Late night thoughts of a slush pile hopeful…

Posted on September 6, 2010 by


I completed another full day in my job (that I feel the need to be grateful for despite the fact that I don’t want to do it) last week. It’s a job I have been doing for almost fifteen years and I have the great pleasure of being good at it. However, being good at something you don’t want to do and don’t want to be known to be doing is really only useful to ease the ever-present guilt making money inspires. I sleep well at night knowing I earn every cent and the work I produce deserves a little more and modesty like that has its advantages.

But this particular day, as I was packing up, I gave the send/receive on my hotmail one last virtual squeeze and received an announcement of a short list for a competition I had entered.

I wasn’t on it.

Because I am a serious writer (by that I mean someone who writes minimum daily hours and seeks to improve) I am forced into the humiliating queue of hopefuls in competitions, slush piles and long lines at writers festivals. Naturally, I see myself as superior to my companions at this point in my career. At this stage all one has is ego. Shedding one’s ego is only for those who can replace it with something else; a competition win, an offer from an agent, or the ever elusive publishing deal. Till then I am a slush pile hopeful, clinging to legendary stories of discovery like those of David Forster Wallace and JK Rawling.

What’s most distressing is what it has taken to get this far. That is, to get nowhere. My answer to the ever present “How is the writing going?” is as jaded and vacant as my friends and families eyes when I tell them I can’t go out with them again because I will be home writing that stuff that never gets published. It has taken years to cement the discipline and inner belief required just to make it to the keyboard every day consistently and stop turning on the television and going out for dinner.  I see these abilities as valuable and consistent with my true self. Either that or  I just can’t face many more dinners with a side serving of questions about the novel I am working on; watching those who love me,  desperate to make happy faces of encouragement for something they don’t understand, and obviously have mixed feelings about.

I don’t like to admit it of course but I have never been on a short list – at least not that I know of. I look at those who do make a short list and or a win, sometimes with an envious determination to learn from them, and sometimes with a painful disinterestedness as if getting closer to their work will give me no clue as to what lack exists in my own. I’m told it’s a lottery and there are times I long for that to be true. Mostly I take too much to heart a belief that they didn’t win so much as I lost, and I need to dig deep to find my way to the next entry. I know these years of congratulating others, of feeling the losses deeply, of chocolate or red wine condolences and emails baring bad news  are good for my character and will build me into the writer I will become, but as I get closer to my goal (as I inevitably am – right?) I can’t help realising any meagre win is unlikely to make up for these years on Struggle Street as my self esteem is beaten to a pulp night after night by the sheer depth and breadth of my ambition.

I discover things about myself that I don’t like (such as the insistent power of my ego) as I impatiently wait out my endless education. The advantage to never trying is never failing, and I do see from my ivory tower the bliss associated with the damp regret the dedicated television watcher experiences as they lament never putting their plans into action. At least they think they could have made it. I sit amongst endless piles of paper evidence convincing me I am not yet good enough and may never be. Is it any surprise that the worst in me rises, scratching away at the final thin scraps of veil preventing me from confronting my true self?  This same self I try to write copy from?

Hilary Mantel told us about the desperate hours before the announcement of The Booker Prize, knowing you are about to lose in the most spectacular way, or you are about to beat J.M. Coetzee. I can barely cope with the hours, days and years before publication and she claims these were her best, when she was free to write what she wanted to write and never had a deadline.

And in my heart of hearts (and on the surface of my sweat soaked skin) I ache for the day I can look back on this time and wish I was here again. I yearn for the knowledge, so elusively at the tip of my fingers that makes me miss the nights I could sit up and write as the mood took me, for my simple blog that will be read by few, my small press e books that will sell ten copies a month and my slush pile stories; wild, inappropriate, rejected and adored for the pleasure of refusing to give in and write what I must in order to get published.