Making a mark

26 02 2013


Over half-term last week I went for a walk with a friend to check on some calves. The animals heard us coming and called down to us from the high path. It was bitterly cold and not the sort of weather for standing around even though we were protected from the worst of the wind by some sheltering trees. It was a short walk, but one I wished were longer because my friend asked me a question that stopped me in my tracks.

‘What motivates you?’

At the very least, that’s a five-mile question. My friend had already mentioned the idea of legacy and that had got me thinking about what I would wish to leave behind once my life is spent. A legacy is different from a memory, from merely not being forgotten. A legacy is more than a single act. A legacy requires something like a body of work, or at least consistent effort in that direction.

When I first started to write professionally, I didn’t think about what it would all amount to. I just poured all my energy into the current writing project and came up for air months, or more often years later. Since I completed my last writing project, I’ve given myself a bit more recovery time than usual because I now want to write only when I have something worthwhile to say. I’m no longer interested in writing for the income alone. I now feel that whatever I write next will be written out of passion.

‘Passion motivates me.’

All the books I adore, all the art I love, all the films that mean something to me, all the people I admire have passion. I’m reminded now of another friend who lost her art a few months ago and has spent this winter working on new beautiful, intricate, extraordinary work, in an ecstasy of relief that she is still able to find the motivation and the heart to not reproduce but fully recover her art. I, for one, can’t wait for her first exhibition because I know that the work has been created through passion. ‘I can’t explain it,’ she said when she showed me her work. ‘But I just love it.’

Loving what you do is a legacy as long as you love it and practise it even when you feel disheartened. Even when you feel that no one is listening. After the walk to see the calves, we settled down in front of the fire with a pot of tea and some fudge brownies. We talked about philosophy. One of the benefits of my job teaching philosophy is that it immediately encourages people to talk about big stuff.

A theme emerged: how to find meaning in life. No matter how far you stray in philosophical enquiry – and it is possible to wander quite far and get lost in the woods – this theme turns up nearly every time to guide you back to what’s important. What life is for is the ultimate philosophical question. Socrates built his career around it; Plato was preoccupied by the best way to organise society and Aristotle was keen to find the answer to lasting happiness or eudaimonia, a state closer to well-being or what we might call fulfilment.

What fulfils us also brings us closer to well-being. The difficulty lies in finding a job or a cause or a way of life that allows us to become fulfilled.

‘It’s just so difficult to get heard.’

This from a teenager who was joining in the fireside debate. Already he recognises how hard it will be to make his mark in his chosen field of engineering. Here is a teenage boy with a passion to build something great. Does it matter if he doesn’t get heard?

I think his point about competition is sobering, but only part of the story. If you choose to build or create one of the first things you must do is to ignore the competition. Not because you don’t care what has gone before, not even because there is plenty of wonderful work out there that totally inspires you, but because you are creating your own legacy. When you are ready to build, you will find people who are ready to listen.

Shelf life

5 02 2013

book shelf

Every writer must accept the short shelf life of her books. In a large book chain, there is generally a two-week window for a freshly-made book to go out on front of house display. I’m sure that I’m not alone in going into a book shop to see whether my book has made it to the table at the front. I’m sure that I’m not the only writer who has hovered by the table to see who picks up her book. I’m also sure that I’m not the only writer who has had to stop myself saying childishly: I wrote that. The book you are holding in your hands: that’s my work.

Naturally a short shelf life does not reflect the labour of love that put the book there in the first place. The book shop must display many new and competing books and to try to give each one its due moment to be seen in public in its brand new jacket is not possible for every book. There are many books that have the briefest of public outings. It shouldn’t matter because the true destination of any book is the mind of the reader.

I found out last week, though, that it does still matter what the book shops think. Book shops were a big influence on my writing life. I visited books shops in London to find out how to be a writer. Like a smitten film fan, I hung about on set, hoping that some of the glamour might rub off, or that I might bump into someone who felt about books as I did – that they were somehow as much a part of me as my blood and bone.I used to be able spend a whole day on Charing Cross Road just mooching about, but now the experience of going into a book shop – they are no longer even shops but stores – is more like visiting Tesco Express.

What has changed? Certainly not the merchandise; there are still lovely glossy books for sale with heavenly covers, or the young and enthusiastic staff. Some book shops even have coffee shops where you can browse a stack of potential purchases in comfort. It’s the tables in front of the shop that have changed: the blatant offers; the stickers; the three for twos; the new books for spring; the Richard and Judy recommendations; the Book at Bedtime books; the way that books are marketed like seasonal chocolates or flowers.

Last week at Exeter Waterstones, I noticed a shelf of Christmas-themed paperbacks destined for the return bins downstairs. Of course because it is February, there was a table featuring books to fall in love with. We have become used to this way of marketing. My local express supermarket has red balloons at the tills and the hair salon I drive past every day has changed its window display from ice white to scarlet rose. Even the library has recommended titles written on heart-shaped coloured paper.

I’m not sure that this kind of seasonal theming is appropriate for books because books by their very nature are timeless. My novel The Beautiful Truth was published in May last year, and that does not make it a ‘new book.’ That makes it one of the many hardbacks that have had their moment. By the new rules of marketing my book should not have been the first book I saw when I walked into Waterstones. It should not have been granted prime position on the very front table next to the new Dave Eggers.

The sight of my novel there on that front table made my week, more than that it strengthened my faith in the power of connection. The manager of Waterstones, who attended a talk I gave, had to make a decision to put my novel out on that table. He cared enough about it to ignore the rules and extend its shelf life. It made me realise that behind every piece of marketing there is a thinking human being. Someone has to decide to hang up the red balloons, or not…someone can decide that a book is worth marketing just because they believe in it. And that is worth everything to an author. If I could have found the manager, I would have kissed him.

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