This is the text of a lecture commissioned by The Stinging Fly, and delivered at Bray Literary Festival on 28 September 2019.
Let me start by offering you my definitions of what the terms product, process and practice mean in relation to writing. These aren’t universal truths: they are my personal interpretations, built up through experience.
Product to me is, firstly, the outcome of writing: a Thing that is made using words. It can be a book, play, poem, collection, performance, essay, article—or any other piece of writing you can think of. This lecture, for example, is a writing product. But there’s a second writing product: the self-as-writer. In my case, this is: ‘novelist Mia Gallagher’ or ‘novelist and short-story writer Mia Gallagher’.
Process, to me, is also twofold. Firstly, it’s the way in which a piece of writing gets made. This includes the time spent making the work, the technical methods used, and any breakthroughs, blocks, revisions or challenges along the way. This process ends when I sign off on my final proofs—there’s nothing more to write. The secondary writing process is the formation of self-as-writer-of-a-particular-product. For example: ‘Mia Gallagher, debut author of HellFire…’ or ‘Mia Gallagher, whose latest book is the short-story collection Shift… ’ The secondary process starts the moment the product is publicly announced—in a biog (biography), reading, interview, or Q&A—and it lasts until the next product is announced.
Practice, to me, is the entire life of the writer as dedicated to making Things from words. It encompasses many different products and the processes that go into their making. It also includes the cumulative making of self-as-writer through the sequential formation of self-as-writer-of-particular-products. A writer’s practice can’t continue after they die, though their works might endure, their processes might be borrowed and adapted by other writers, and they as writer-product may survive as legacy, continuing to be interpreted, internalised and working as an influence on other writers. For example: I love ‘Angela Carter’.
We live in a period of late capitalism: fast, global, technological, peppered by rapid-fire crises of accumulation, aka boom and bust. At its simplest, capitalism is driven by two motors. These are profit—selling Things, including books, for more than they cost to make. And growth—the never-ending increase of profit. Capitalism is, essentially, a giant pyramid scheme. The gold tends to flow upwards, the shit tends to get shoved downwards. Both can be diverted in the opposite direction, but only if governments have the will to regulate accordingly.
When capitalism, powered by the Industrial Revolution, swapped its tricycle with stabilisers for a 5-speed racer in the 19th century, Romanticism emerged as an ideology. It’s from Romanticism that we get the idea that artists, including writers, are somehow outside the capitalist pyramid. Because we’re ‘creative’, we’re exempt. We’re the special ones, the wise ones, the talented ones, commenting on and understanding how everything works, transforming the world through our amazing words, but somehow never prey to its vagaries.
Although we’re long past Romanticism’s heyday now, this idea has lingered. Partly because it’s so seductive—who doesn’t want to stand out? But it comes with a mess of baggage that still creates problems for artists in their working lives. I’ve been at several public events where writers have been hailed as ‘geniuses’ in the sort of doting, baffled tones reserved for a favourite child, the one whose ‘condition’ it’s not polite to bring up in company. Then times get rough and the same people, talking about the same writer, who is now seeking funding, get snippy. Bloody spongers, they say, why doesn’t she get up in the morning and find a proper job? Why should he get grants when doctors (or farmers or teachers or…) don’t? Besides—the killer line—sure you’re not doing it for the money, are you?
I imagine you’re all familiar with the bullshit misconceptions that accompany the idea of artistic ‘specialness’. For example: Writers are terrible with money. Or: Writers don’t care about money. As one woman in an art class once said to my husband, who’s a visual artist: Sure what do you need money for? Then there’s the: Oh, you artistic types are all away with the fairies. Bad at organising. Off the wall. Like kids. Working with you writers, an arts administrator told me after an international literary exchange, was like herding cats. For all this, read ‘irresponsible’.
Every ideology, every codified system of looking at the world, serves an end. There’s a question here I’m not sure I can answer. Who benefits from these misconceptions? Most writers I know are highly organised, numerate, money-conscious and thrifty. They bring in the vast majority of their projects on time and under budget, in a way the private and public sectors could learn from. Who or what is threatened by the possibility that artists may, in fact, be responsible?
