Last week I saw the Richard Long exhibition at Tate Britain. I love his rhythmic, organic abstracts that suggest simultaneously a cornfield, blood patterns when sun shines through closed eyelids, heavy rain on a window as seen by a child driven by boredom to observe. But the photographs of his walks-as-art got me laughing aloud. Not at him, but at his audacity. How does he find the guts to live precisely as he chooses – walking then photographing his tracks, spooning up tidal mud and stroking it onto walls with his fingers - and make a robust living from doing just that? Suppose we all followed our desires without doubt, guilt or compromise, would we experience the success and joy Long has found? Or do we need that anchor in the ordinary that we think we resent?
I’ve promised my agent a draft of the WIP by August. But June and July are filled with workshops and weddings. I teach and waitress to survive. So when does the book get written? Should I, like Long, jack all but the writing?
No, because this tension feels healthy. The book would come no quicker if I had millions and minions, despite fantasies that it would. Working and writing are essential companions. Years ago I got to know the writer Magnus Mills, who frequented a bookshop where I worked. He came to fame as the bus driver who earned £100k advance for his first, Booker and Whitbread nominated, novel. (Divide that by ten and you’re nearer the mark, since writing and earning is the crux here.) He was, of course, a writer all along, who drove buses to earn a crust, but his urge to write was inextricable from his urge to work. He called full-time writing, ‘being unemployed,’ and said it left him not only with nothing to say but no means of expression. The rhythm of the working day informs the rhythm of his prose. Think of Khaled Hosseini rising at five to write literary bestsellers before his shift as a hospital doctor. Could Eliot have written the ‘unreal city’ stanza of The Wasteland if he hadn’t commuted daily? Who but Larkin the librarian could articulate so movingly that the unlived life is worth examining?
It’s invigorating to recognise that our writing isn’t crippled by having to share its time with waged work. Every time I resent my waitressing uniform I remember a long shift in a tiny cooking galley last Christmas, so hot that we opened the skylight and took turns to stand under the shaft of snow falling into the kitchen, as steam rose from simmering vats of sixty lamb shanks. We drove home in the small hours, leaving the guests snowed in at an endless party. The A3 had become a thick meadow and the windscreen was white, filling our vision. We drove into oblivion. It felt like space flight. This is now the spine of a new story. Work feeds writing; writing elevates work. They’re a brilliant team if we let them nurture each other.