Starttober: Sometimes It’s Better Not to Be Heard

Every month seems to have an associated tag these days. Next month is Movember, when those who don’t already have moustaches grow them for cancer awareness. It is also, of course, NaNoWriMo, not to be confused with the bardic equivalent, NaPoWriMo. And October is now, apparently, Stoptober.

Now, I love randomly-generated-by-not-quite-lunar-cyclical-means reasons to stop doing the deleterious as much as anyone. But it struck me the other day, that the thing I need to stop the most renders the nature of such quitfests somewhat, erm, porous at best. My moment of anagnorisis occurred as I was furiously bashing out an opinion piece on Jonathan Franzen’s recent attack in the Guardian on the literary landscape nurtured by Amazon. I was getting tired of what I saw as a deliberate misreading of the piece by a number of indie authors so that they could get on a bandwagon of condemnation. So I started railing about them.

And then I had a hang on moment, and started to count just how much of my creative time I have spent snarking. It’s almost a staple of being a writer these days. Especially a writer who has an outsider status – it is worryingly easy for us to start cultivating that badge of difference with a negativity and aggression that decries it, and those who bestowed us upon it, rather than celebrating it. “No one listens to me,” we wail, “and all because I’m an OUTSIDER.” “The system perpetuates itself and stands in my way, because I’m an OUTSIDER.” Well, of course it does. We’re outsiders. If everyone listened and opened the door to us, we’d be insiders.

The problem that faces the outsider in art (and elsewhere, I expect) is that often the only way to achieve any kind of visibility is to cause a stir. It’s a tactic I’ve used many times – see, I’ve written that and subconsciously used the word “tactic,” as though I have resigned myself to using negativity for a “greater good.” And it’s worked – from forcefully calling out prejudice againt self-publishers and ovetrwrought, overpaid mainstream fiction on the Guardian website to essentially turning up places and daring people to tell me “OK, you do better then” many of the gigs I’vegot over the years have come through this route. Never, I hasten to add, through trolling. Always being polite, always, genuinely engaging any points made, but basically using the “shout loud and bit like a mosquito to get noticed, then work on the good stuff once they’re listening” method. I’d go so far as saying I’ve built some really great and mutually respectful friendships that way with people I am convinced would never had looked at me had I segued differently into our relationship.

Hungerford Bridge landscape 3So, you see, snark is effective. And it’s cathartic.

But what does it really have to do with the one thing that really matters – our art? OK, so if we’re purely or largely situationists – and I know some great writers who are – then the answer might lie somewhere on a scale of “maybe on a Monday” to “everything.” I’m not a situationist. My artistic passion is the struggle for identity and wholeness in the modern, fragmented world, and how each voice can be heard on its own terms. And that last bit really gives the lie to the snark path. I write poems and stories about outsiders struggling to be heard in their own voice, and not that assigned to them by their opressors or amplified by well-meaning advocates. I was falling into the trap I devote my creative life to writing about. Insiders, oppressors, majorities, adherents of the norm – all will allow anyone a voice, if it’s on their terms. In other words, they will happily allow you to debate the agenda they set. And by snarking, that’s exactly what I was doing – debating their agenda.

lullabies(One of the inspirations for this post is the wonderful poet Lucy Ayrton, whose casual and friendly but firm comments on Facebook have more than once reminded me of the value of championing the good over naysaying the bad. Click on the link for her wonderful pamphlet of modern feminist fairytales)

So, what I want to stop in October is negativity, snark (now, in the season of the conservative party conference, and general meltdown across the Pond, I want to make it quite clear that I won’t stop calling out the abuses of politicians – that’s a whole other story. Well, it’s not quite a whole other story, but the intersection between artistic and political life is for another post). And the first thing I want to do in that vein is to stop talking about stopping. Stopping doing something can be great – stopping smoking is, I concur, just about the best thing many people could do. But “stopping x” is still setting the agenda to “x.” It’s still speaking in somebody else’s voice.


So I want to start talking about starting. I’ve recently restarted a proper exercise programme (well, I say proper – what I mean is an-ab-short-of-a-six-pack-batshit-crazy), and for Starttober, I have added a proper stretching routine into it. But you don’t really want to know that (and I’d better stop rambling before I get into anecdotes from my powerlifting days). I would love for Starttober to be the, er, start of a run of unremitting focus on the positives of my creative life, of creativity in general. Only yesterday, I was watching again the video below by the remarkable Amanda Palmer (now, I have, in my time and to my shame, joined the snark about Amanda and her call for unpaid volunteers, and I have also – less to my shame probably – snarked plenty about TED). She is proof positive of what you can do when you keep refocusing on your own art in the face of an establishment that renders you outsider.

So, following Amanda’s example, I would love this to be the beginning of a step back from some of the things that have crowded out the best creative thoughts and ideas – a lot of my journalism and writing networks included. Even where I don’t use those spaces for negativity, there is a tendency to be pulled towards topics in the wrong way, and a tendency to be sidetracked as a result. But I don’t want to see that as a dropping of things I don’t want to do.

anna-nightmaring-spires(the fabulous Anna Hobson performing at the first Not the Oxford Literary Festival at the Albion Beatnik bookstore)

Rather, I want to fill my creative space with things I believe in, with things I can do well and see through to a conclusion. One of those projects will be working with the Albion Beatnik bookstore to curate a beautifully-made celebration of contemporary literature. And I want to take The New Libertines to new and exciting places, as well as making sure that next year’s Not the Oxford Literary festival brings Oxford the very best of culture it may not yet have explored.