No writer is more special than any other human. I, like you, am just like all other citizens, trying to survive and do what what’s most meaningful for me, inside the pyramidal socio-economic system we call capitalism. Every writer—and every distributor of their work, even the smallest, most ‘artistically minded’ publisher—is operating within this system’s confines and complying with its unwritten rules.
Now don’t get me wrong: there are great things about capitalism. It’s given me my washing machine and Sky Box Sets. I’d hate to ditch it completely. But its twin pillars are killing us. Profit first means somebody, somewhere, is being exploited. Infinite economic growth on a finite planet means something, somewhere has got to give.
If we focus in on the writing life and map the rules of the pyramid there, particular types of pressures emerge.
Write more words. Write them faster. Make them into a Thing that can be sold. Get that Thing published. Write more Things that appeal to more people. Write them so the company distributing them can make more money. Make more money from the current Thing than the last Thing. Get more reviews. Get more reviews with more positive adjectives in them. Get more ratings on Amazon. Win an award. Sign a TV or film deal. Sign both. Sign more. Sign them faster. Win the Goldsmiths. Win the Booker. Win the Impac. Win an Emmy. Win the Nobel. Grow your brand. Become bestselling-writer-self. Become multi-award-winning-writer-self. Become global-superstar-writer-self. Then, and only then, will you be really special.
Success and value, as Marx discussed, are shifting qualities. Like weight, they vary according to the field of gravity they’re being measured in. A penny is lighter on the moon. The gravity field you and I operate in is capitalism, where value is measured through financial profit and economic growth. Through this lens, ‘successful’ writing is primarily about the production and sales of sellable Things—the writing product and the writer-as-product.
The problem with product-focused success in a capitalist economy is that, if I buy into it, I will outsource my ability to value my own work. Most products succeed or fail outside the self. Take a rivet which holds an aeroplane wing together. Either it works or it doesn’t; and any engineer worth their salt can objectively calculate the extent to which it does or doesn’t do its job. The financial value of the rivet is also externally measurable, through stock and share prices, at any moment. But how writing ‘works’—how it lands with readers—is subjective. Each reader experiences their own internal response to it. As a writer, I can only access this by what, if anything, they publicly say about the work and what, if anything, they pay me for it. If I use these measures, and these measures alone, to value my writing, I will become dependent on others to ‘buy’ me or ‘sign’ me, to ‘praise’ me or ‘award’ me—to ‘get’ me—in order to feel that what I am doing is worthwhile.
Applying the law of averages, 50 per cent of people are likely to get what I write and 50 per cent aren’t. Not the toughest odds in the world, but not a clear run either. If I completely outsource my value as a writer by relying on others to always ‘get’ me, I set myself up for a life of disappointment, resentment, frustration, jealousy, occasional hatred, insecurity, despondency, despair and, finally, inaction. Anytime that I’ve got overly product-focused and put pressure on myself to write faster, more, or bigger, to get published quicker or to generate more money from my writing, I’ve ended up stopping.
Now I need to name the elephant in the room. While I, like you, am making work within capitalism, I’ve been awarded a status that helps me navigate some of these pressures. Last year I was elected to Aosdána, so I’m now entitled to seek five-year tranches of funding as long as my other income falls below a certain threshold. This is a privilege. It’s also a clear external indicator of value. So in real terms, it’s far easier for me to stand here and talk this way than it would be for a writer who isn’t grant-funded to the same extent.
However, even with that caveat, I’m still, like most of you, susceptible to the pyramid’s pressures. I still need to write, I still want to make writing products, and I’m still invested in my self-as-writer product. Pain comes up for me if a piece is rejected, or if I hear about colleagues signing big money deals or winning big awards. I get jealous, I get sad, I get down. Then the self-flagellation starts. I must be doing something wrong. I’m not as good as I think I am. And on and on. I’m sure most of you have had similar experiences.
