suppose so...sort of...maybe. Perhaps.
I've never considered myself to be on a crusade - the bulk of my writing is after all autobiographical, and intended to be entertaining in a humorous way, and I have never written in order to teach my readers anything. However...I suspected that I do have a message to share, and finding it has entailed one of those 'Be brutally honest with yourself!' exercises, which can be more than a little disturbing if conducted with the lights off. I think I've found it (it was over in the corner of the room, next to the spider).
I've always been celebrity-averse. I find the cult of celebrity to be deeply unpleasant, childish and unhealthy. It's one of the (wildly optimistic) reasons why I choose to write under an assumed name. Therefore, if 'Signs of (a) Life' were ever - against all the odds and the prevailing winds - to be catapulted into the mainstream and to become unaccountably and mysteriously successful (it's available online for very reasonable prices, and Christmas is coming![insert tongue-sticking-out emoticon here]), I would be forced to withdraw from the spotlight, walk with an enigmatic limp which suggested involvement in the battle at Rourke's Drift, buy a top hat and a black cloak with velvet lining, wear false ginger beards - or maybe take to occasionally donning false breasts. Actually, no. False breasts would be too weird, and the world doesn't need any more of them, anyway.
So, against that background, I believe that my quiet little message is merely this: Ordinary People Matter. Ordinary people live interesting - and frequently, fascinating - lives, after all. As I research my family history, for example, I'm not hoping - as so many people seem to - to uncover long lost links to royalty or other celebrity. I'm actually hoping to uncover any details of what my ancestor's ordinary lives may have been like. I'm interested in their struggles, their successes and their everyday experiences. In the same way, I'm interested in ordinary people today: their so-called 'ordinary' or allegedly unremarkable lives weaving a web of seven billion stories through time and space.
I am deeply, profoundly ordinary. I don't however, feel that this fact should prevent me from sharing my experiences. In fact, I have a hope that my 'ordinariness' might one day resonate with a greater number of people, and that 'ordinary' or 'average' might be celebrated for what it is: a cover story for every unique lifetime. I hope that people might one day read my stories and think to themselves that they can understand this life, that it makes sense to them, and that perhaps, it will in even just a tiny way, enable them to understand something about their lives a little better.
I may be suffering from delusions of grandeur, but the truth is that I don't expect this to happen. That would be extraordinary, and I am ordinary. However, strange things do tend to happen, even to ordinary folk.
It would be quite wonderful, though, to think that it was becoming a reality - that my message, quiet though it is, was being heard.
It was mid afternoon yesterday before either of us remembered to check our mail box. Predictably, when one of us did remember to do so, it was my lovely wife. "There's something from the publisher for you." she said casually. "It might be a cheque." I picked up the mail and stared at it blankly. "Nah." I said. "I don't think I've sold enough copies to get a cheque yet." I wondered what on earth the contents of the plain white envelope might be.
Opening it (with my blunt, chunky thumb) in mid conversation about something entirely different, I stopped talking just long enough to wave - nay, brandish - the enclosed piece of paper. "You were right! It's a royalty cheque!!!!" I beamed at my wife and performed a tiny little dance of joy. Entirely accustomed to her overly large husband doing silly little things, she grinned at me. This only made me feel even better, as it always does.
I've been sent a royalty cheque. My writing has earned money!
One of the interesting things about this is the fact that - perhaps unbelievably - I had actually forgotten about the idea of earning anything. On a day-to-day basis, it doesn't enter into my head how much money the book has made. I simply want people to read it, and dearly hope that they enjoy it. The money is incidental - in fact, I began this project resigned to the idea that I would never make anything from it.
I'm discovering that my writing is for people. If you'll forgive me for saying so (and if you won't, I'll say it anyway, since this is my blog page, after all), I'm rather pleased with myself about that - even though it may end up costing me more money...
I have no idea quite how many of my ancestors served in the military through the years. I know of some: my father, a number of my uncles and aunts and one of my grandfathers for certain. Of them all, my maternal grandfather's service has always been the one which has resonated most powerfully with me. He, after all, served in that first example of total war in the second decade of the twentieth century. He was present at more than one of the major battles, was invalided out of the service in 1915, yet returned two years later after regaining his health. I sense that James - who was, in comparison to me, a tiny physical specimen of a man - was nevertheless a quietly 'big' man. Sometimes, when I think about it for a little too long, I become very sad that I never met him.
All of my relatives who served, however, are people of whom I feel a duty to recall, especially at this time of the year, when our thoughts are directed to the sacrifices that previous generations made. All of them placed themselves in a service where, potentially, harm might come their way - and they accepted that risk. They stepped forward when asked to do so.
Their sacrifice was not always fully understood, I suspect. My grandfather, who was in the British Expeditionary Force in 1914, was part of a tiny yet professional army which made its way into the midst of a fight between armies tent times its size, and more. I doubt that any of those men - who were assured that the fighting would be over by the first Christmas - had even the most vague notion of the hellish conflict that was about to unfold and envelop them. Nobody did.
We look back at the sacrifices of our forebears with the benefit of hindsight and the analysis of experts and fools alike, but I am most intensely moved by the knowledge that ordinary, working class people (there's a UK term which doesn't translate well across the Atlantic) just like me cowered in abject terror as they were bombarded with tons of high explosive and shrapnel. Unimaginable numbers died, and many times that were injured and maimed. After the unprecedented devastation of the First World War, Europe did it all over again twenty years later, and still people went to war, into the meat grinder that was modern battle. They knew, by then, what was possible, and still they went. Even more were wiped off the planet, or had their lives irrevocably changed.
My parent's families went to war - whether at home or on the field of battle. They joined the armed forces to fight or contribute to the fighting in the traditional way, or else they fought on 'the home front' as it was called: they were bombed by the enemy, forced out of their homes, yet they never gave up. they fought in the only way open to them: they carried on with life, and they worked to survive. That generation endured fear and uncertainty which we look upon these days as beyond our comprehension, even as it continues overseas.
Even as we remember 'them', we would do well to try to imagine what they went through, whether in the clamour and chaos of the battlefield, screaming about in flimsy aircraft at dizzying heights and firing guns at one another, fighting for life in the charnel-houses of battered warships and merchant ships, or waiting for the bombs to fall through the rooves of their homes as they sheltered their children beneath them. What they went through - what they endured and survived - made my life possible. The sacrifices and efforts of an entire generation made it possible for me to make the choices that I have made, and to arrive where I am and how I am.
Even though I knew only a few of them, I think of them all - at this time of the year particularly. Some of them I can only imagine from photographs or old stories. Many of them are a mystery to me. Nevertheless, one truth pervades everything: I walk - and do everything else - in their shadows. I thank them.