Blog: ‘Making it’ as a Writer

By Jenn Ashworth

jenn ashworth 2aBefore becoming a writer, Jenn Ashworth worked as a librarian in a prison. Her first two novels, A Kind of Intimacy (2009) and Cold Light (2011) attracted considerable media attention. Her third novel The Friday Gospels (2013) is currently being adapted by ITV Studios for Channel 4. In 2013 she co-founded Curious Tales – an independent publishing collective that specializes in short fiction, interactive narrative and collaboration with visual artists.  She teaches Creative Writing at Lancaster University.

What does ‘making it’ mean?

I can’t say what ‘making it as a writer’ means without considering the multiple roles that the umbrella term ‘writer’ has included for me. So some thoughts  on that first.

I am primarily a novelist, and for some, making it as a novelist would mean big advances, well known prizes, film adaptations and reviews in the national press. ‘Making it’ is intimately connected to ‘making a living’ though the figures the Society of Authors publish from time to time remind us that that is incredibly rare. I consider my role as a writer to come with responsibilities to the profession more generally and ‘making it’ in this area might involve having some kind of impact on issues that matter to me: payment for freelance writers, copyright and open access, the way creative writing and poetry is taught in schools, the development of creative writing as a subject in higher education, literacy and creative opportunity for those in prison. I’m an academic in creative writing – and ‘making it’ in this area might involve becoming a professor, attracting external funding for my research, having successful PhD students achieve their own version of ‘making it’ and having my creative work included in that all important REF-return. Writers these days are also expected to become public intellectuals, asked to write and comment on all kinds of issues at festivals and in broadcast and print media. Does making it mean publishing features and opinion in the broadsheets? Speaking on Front Row or The Culture Show? Being asked to comment on the work of your peers for marketing purposes or review? If making it means some version of this, then we could probably agree that most creative writers don’t make it. And that can’t be right, can it?

I asked writing friends of mine what ‘making it’ might mean to them, and the answers that came back – hitting a best-seller list, having more than 100 Amazon reviews, getting a film deal, publishing overseas, knowing that someone had learned a poem they had written off by heart, being able to give up the day job or seeing someone on a bus reading their work all felt to me events that weren’t about ‘making it’ in themselves, but symbolic evidences that the work was out there, that something had been communicated, and that someone else (or even better, lots of someone else’s) had listened. Broadcast made and message received. ‘Making it’ could mean a hand-made chapbook given away at a reading in the upstairs room in a pub. It could mean reading poems to children in a library, or seeing a student hand in a fifteenth draft of a story that has suddenly become strange, invested with a life of its own, something bigger and better than the student thought she was capable of. It could be a hand-written letter from your childhood English teacher, or a post-card out of the blue from someone who found your book abandoned on a park bench, took it home with them, and stayed up all night reading it.

I also reflected on how difficult it was to ‘make it’ as a writer when so many of these various measures of success may compete or conflict with each other. The sharky water of trade fiction publishing is always primarily a commercial enterprise for those who engage with it, and there’s no way round that. How to manage that against the looming presence of the REF return, a solipsistic system of valuing that admits no other measuring stick but its own? How to combine the responsibilities of a responsive teacher with the grueling obligation of the book tour? How can the sensitive skin (writers have to peel themselves raw sometimes) required for a writer to make a really open hearted contribution to literature in any of its forms also be the rhinoceros hide of a writer needs when she’s forced into interviews, the festival circuit, the horror of robust reviewing and the ambivalence of seeing her work adapted and remediated by others?

I’ve asked more questions and given no answers to them. But I do remember a game I used to play when I was little. It wasn’t much of a game. It involved running across a piece of uncultivated wasteland, dodging piles of dumped rubbish, old washing machines and fridges, overgrown bramble bushes and hidden bogs of stagnant water, swirled with petrol rainbows. I’d turn this into a jungle, an obstacle course, a no-mans-land of risk and danger, and only when I’d run across it successfully would I say, ‘made it!’ Part of ‘making it’ for my ten year old self, a writer-in-embryo, meant the end of a risky journey – and if that’s true, then I don’t want to ever sit back on the safe side of the jungle of a career as a writer and feel that I’ve made it. What else would there be for me to do other than sigh with relief and be grateful that it’s all over now?

Writing, like all other kinds of research, is a continual process of risk taking, leaps of faith, and struggling through the undergrowth when the path ahead is not clear. It is three o clock in the morning terror about having bitten off more than you can chew, and it is about casting about at the end of a project, rejection letters hitting your inbox like hand-grenades, looking about for the next project – something that is enough to make you curious, and something you don’t think, right now, you have the skills to pull off. Writing is about doing and not getting. It is often unfunded and unfundable, a mystery to colleagues in other academic disciplines, liable to fall apart under your hands at any moment, commercially unsafe, with rickety and unpredictable career prospects and uncertain of publication at all. That is the writing life. Who’d want to make it if ‘making it’ meant leaving all that adventure behind?

 

Jenn Ashworth, 2014

Find out about Jenn’s latest writing project here.

 

 
 

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