During the last decade, I had a particularly rough five years where my second novel was lingering on publishers’ desks. Nobody was ‘getting’ it. Nobody wanted to buy it. One day, in a single phone call with my agent, I got six rejections. Those five years taught me a lot—mainly how addicted I was to external validation. To survive as a writer, I had to learn to go inwards instead. That took time, but what helped most was learning to replacing the idea of More with Better. Instead of More words, write Better words. Write Better books. This, of course, is tricky too. What is ‘Better’? What The Irish Times says? What Twitter says? Amazon? Whatever wins the Booker? I’ll say it again, because it’s important: if I give the power to anybody else to define what ‘good’ or ‘Better’ writing are, I’ll end up in trouble—insecure, dependent again on others ‘getting’ me.
For me, ‘Better’ changes by the day, but essentially it’s the feeling that I’m doing something new or unexpected with the writing. I’ve made a discovery and it’s surprised me. ‘Better’ isn’t a mental judgement on ‘good writing’; it’s a feeling, an emotional-attitudinal state. Yeah. Okay. Oh! This works. It’s NOT: ‘Oh God, The Guardian will love this.’ The closest I’ve come to defining ‘Better’ is the idea of being able to stand over the work. This means understanding what my unconscious intentions are, what I want the piece to do; then, through interrogating those intentions, being happy that they come from the right place; and being—more or less—happy that, at the end of the process, the work has achieved what it set out to do.
Writing Better isn’t something I do in isolation. I have a terrific agent who understands where I’m coming from, and I’ve worked with excellent editors, like Dan Bolger, Declan Meade and Patricia Deevy, who get me. These people are great sounding boards; they help me sense if something is ‘Better’ or ‘could be Better’ and they often see things I can’t. But in the end, I have to stand over the work, and it’s that inner feeling—yes, no, uh oh—which is the truest measure of value to me. It’s that sensation—not praise or an index on the stock exchange—that tells me if, and how, the Thing is ‘working’. It’s that which gives me the deepest sense of my authority as a writer and helps me duck out, even briefly, from product fixation.
I’ve had to learn to connect with this instinct, I’ve had to learn to trust it. I’ve done lots of what’s loosely called ‘work on myself’: developing my emotional intelligence through pain, trauma, and recovery, usually under the guidance of experienced somatic practitioners. What’s also helped is reading and critiquing other writers. I always try to do this as a reader first, not an expert. How does this work make me feel? What does it make me want? What does it give? Listening to instinct while reading other people exercises the muscle. In turn, I can apply it Better to my own work. And then I can keep going deeper, finding the new, redefining ‘Better’.
Marx talked about exchange-value—what people agree something is worth—versus use-value, what the Thing is functionally used for. A bank note has no use value; it has massive exchange value. That aeroplane rivet has a low exchange value, but high use-value. Works of writing—yours, mine, anyone’s—are repositories of meaning. Some people will get the meaning, some won’t. But meaning is their function, their use-value as Things in the world. If I, or you, can be responsible for this function, if we can quality test it as much as possible, then I, or you, might be able to put our meaning-holders out into the world without obsessing all the time about their exchange-value, the value the world attributes to them.
Easier said than done, but try it.
Mia Gallagher is a novelist and short-story writer based in Dublin, blah blah blah…
A biog looks like a small thing, but in fact, it’s a point of power.
Like the primary writing product, the writer-product comes in many guises: some are singular (‘poet’), some dual or hybrid (‘storyteller and librettist’ or ‘essayist-playwright’). Every writer whose work is publicly available is stamped as a product through the organs of publicity—reviews, promotional material, interviews, features and the biography the writer themselves sends out with their work.
How a product is stamped is called, in marketing, branding. A brand is a contract. Trust me, it says, I will do what I say I will. Daz washes our whites whiter. 8 out of 10 cats prefer Whiskas. Johnson will get Brexit done. But because most writers write their own biogs—self-branding-self—the biog is not like other brands. It is another writing product by that writer, and a particular type: a product that indicates the attitude of self to the pyramid scheme the self-as-writer-product is being sold through.