I am also ridiculously excited by some of the plans I have for my personal creative projects. I am, as you read last time, dusting off my book The Man Who Painted Agnieszka’s Shoes having been offered a dream-come-true opportunity to work on it with my fantasy editor Scott Pack and a beautifully produce trailer and cover. And I will be collaborating with two of my favourite artistic talents to create some wonderful live shows and books – you can see the stunning new video from one of Oxford’s finest bands, Superhand, at the top of this piece. I will be working on a live show with them in the very near future. And you will see dotted around here some of my collaborations with the brilliant photographer Veronika von Volkova. I am incredibly excited at the thought of working with her again in the near future.

I am also delighted that my online store has received its first order. I love being able to sell my books direct to people – there’s nothing quite so satisfying as going to the post office with a pile of packages for readers.  Having an online store means I can sell to people direct and give them a little more assurance that I won’t just take their money! You can buy Evie and Guy, and my two poetry/short story pamphlets (life) razorblades included and i cannot bring myself to look at walls in case you have graffitied them with love poetry. Obviously, I really hope you will – I love to give digital stuff away free, but I would also one day love to make a living doing this, so I love it when people buy things.

bet(Vivienne Tuffnell’s blog Zen and the Art of Tightrope Walking is a constant source of creative inspiration. She’s also a wonderful author as you’ll find out if you click the cover of her book The Bet)

Starting is much more holistically fulfilling than stopping. Positivity is plain better than negativity. And if our outsider voices are ever to be heard, to be given space in a wider cultural discourse, then we have to forge our own path, stick to our creative visions, and make the effort constantly to refocus (how many times have I said that over the years – and STILL I need to do it again and again because I’m dragged this way and that!) on who we are and not be angry at what we’re perceived to be. But that comes, of course, with a danger. The danger is that we will never be heard. That the art we struggle for so long and to whih we give parts of ourselves so vital each work feels like a severed artery delivering our hit of life straight to the heart or brain. The thought that it will go unseen, unheard, unread just doesn’t bear contemplating – it is the thing that keeps many self-publishers (and many with full-on regular publishing contracts to boot!) awake at night, and the echo of that fear can be heard in the cries that haunt forums and blogs the internet over. We want to be read. We want our voices to be heard!

And yet. And yet, that’s the glorious, paradoxical, hair-tearingly frustrating nub of the thing – we want our voices to be heard. And that simple clause contains a deep-running tension. If we are to be heard, it is so much easier for that to happen by our speaking on other people’s terms – by our trying to prise open the door and cease to be outsiders, by railing against the forces that keep us on the outside and demanding they let us in. If we truly continue to speak in our own voices, on our own terms, to our own creative agendas, then we may never be heard. It’s not a circle that can simply be squared. It’s not a case of finding the best fit of “this much authenticity and this much compromise.” It’s often a painful, self-splitting choice – be heard or be yourself. I can’t tell you what to do. But I feel happier coming down on the side of the latter – it marks a decision to stop talking about stopping things, and to talk more about starting. The real key is whether, having started, we can finish any of those creative visions even when we are surrounded by silence.

9 thoughts on “Starttober: Sometimes It’s Better Not to Be Heard

  1. WOOT!
    What can I say?
    Excellent thoughts and excellent plan.
    I confess that because of health challenges that have meant that I’ve had to accept that I’ve gone from considering myself able-bodied to having to consider myself actually somewhat disabled (and getting support for the issues has been long in coming and now hard to adjust to), I’ve far less energy than I need.
    Last night I STARTED a short story based on one I wrote thirty years ago. I’d been debating whether to continue with that (and with 3 other works in progress) because of the conundrum of what to do with it (them) and whether there was any point. It’s been putting me off beginning editing and preparing for publishing several existing novels. I’ve said before that the pressure to be *professional* is squashing the life out of me.
    Bring back the joy I had in writing.

    • It’s so difficult to maintain a real passion for your art when you’re trying to “be professional.” There are people who do it, and who are shining beacons in their balance – Joanna Penn for one, Amanda Palmer of course for another. I think we’re probably told too often that the business and the art can go hand in hand. Yes, they *can* but often they can’t. It would make the decisions we then have to make easier if there were more honesty about that. It’s also true that when it comes to the off-kilter artists on the fringes and beyond of popular taste, often those who do best commercially are those who stay relentlessly true to their quirky viison rather than trying to second guess.

    • I totally understand.–some health issues you have to accept and work around. I’ve had to do this–somedays it’s very frustrating not to be at the “top of your game”, but I refuse to give in and keep doing what I can. Other periods in time are far better than others, and I keep that in mind.

  2. I’d love to have a conversation with Vincent van Gogh, who sold just one painting (and that to his brother) in his lifetime. Yet his art still compels and gets us talking long after the man himself was gone.

    • Yes – what’s left of us when we’re gone will be our words – there is time for our voices still to be heard after we go, but if we never truly show ourselves in our words, what we leave behind won’t really be “us”

  3. Wise words, Dan – and good luck with it. We look forward to a fitter you? Or just one who carries on being true to himself – in case you wondered, that’s what we all like about you!

  4. Welcome to my world dan! The liberation of getting out of the whole outsider mentality is truly liberating. When they say your face doesn’t fit, the reply is, it fits me thanks. The positives I found when I became non-capitalist instead of anti- capitalist were immeasurable. And same creatively. I haven’t listened to the you can’t mantra for years, I just go ahead and do it, whether’they’ like it or not. My voice is of course seldom heard in ‘their’ world but that suits me fine. I’m happy in my world. It’s just as real, creatively free and rewarding. So yes, once we realize it’s not about taking on the system but simply living according to our own system, life is a lot better. And then you might want to change your ‘better to try and be extraordinary… Tag line, because in
    Your world, simply being IS success. To truly BE is to be extraordinary. No external validation necessary. So be positive and make your world, and your art the best you can and the way you want. Creativity is not a competition or an industry!

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