“The words will come. They always have, and they always will.”
I love writing, I always have. But wow. Sometimes it gives you days that truly surprise you, and not necessarily for the best.
Today was one of them. Last night, I caught the train to the town centre and picked up a very expensive voice recorder, with which I aim to start recording my first ever podcast. This morning, I sat and put together a to-do list of all the projects I have planned for this year. This year, I wrote proudly in blue ink on a fresh sheet of blank white paper, I will launch my first solo EP, “The Nomadic”, inspired by my move to Berlin just after the World Cup last summer. I will self-release my first ever collection of poems, “Eating Roses for Dinner”. I will start my first podcast, which currently has a working title so embarrassingly pompous that I cannot bring myself to type it, which probably means that it is the wrong title. I will self-release the best thing that I have ever written, an illustrated poem called “I Had a Dream”, which is a deeply personal story that I did not even know was heartbreaking until I began to write it six years ago.
– You see? There it goes again. Just as I typed those final lines, I felt it again – that fish-leap of optimism at the base of my gut. That hope that, of the above projects, one of them would strike creative gold, would be widely acclaimed. That fish-leap is cruelly deceptive. It accompanies every piece of work that I put out into the world. And, recently, it has seemed more mocking than ever.
I have been writing and performing poetry for ten years now, and there was a time when I would jump at any gig that I was offered. Now, though, I find myself wearier than ever. That isn’t just the saunter of age: it is the grim familiarity of the over-excitement that accompanies the beginning of every new artistic adventure. As I began to put together my collection, I thought about the care with which each of the pieces were written, and when I wrote them. It has been such a journey, such a long and often lonely walk. From hundreds of poems, I trimmed the list down to a few dozen, pieces ranging over topics from climate change to city life to lost loves and my other merciful escapism aside from writing, which of course is football.
Ten years. I left the corporate world a decade ago to pursue the artistic dream, and every now and then I am reminded of the starkness of my choices, financial and otherwise. Many of my friends – most of them, in fact – continued on to excellent careers in the City, and while I do not remotely envy them their wealth – because, my God, they worked all the hours their bosses could send them, years on end – I sometimes wonder why I had to be the odd one out, why I felt compelled to chase such a dangerously elusive sense of creative fulfilment. I wonder why I was motivated by a desire that sometimes feels as futile as trying to stare out the sun.
Because, though I love writing, there are days when it unexpectedly feels like a burden. You’re not supposed to admit to feeling a sense of failure as an artist, but, then again, taboos are there to be shattered. So let me admit it: after ten years of writing, I can safely confess that I feel that I am a failure. That is not for want of trying, at least not in the early years. When I was 27, I wrote my first book, completing the final 63,000 words in three months whilst working a four-day week. I even wrote a great deal of that on Christmas Day. It was nominated for a Sports Book of the Year award, and I thought I was on the verge of something: yet I was not. When I was 30, I wrote my second book, from start to finish in just six months: I did that whilst doing a day job too, and the experience was so stressful that, even as I sit and type this, I cannot bring myself to write another.
I hope that this feeling is temporary. At the same time, it is something that extends to other areas of my work. I look at my music career, and the three bands that I was a part of: all of them had their beautiful moments, but (whilst I was in them, at least) never reached the level they should have, never reached the stages I wanted them to. I look at my poetry career, which has again had great moments, but I have still been unable to write defining work, that reaches a significant number of people beyond my niche. Perhaps the problem, as Warren Ellis recently wrote in a stunningly candid newsletter, is that artists like me are simply not good enough.
And I think that is why I had a slower day than usual. It is because, having filed one article and finished the bulk of another poem, I sat and looked at my four new projects and thought: but seriously, who beyond a narrow group of people is actually going to like any of them. And that is a pretty profound thing to think about something to which you have devoted most of your recent life, your soul. I think what happened today was that I looked back over it, and thought: I am not sure that I have made anything more than a passing impression in the fields that I care about.
Since the above paragraph might seem spectacularly lacking in perspective, perhaps even narcissistic, I should add that I recognise that my life in comparison to many others is far from tragic. My Twitter feed, filled daily with the suffering of the Rohingya and the West Papuans and the Syrians and women, my god, the black women, is reminder enough of that. I guess what I am expressing here is a weariness that I will never truly shift the burden of expectation that I and others have placed upon myself from such a young age – that I will never really be as good a writer as promised back in my teens, when my ego was propelled forward by awards. I still have not written that novel, with the most recent attempt abandoned after a few thousand words. I still have not made that music, or that – actually, God knows, I never will, and I don’t mean to repeat myself yet again.
What I am beginning to realise is that I am simultaneously fortunate and unfortunate as a writer. I am fortunate because I am just good enough at it to earn a living: but I am unfortunate because I am not good enough at it to be celebrated. And being celebrated isn’t just about the pride of people telling you how good you are – it would be the vindication of my gamble that, when I truly began to care about my writing in my early teens, I would be someone who could make a difference. It would be the vindication for going through those boarding-schools as one of the only black people there, where for years on end you felt as though you were representing your entire race. It would be the end of a truly exhausting walk, but as I assess my career so far I must conclude that this walk is far from over.
So here I go, again. I will start the next ten years of my artistic career by putting out these four pieces of work, and I will somehow drag myself forward. At times like these I remind myself of a phrase I say to myself whenever I have writer’s block, whenever I am approaching a wedding or funeral and have been asked to compose a poem that will appropriately mark the occasion:
“The words will come. They always have, and they always will.”