One of my favourite biogs is the one Lia Mills uses. It starts: Lia Mills writes novels, essays and stories… What I love about it is how it doesn’t what-ify Lia. Lia is Lia. The biog refuses to categorise her as a novelist, essayist or short-story writer, or even a hybrid. She is not a Thing. Writing is what she does. It is active; she is the actor. It takes a certain amount of psychological confidence to write a biog like that. As I parse it I’m starting to think it’s quite a revolutionary little comment. Fuck you and your products, Lia’s biog seems to say. I’m me. Brand me all you want but I refuse to reduce myself to a single consumable Thing. In a gender-unequal world where, to paraphrase the late John Berger, men still act while women still appear, Lia’s statement of action seems even more radical.
People started calling me ‘a novelist’ in 2006, after my first book *HellFire *was published, but I felt embarrassed using that word about myself. It seemed fraudulent. I’d had two stabs at writing novels before, but one I’d never finished and the second had never been published. By 2006, I was well into the process of struggling with a new novel, but I didn’t know if I’d ever complete it. Surely an ‘ist’ is someone who does something regularly? How could I be a novel-ist until I’d written more than one novel and been publicly acknowledged as having done so—i.e. had my second book ‘out’?
Fretting and insecure, I plumped instead for Mia Gallagher is the author of…, and because I was desperate to prove that I was, in fact, a writer-product and therefore special, I filled out the rest of my biog with lists of where my stories had been published and examples of my theatre work.
Seven years later, in 2013, the novel I’d been struggling with when HellFire came out had garnered twenty-plus rejections. Extracts were being published, but there was no guarantee the whole book would find a home. However, I had just spent a year reworking it, going deeper into the story, making it Better. It was during that process that I remember thinking, ah, so this is what a ‘novelist’ is. It’s a person who makes novels. It was then, three years before the book—Beautiful Pictures of the Lost Homeland—was published, that I started using the word to describe my self-as-writer.
Though I love Lia’s biog, the ‘journey’—to use that awful phrase—to get me to the point where I could call myself a ‘novelist’ still feels too fresh and hard-won to relinquish. I’m not yet secure enough to drop that branding. Maybe when I’ve finished my third novel. The one I’m stuck on right now. Maybe then I’ll be able to say, with conviction, Mia Gallagher writes novels and other Things.
What do you call yourself? How do you brand yourself? What product are—and aren’t—you?
This August, during a residential programme in Dingle, I listened to Ann Hood and Andre Dubus III, two American authors, talk about writing friendships. They spoke of sitting down with other writers to talk about craft, and I was struck by how delighted they were when they mentioned this. All writers I know love talking about process. It’s safer than product because it’s an internal experience and other people can’t judge it. And it’s always interesting, because it’s where the learning happens. Recently Arlen House brought out The Danger and the Glory, a collection of writings by Irish writers on process, and it’s well worth a look.
In a product-focused system like capitalism, process is about making profitable Things. To maximise profit, process needs to become efficient. Efficiency means conserving time, ‘rationalising’ labour by separating out tasks and the workforce doing those tasks, and, in many cases, automating. The aim is More, but also faster, smoother, more systematic. Everywhere I look I see capitalism’s holy grail of efficiency seeping into writing websites, courses and supports. How to Write a Novel. NaNoWriMo. Ten Tips for Creating Characters.
In any line of work, it’s important to be able to access the experience of others further along the road. I’ve benefited from standing on giants’ shoulders, and I’ve also benefited—both economically and in terms of skills—from running How To and other courses. But there’s something about the How To ethos that troubles me. It makes me wonder what the point of writing is. To make more books, and make them faster? Does the world need more books, faster-made?
Nothing in nature grows infinitely.
The problem with efficiency is that it’s a rational construct: bright, formulaic, clear. Writing is logical, but logical is not the same as rational. The logic followed by imaginative writing—and I include memoir and essay writing here—is that of the unconscious. The unconscious isn’t bright. It’s like ghosts; it needs the shadows to thrive. Become too formulaic, too clear, and the unconscious will baulk.
