Writing has been incredibly kind to me, given me more than I could ever imagine, most notably of all a host of wonderful friends. And self-publishing has been a trailblazing blistering white knuckle ride, glorious and gobby and uncomfortable and frustrating and infuriating and delicious. But it’s time to move on. From the self-publishing writing world. Not, I hope, from the friends.
In 2006, I started writing a novel. By the start of 2008, with a thriller under my belt and a passionate desire to write something that pushed both my own creative abilities and readers’ minds, I set myself a goal – flabby and ill-formed but a goal nonetheless. Five years to see if I had what it takes. I had no idea what that might mean though I wondered if it might mean winning a Booker Prize, because I’d followed the literary world all my life and that seemed like the Big One.
It was a typical kind of a goal for me to set myself. My life’s signature has been the “extreme, time-limited flit” to coin a rather ugly but very explanatory phase. Put in more regular terms, I find something I love, launch into it with absolute single-mindedness, and see exactly what I can achieve. I always over-aim. I always want to be not my best, but the best there is. I’m not hugely competitive in daily life. Not competitive at all, really, but I’m hugely ambitious when it comes to my hobbies. I think it’s for the simple reason that I enjoy myself more when I am pushing up against, and beyond, the limiter. My first such obsession was bridge. At school it was a mild obsession. By university I was up till 4 or 5 every morning practising with anyone who was interested. I managed to spend 2 or 3 years in the Great Britain juniors. Close, but not the very best.
After that, in my mid 20s, I migrated, still in the mental sphere, to mind sports. The Mind Sports Olympiad was just getting underway. The first year it was held, I went along for a laugh, and picked up a bronze medal in the World Creative Thinking Championships. I ended up winning the World Intelligence Championships and becoming the first ever “grandmaster” of intelligence. But that wasn’t the strongest year for the event, and unlike its sibling the World Memory Championships, it is no longer staged.
By my late 20s, I launched into my first physical obsession, strength sports. I ended up competing for my university’s athletics team. Good. But not exceptional.
It was in my mid 30s that writing, which had always been there in my life, from the love of literature instilled by my mother at the earliest age, through a teenage obsession with film and endless iterations of terrible goth poetry.
Which is where we come back in. I soon realised that, having discovered thrillers were, in my case, for reading not for writing, the things I wanted to write weren’t the kind of thing publishers wanted to publish. And so, in late 2008 and early 2009, I got together a wonderful group of writers who felt the same thing, drawn from the darkest corners of the internet (well, from Harper Collins’ website Authonomy), and we set up Year Zero Writers, a collective intended to promote self-publishing writers who refused to compromise art for commerce.
At the time, self-publishing was far from fashionable, and it was relatively easy for a very vociferous, extremely dedicated group to cause quite a stir. We ended up in the unlikeliest of places like Nylon magazine, and eventually found ourselves performing live shows blending words and music at venues like Rough Trade and the Poetry Café.
It was a really exciting time to be a self-publisher, and we had incredible adventures. But all the time the self-publishing world was changing. It was becoming acceptable. It was becoming commercial. The place allotted to a bunch of misfits who wanted to smash down the walls and accost the world with their misfittery was shrinking.
I found myself struggling to stay on the outside. For every intimate, transgressive piece I wrote, every hand held out in the darkness to my fellow outsiders, there was a talk at a major publishing event or a piece in the Guardian or something that tried to mainstream me, to manipulate my content ever so slightly and make it just a little more palatable. I moved sideways, seeking out the wonderful outsider community of performance poets, started my own show, The New Libertines, and took it on tour to some incredible places, but acceptability seemed to follow me like a stalker.
By 2012 I was spending more time writing blog posts about things that had as much edge as a buckie ball than I was writing anything that pushed me beyond my limits. What I loved was meeting wonderful writers, making incredible friends, and finding and championing some breathtaking work. But my own writing had stalled. And by 2013 it was clear my life as a slam poet was going nowhere fast.
I gave it one last roll of the dice and produced a book I still don’t quite know how I wrote, the single thing I have achieved creatively of which I am proudest. Evie and Guy is a novel written entirely in numbers. It is an attempt to question the way we construct narrative at its most basic level. It is intended to make us question the way we represent our own lives to ourselves. I will always be deeply proud of it. Many of the reactions I’ve had have been truly moving, and that feels incredible. But Evie and Guy feels increasingly like a horizon moment. The culmination of my journey to the end of the rainbow. There are many places fiction can go from there. But I’m not the person who can take it there. I have reached my limits for the time being – I’m a good writer, possibly a very good writer, but the world has plenty enough of those and certainly doesn’t need another – though who knows what the distant future will bring.
I have also started to experience an increasing sense that I have been getting “comfortable” in the literary world. And, as anyone who has read my piece Never Take Yes For an Answer will know, nothing makes me as uncomfortable as getting comfortable. The final catalyst was being offered a consultancy by a self-publishing service provider. I am sure it would have been a wonderful opportunity, but I found myself seriously thinking about saying yes. And that pulled me up short. That is not the kind of comfortable opportunity that sits well with me. If I had become the kind of person who thought about saying yes to something that was so clearly saying yes to me, it was time to move on.
The thing with everything I’ve launched myself headlong into is that each of those pursuits has tapped into something that’s always been there in my life, simmering, waiting to explode. I’ve never had the sense that I wanted to be a particular thing in life, like a surgeon or a lawyer or an athlete. Just the sense that I wanted to push myself, that moving, straining, learning, excelling, discovering where the limits lay was the way I had to do everything. And each of the things I’ve tilted after in this fashion has stayed with me, left deep trackmarks of passion in my veins.
