Writing: you have to love it

According to a recent poll, being an author is seen as the most desirable job in Britain. This surprises me a little and pleases me a lot. 60% of people in this country want to create art–or at least entertainment–with words. How wonderfully affirming this is. A nation of aspiring storytellers is an awful lot nicer than a nation of aspiring city traders, for example, or…shudder…government ministers. Then, trawling the cluttered waters of Twitter this afternoon, I came across this article, http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/feb/20/tim-lott-life-as-an-author, comparing writing to a horror film and proceeding to lay out the difficulties of the profession in the most cynical and angst-ridden terms. The article is by an established author, who concludes (sarcastically, I hope) by suggesting he’d rather become a taxi driver. I’ve known a few taxi drivers in my time and…no…I wouldn’t rather do that.

What a disappointing response. Okay, maybe on a factual level, it is true enough: writing can be a lonely occupation, it’s painfully hard to make any money at it, you often fret over the possibility that you might actually be pretty crap at it,  and, well, you spend a lot of time having conversations with people who don’t  exist. Or I do, anyway, but maybe that’s just me.

But setting all this aside, what really depresses me about this article–especially given that it’s published in The Guardian–is the way it pulls up the proverbial ladder. Man makes a living doing something he professes to love, then says, ‘Don’t follow me up here, kids, you couldn’t hack it.’ When I was a postgraduate I met a lot of academics who said the same thing, and it well and truly soured me. To my upstart and slightly rebellious eyes, this ladder pulling is one of the reasons why the great British class divide continues to be as strong as it ever was. Whatever the financial rewards, writing, like academia, is a job that brings a certain level of respect. It gives you a voice. It gives you an outlet for your intellectual energy. Being a writer allows me to say whatever the hell I want to, and I couldn’t do that when I was a local government wage slave. I tried it once or twice and the outcome was unpleasant, to say the least.

Saying to people who want to write, trust me, you’re better off not bothering is essentially the same as saying keep quiet and know your place. Or so it seems to me. Say it to someone who works for peanuts on a zero hours contract. Or someone whose boss humiliates and threatens him everyday. Or someone who breaks her back to produce the goods that others take the credit for. It sounds just plain smug. Instead, turn the argument on its head. You hate your job? Go home and spend a couple of hours writing at the end of each day. It will make you feel more human. It will help you survive.

Maybe I’m being naive. I’ve just published my first novel and am still gathering pats on the back from friends and relations. I have yet to make any money from it beyond a small advance, with which I bought a new jumper and took my other half out for a nice meal. The other day in the car, my son and I tried to figure out how many copies of the book I’d have to sell before it even became a minimum wage job, but I couldn’t do the maths (one of the reasons I’m a writer). I have no plans to give up my office job anytime soon. To make time to write, I have chosen to work part time- knowingly sacrificing my prospects for higher pay and promotion. I may never recoup that lost income. Or I might. At this point, it’s impossible to know.

But that’s not the point. You have to love it. That’s the only good reason to do it. I love the craft of writing, I love bringing characters to life, I love exploring the possibilities of lives that are not my own. I am one of the very few people I know who loves Monday mornings. I get a little thrill of joy when I switch on the laptop. Today I bumped into a woman I hardly know at the supermarket, and she congratulated me on my book. She told me she’s always sort of fancied writing, and so to her, and to the 60% of folk who said it sounded like a pretty decent gig, I say give it a try. Don’t give up the day job for it, but don’t give up your voice either.

Real men eat vegetables…

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And so onto to the politics of food and manhood… Our almost twelve-year-old son Jamie is a confirmed vegetable hater. He is a little guy and not a very big eater, but will make a reasonably good stab at most things I present him with. With one notable exception: vegetables. He will, if forced, nibble a stick of raw carrot. He will eat vegetable soup as long as it is blended completely smooth with no chunks of anything that might resemble vegetable matter lurking at the bottom of the bowl. He will eat tomato sauce, but again, only if there are no bits of tomato showing. But that’s it. The first sign of pretty much any other veg on his plate, young Master McKinney rehearses the immortal words of Ori the Dwarf from The Hobbit: “I don’t eat green food!” Or for that matter, purple, or yellow, or red.

It’s hard to know where this aversion comes from. As a family, we try pretty hard to eat well, without being obsessive about it. We eat  a lot of veg, creatively stir fried, grilled, curried, steamed, marinated, or just raw as it comes. I am a good cook, and my food tastes good. Our 7-year-old daughter Susanna wolfs down her own veggies and then smugly shows her big brother her plate. “See Jamie, I ate it!”

People tell me not to worry, he’ll get less fussy with age, he’s not malnourished, he’s fine, etc. I know there are millions of parents out there fighting their own battles with fussy eaters. I know that as parental worries go, it could be an awful lot worse. But I admit: it bugs the pants off me. We beg and wheedle. We bribe. We make threats: no chocolate, no video games, no rugby training, etc. We reward the rare occasion when he does manage to choke down a leaf of spinach or the tiniest bud of broccoli. Now that he’s getting older, we try to appeal to his growing sense of vanity: “You want to look fit, don’t you?” “You want to grow into a big strong man, don’t you?” You don’t want to end up looking like that, do you?” (pointing out Yoda or Gollum or any one of many wizened little veg-fearing characters dotting about town). We reason. We explain the science of vitamins and nutrition. We encourage him to help with the cooking and planting vegetables in the garden. Yes, we even grow our own! We’ve tried every trick in the book, and nothing works. Nothing at all. He’s clever and stubborn and incredibly consistent, and I am not Supermum. If there are any Supermums out there who know the secret for curing a confirmed vegephobic, get in touch.

In the meantime, my blender is my best friend. I will continue to render his green food invisible in soups and sauces, and repeat my tired old mantra: real men eat vegetables! Maybe he will one day.

Mrs Happy

Just because it’s good to remind myself sometimes, here are some ordinary everyday things that make me happy:

Walking up a hill/through the woods/on a beach/away from it all

Cooking for my family

Weather. Pretty much any weather except sideways sleet.

Singing harmonies

Wearing flipflops

Big waves

Soft snow

Catching up with old friends and realising they haven’t changed in 20 years

When my kids voluntarily hold my hands in public

The smell of gorse blossoms and pine trees

Having a good man around the house

Picking vegetables from my garden

Meeting people who are genuinely but not obnoxiously eccentric

The first sip of coffee in the morning

Quietness

Music most people think of as weird hillbilly shit

A pile of muddy boots by the door

Never having watched a full episode of the X Factor or I’m a Celebrity…

Having a house full of kids who are playing happily without anything involving electronics or batteries

Finding a funky bit of clothing in a charity shop, and it fits

Watching a good game of rugby

Splattering through mud on my bike and getting some on my face

My neighbour’s cat, Felix, who purrs whenever I pick him up

That little rush of excitement at the start of a movie you really want to see

A bath before bed

Driving my little Skoda on a country road

Seeing a really cool bird, like an owl or a dipper

Book shops

Feeling really knackered after a good run/swim/hike

Reading something I’ve written and liking it

A group hug with Claire, Eileen, Elaine, Sylvia and Karine

Leaving work at the end of the day

Looking back over my long list, and realising there are a lot more things I could still put on there.