Like all writers, I love making technical discoveries: for example, finding out how to let the reader know what a character is feeling without necessarily telling them. In the best case scenario, a discovery like this will infuse the work with an extra layer of meaning that makes it Better. But if I keep applying the discovery like acne cream, like it’s the ‘right’ way, or the only way, to reveal character interiority, then I’m fucked. The text starts getting peppered with crafty devices, that, if I’m not careful, become my ‘thing’. Then it becomes a ‘Mia Gallagher thing’ and then it’s boring and it all goes to shit. As David Foster Wallace said: the problem with a discovery is it becomes a habit; the problem with habit is it becomes a tic.
Who wants tics in their writing? And I ask this sincerely, because some tics, when expertly handled, can coalesce into genre, and genre is a beautiful, fun, comforting Thing. More black-coffee swiggin’ haymaker-punchin’ Jack Reacher? Yes, please.
In Andrew Simonet’s excellent text, Making Your Life as an Artist, he talks about how artists are often judged as if they’re sportspeople. Who wins, who’s the fastest, who’s the strongest, who can jump the highest. In sports there’s only room for one winner. Simonet argues that artists, in fact, are more like scientists. We ask questions, we experiment with finding answers, we fail, we try again. Winning doesn’t come into it, or if it does, it’s only momentarily. While my second novel was languishing on editors’ desks, Simonet’s insights helped me navigate my own attitude towards failure, helped me realise that I should be failing; as should you. We should all be failing, and failing more.
Via Negativa is the name given to a learning process built around failure. I learn by making mistakes, not by getting it right. The child doesn’t stand up one day from a supine position and instantly start running. They roll, they tumble, they sit, they fall, they tumble, they sit, they twist, they fall, they rise, they step, they fall, they tumble, they roll.
When I’m writing Things, especially novels, I get stuck for at least as much time as I am in flow. This, I try to tell myself, is good. Go into it, I tell myself. Find the pain in the stuckness, dig into it, under it. Face it, whatever way it comes up. Oh, I feel terrible, Oh, I’m such a shit writer, Oh, this book will never get finished.
In the face of that feeling, I try to ask myself What. What is so shit about this book, story, or essay? What isn’t working? Usually, after a while, answers come. The character, I don’t believe them. The world is flimsy. It feels pointless writing this stuff when the rainforest is burning. These are all valid responses. I try to listen to them. Then I try to ask the next What. What don’t I believe in? If I’m lucky, a What if comes. What if this novel is about pointlessness? This sounds easy, but it takes time.
Write like you’re a scientist.
In the 1990s I worked on a digital project called Courage to Create, designed for a now defunct platform, CD-i. The producer, Áinne Burke, had come from the visual arts world and worked in TV before moving onto what was then called ‘new media’. Áinne was big into process and one of the keystones of her project was that the dynamics of generating and exploring an idea are different to those involved in learning technical skills, different in turn to how we internalise story content and form, and different again to the ways in which we realise a finished work. What most struck me was the idea that there’s no right way to produce a work, but that there are areas of work-making, each with its own challenges. A ‘problem’ in one can lead to the whole project stalling. So if, for example, I want to write a family epic and I understand how to craft sentences but haven’t spent enough time researching the world that family is born into, then sooner or later, in spite of my technical skills, the epic will become an epic fail.
Áinne’s main aim was to encourage audio-visual makers to stay with the initial stages of the work as much as possible. Pay attention to their imagination, nourish their dreams, mine their memories, and listen to those weird blurts that pop up from their unconscious. Try to cohere or solidify these too quickly, she argued, and the ideas will shrivel up and die. I see it a bit like turning the lights on at a disco during the slow set.
Over ten years later, in 2007, I attended a seminar in Pearse Street Library where I heard another Áine talk about process. This time it was Áine McCarthy—aka author, journalist and publisher Orna Ross, who was giving a seminar on seven stages of novel-writing, from gestation to final refinement. At the time I was feeling frustrated and stuck with my second novel. Listening to Orna, I realised the problem wasn’t with the book, but with the fact that I was trying to refine something that hadn’t even found its initial shape yet. I started exploring again, going back to the early stages, listening to my unconscious—memories, dreams, imagination, blurts—getting lost. Eventually, three years later, the book reached first draft.