I wouldn’t be without any of them. And that in itself is the fatal flaw of the “too many aptitudes” character as Hank Pfeffer calls it in his wonderful article Danger: High Voltage (read it, I know so many of you for whom it will, as it did with me, create an “aha!” moment). I get really good at something really quickly. But I will never have the focus to get truly exceptional at any one thing. There are too many other things I’m itching to push at for that. Which is unfortunate, because I am also driven by a deep sense of competitiveness. I don’t really want to be “good” at something. If I take something on I don’t want to do it well. I don’t want to do it exceptionally well, and I don’t even want to do my best. I want to be the best there is. Of course, it’s a target one will never reach, but it stretches you to places you would never otherwise go, and it is that stretching that turns out to be the most important part of all. The journey is always, it seems, more important than the goal. A journey that has some very simple characteristics – the sense that you are always stepping foot in uncharted territory; the sense that you are about to blow yourself apart through effort and come out the other side as something transformed; and the feeling that you are always an outsider, that being accepted, that having a “home” in a traditional milieu would be the most horrifying thing of all, that “being on the outside, straining to escape even further” is my true home, that whenever acceptance comes in any form the shocked but appropriate response is to decentre, to run for the hills.
In my case, I am literally running for the hills. The final factor in my decision to withdraw from the writing world began last summer when I went for my “40-plus” health check. Despite being mammothly (adjective used advisedly) overweight and having a family history of heart disease and a long personal history of asthma, remarkably every single test came back clear. “So I can exercise?” I asked, without really thinking why I was asking. “Yes,” said my doctor. “Is there any exercise I can’t do?” “No,” she said. “Not even extreme stuff?” (which I qualified by adding “I should warn you that what I mean when I say extreme probably isn’t what other people mean.”) “No.” No “except”s, no qualifications. A clean bill and carte blanche.
That night I set myself a challenge. Not “get fit” or “be healthy” though those would be the by-products. I was going to do an indoor row. 100 miles. In one day. That was over a year ago, and I’m now just a week or so away – you can find out more about it and the wonderful Apopo, the charity I’m doing it for, here.
The truth is I felt like I’d been given my life back. I’d always assumed I was a ticking cardiovascular time bomb. I wasn’t going to throw away all the opportunities that had just opened up in the discovery that I wasn’t. So that, and the knowledge that at 42 I am still young enough but won’t be forever, was the final step that has pushed me into endurance exercise. In the year since I made that decision I have already met some incredible people, mainly writers who also push their physical boundaries, I’ve read a vast amount on the subject, and I’ve rowed a lot of miles. A LOT. And I’ve fallen in love with another journey, pushing my mind and my body to places I would never have dreamed it was capable. I want to follow that path as far as I can while I am still physically able. My target, to run the Badwater 135 – 135 miles. Non-stop. Through Death Valley. In the hottest part of summer (though very recent health and safety events are casting a shadow over the event’s future). The aim is to achieve this before I’m 50. And I’m going back to mind sports, setting myself a similar kind of endurance target of competing at the world memory championships and mental calculation world cup in 2016.
Will I still write? Of course. I may even submit something – shudder – to a publisher one day, and I look forward to blogging about my new directions – writing and presenting non-fiction is one of my true passions. I will never lose my love of literature and I will never lose my longing to provide a hand held out in the darkest, loneliest part of the night to my fellow outsiders. I hope at least some of my books, such as Songs from the Other Side of the Wall or (life) razorblades included will continue to do that, and maybe my continuing journey will also be able to. I also want to devote myself properly to essay writing, developing the love of creative and critical commentary I’ve touched the edges of in blogging and journalism, and build on my teaching and speaking experience by doing some coaching and talking on decentring, the art of thinking and acting as an outsider.
I certainly hope to remain friends with the hundreds of wonderful people I’ve met through writing. And of course you may still buy my books. I hope you do, I’m extremely proud of them. It is with regret that I will be saying goodbye to the other parts of my writing life – reviewing, championing, beta reading, blogging, writing columns, first and foremost self-publishing new books – though the regret is more sadness that I wish I could do more for the wonderful writers out there than regret at a choice badly made. My ambitions for my writing changed somewhat along the way. What I really wanted, by the end, was to make a difference, if only to one person’s life. To let someone feel they weren’t alone through my words. I don’t know if I had the skills to achieve that, but I gave it my best shot.
I very much hope some of you will come with me on my new journey, that others will continue to discover my books, that others still will read the exploits of a crazy man and set out on their own journeys. It would be impossible to thank everyone here by name who has helped me on this remarkable literary adventure, and if I try I will leave out people who should be there, which would be unforgivable. But thank you all. Making literally hundreds of wonderful writer friends has been the most remarkable thing of all. I hope many of you will carry on being friends with me now I’m on civvy street.
A final piece of advice to the literary media, if anyone is listening – it is your duty to seek out the strange and unexpected, the unheralded and unknown, to overground the underground, and to champion what everyone else hates, and to do so because you love it and shrug off the ridicule. Please stop letting your readers down.
And to writers, and everyone else, I’ll leave you with what continue to be my mottos:
– As writers, it is often our duty to speak when with our every fibre we long to hold our peace, but as human beings, it is often our duty to listen when with our every fibre we long to have our say.
– it is better to try to be extraordinary and fail than to try to be ordinary and succeed.
– never be afraid to draw a line and move on. People will tell you over and over “keep going, you’ll get there.” But most of us won’t. If the goal isn’t going to happen and the journey has stopped being a joy, sometimes the answer is to start another journey before it’s too late.