Recently I had a chat with a writer who was stuck. She wanted my opinion on a technical issue she thought was the heart of her problem. Her project involves crafting non-fiction stories out of interview material and she was trying to figure out what point of view to choose for her draft. Should she go for different points of view for each interview, or a single overarching one? It was wrecking her head. After a few minutes it became clear that the issue wasn’t point of view at all, but that, like me, she thought she was at a different stage of the process to where she actually was. She hadn’t yet transcribed all the interviews. I suggested she do that first, as a task to keep the front part of her mind busy. A quasi-meditation. In the meantime, keep mulling over point of view, jot down any ideas that came to her. Go to the haberdasher’s to buy fabric before you start making the dress.
Do the basic thing first. Attend to your unconscious, jot down what it says. Always try the bloody obvious. Always follow a What if.
Neil Gaiman talks about two ‘types’ of writers: gardeners and architects. Gardeners plant seeds but don’t know which ones will take. Architects create blueprints, exact impressions of the final Thing. I’m wary of any formulas, particularly my own, but if I had to choose, I’d say I’m a gardener first, then an architect.
Right now, I’m stuck on—in—a new book. The process has been very different to my two previous novels. Writing HellFire came in clear distinct phases, each linked to a different writing product. Tiny short story, monologue, commissioned play—a dismal failure—then, out of the failure, 400 pages of handwritten text. Once I decided to commit to writing a novel instead of a play, it all went relatively smoothly. There were plenty of challenges, but generally, the process felt like a splurge. The words came out, unstoppable, then I took a few steps back and began the slower process of making them Better.
Writing my second novel was much more stop-and-startish. My first mistake was thinking I could grow it by using the HellFire model of expanding out from a small initial offering. I thought I knew what I was doing, and it took me five years to realise I didn’t. Once I accepted I was failing and—after hearing Orna’s lecture—understood why, I cut some material away. Then the process came, but slowly, in pieces, like a wave starting very small, very far out at sea. I worked on one strand, then another, then another, then brought it together to make it Better. Then, a few years later, I unwound the strands, reworked them, put them together, trying for even Better again.
My current novel began as a longish short-story in 2002. It was this I tried to grow into my second novel and it was that kernel—the initial short story—that I ended up cutting away from the rest in 2008. In 2011 I returned to it because I felt it still had something. It was then I made my second mistake: trying to sprout the kernel in lots of different directions, because that had worked for* Beautiful Pictures*. Three-and-a-half years later I finally accepted that wasn’t working. By then I’d also started to question the wisdom of importing a process from a book that had—at that point—failed to sell. So I made a decision: I would focus in on one strand only. Two months later I’d got a 98 per cent terrible first draft done. Earlier this year I began reworking that.
Currently I’ve lots of words and a shape that resembles a beginning-middle-and-end, but it’s not yet a novel. I’m going through it very slowly, making choices, undoing them, then remaking them. It doesn’t feel splurgey like HellFire *or tidal-wavish like *Beautiful Pictures. It’s more like I’m trying to whittle back a single small piece of wood to find what might be lurking inside. Whittle too little and I won’t find it. Whittle too much and I’ll be left with nothing. I’m very impatient. I want to keep pushing, keep going, finish the fucking thing. Every so often I flow for a couple of chapters. Then I get stuck and I hate myself and the book for a while. And then at some point I hear a voice in my head telling me Go Back to the Beginning, Mia, there’s something you’ve missed. The voice is always right. There’s always a moment where I haven’t been clear, where I need to whittle some more.
The other week I talked to Ian Maleney about this piece and he mentioned delusion. Writing always involves trickery. I tend to fool myself into a situation where I have to keep going. Either I let the ideas build up, and put off the actual writing till I can’t hold back and it comes out splurgey, like the runs, or else I write manically, pour a ton of words onto the page until I have so much it would be criminal not to do something with it. It’s like swimming out into the sea, so far that turning back would be more dangerous than keeping going.
I’ve written a handout on what I’ve learnt from writing novels, and I’m happy to share it. But it’s not a How To. I’m afraid you, like me, will need to find your own Via Negativa, fail on your own terms, fail again, and it’ll never feel nice, and that’s as it should be, because failure is painful, but if you keep failing, chances are you’ll find your own brief, temporary fashion of coming up onto your toddler feet, before gravity pulls and you’re down on the ground again, belly on the floor, palms kissing the earth, ready for the next doomed twist up.
The only tip I can safely give you is this: we’re all going to die.
In 2007 a lovely young man came to the door to sell me Sky TV. He asked me what I did and I said I wrote and he asked me if I’d anything published and I said yes, and showed him a copy of HellFire. Somehow the word ‘career’ came up. I felt very awkward. Oh no, I said, I wouldn’t call it a career. The word seemed very businessy; conjuring up images of people in offices with briefcases. It also suggested a linear trajectory, with intention behind it. My experience of being a writer didn’t feel linear at all, more like a series of choices to commit to—or abandon—various writing projects, in between doing lots of what my mum used to call ‘other things’.
A couple of years later, when austerity hit, I and other writers were often asked to contribute letters petitioning against cuts in arts funding. In one, I found myself discussing how artists fall between several stools when it comes to their status within the economy. Writers’ work gets called a host of names: vocation, entrepreneurship, even hobby. But none of these is fully accurate. Writing isn’t a vocation like teaching or joining a religious order, because it serves the writer’s needs as much, if not more than, those of the recipient community. It’s not entrepreneurship, because businesspeople drop products the moment they stop making money. And it’s not a hobby, though many writers work without guarantee of payment. Because of this confusing terminology, I argued, artists are subject to misconceptions—seen, as I’ve discussed earlier, as gifted child, sponging parasite or poverty-loving attic-dweller. As a consequence, they are vulnerable in a particular way to funding cuts and policy changes. If I don’t know what I am within the socio-economic nexus of capitalism, how can I defend what I do?
Most of my files from 2009–2010 are on an old PC that I can’t access anymore, so I don’t have a copy of that letter. But I’m pretty sure I didn’t use the word ‘practice’ in it. The first record I have of using that word to describe my work is in a CV and bursary application dated January 2011. Prior to that, I think I’d started using ‘layered practice’ as a way of making sense of the fact that I’d worked both as a theatre artist and a writer over the span of my working life.
I remember being thrown during a 2009 interview for a residency when Kenneth Redmond, the Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown Arts Officer, asked me to talk about my ‘career’. Once again, the word seemed too big, too focused for where I was at. I didn’t say that to Kenneth, or use the word ‘practice’ instead. I just went ah, um, then started telling a long and involved story about my transition from college student to baby revolutionary in Nicaragua. But I think during the residency, Kenneth himself—who’d trained as a fine art printmaker—may have guided me towards the term.
Practice. Once I found it, it felt right.
Practice is action. It suggests intention, preparation, a commitment to doing without being guaranteed—or having to manifest—a particular outcome. In this way, the term represents a shift away from capitalism’s obsession with profit-making product. However, it’s worth remembering that performers practise before they perform, and their practice usually results in performance—a product. Moreover, ‘practice’ has a seductive, ego-appealing connotation: Practice makes Perfect. This is codified memorably in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, his argument—recently disputed—that 10,000 hours of practising anything will make the practitioner excellent in their field.
The word ‘practice’ also has a certain socio-economic status, a precedent beyond artistic activity. Lawyers, accountants and health professionals all have ‘practices’. Calling me a ‘professional practising writer’ bundles me in with this cohort. No longer do I fall between the stools of profit-hungry entrepreneur, saintly self-denying monk, or dilettantish hobbyist. ‘Practice’ says: You may think I’m a crazy off-the-wall artist who’s crap at money, but actually I’m a professional, a grown-up like you; I’m one of those people that gets up in the morning. And this in itself makes the allocation of state, i.e. taxpayer, funding supports for artists more understandable, more legitimate and more palatable to those in power.
On this level, the term is suspect. It accepts rather than questions the existing social order. Professionals who have practices in health, law or finance usually also have skills and a university education, and come from privileged backgrounds. Their exchange value (manifested in their hourly rate) is relatively high. Most artists come from the bourgeoisie; not because artistic talent is the reserve of privilege, but because pursuing an artistic practice requires time, money, access to specialist knowledge and, crucially, insider information about power structures—including how to write Arts Council applications.
The word ‘practice’ brands writers as part of the texture of the bourgeoisie, separating them from unskilled or manual workers. Is it really a step away from the pyramid scheme of capitalism, or just—or also, perhaps?—a glossy way of masking the stink of shit flowing downwards?
Special to the power of minus-one.
A couple of years ago I had coffee with Sean O’Reilly and I told him about my first stab at a novel in 1990, and that I gave up on it when I felt it wasn’t working. What would you tell that 23-year-old now? he asked. Keep going, I said.
In 1996, I gave up on a second novel-in-waiting, a Game of Thrones-type swords’n’sorcery wolfbuster. I’d finished a draft, my agent had sent it out, but it never got picked up. I didn’t tell Sean about that book, but if I had, I’m sure he’d have asked me what I would say to that 29-year old now. Take a break, I’d say. And go back to it in time.
In 2011, somewhere in the middle of those twenty-plus rejections for Beautiful Pictures, I reached another crisis point. Nobody wanted my work, my exchange value was zilch, so what was the point in starting something new? I threw myself into a rake of projects that weren’t ‘proper’ writing. I knew they were distractions. In the autumn, when the projects were over, I was back facing the crisis. What are you? said a friend. Um, a nice person, I said. No, she said. You’re a writer. So write. Fuck off, I wanted to tell her, but in a shitty little hotel room in Cheltenham, between stints at a Christian arts festival, I forced myself to sit down and face the page. I rarely use the word scribbler, but that morning I did scribble. And afterwards I felt better.
It was then that I began to understand the inwards value, the Better value—not the exchange-value—of the term practice.
Practice is—like Lia’s biog—something I do, not something I am. It means turning up and doing it, no matter what the outcome, no matter what does or doesn’t happen. It is learning, it is unlearning. It is never, really, an arrival. Or if it is, each arrival is a new departure. It nurtures process and encompasses product, but it goes beyond both. It’s bigger but less linear, and often less visible, than career. It’s more selfish than vocation, it’s less money-oriented than entrepreneurship, it’s more serious than hobby. Ian Maleney uses the word ‘discipline’. The closest ‘practice’ is to, perhaps, is ‘amateur’, but it’s not amateurish. For me it’ll do, for the moment.
I’m often asked by people for feedback on how they should complete a book or other Thing they’re making. I usually ask them how long they’ve been working on it, how much time they intend to spend every week or every day going forward, and for how long. When they tell me their targets, I nearly always suggest they do less. If a writer is finding themselves stalled—and they’re not contractually obliged to finish a work for a publisher, or, like me, contractually obliged to write because the tax-paying citizenship has invested in that—I don’t suggest they make things worse by whipping themselves to work faster. You’re stuck and feeling bad about it? Don’t put in four hours a day. Put in one, or if that’s too much, thirty minutes. Or twenty minutes, three times a week. Each time you turn up you build energy. It’s the decision to be there that feeds the flame, not how long you stay once you’ve arrived.
To keep process moving, keep turning up, keep paying attention, keep practising. While our world may need more books, I don’t think that’s what it most needs, particularly not right now. Held hostage by profit and growth, our biosphere is under siege, and so is our collective humanity, our future. What I think is needed most in these scary, most interesting of times, is presence.
What is presence, but the clearest possible manifestation of love in action? If I love someone it’s pointless telling them that but acting differently. If I love writing, then I must act as if I do. I must be in the presence of writing. I must write, even just for five minutes a day, even—especially—if I think it’s shit. That’s practice, and nobody can stop me—or you—doing that, not even the pyramid. Nobody except my—or your—self and, in the end, death.