To believe you could build some kind of career in the arts, growing up working class in England during the 80s and 90s, you may as well have aspired to become an astronaut or Chancellor of the Exchequer. Such careers weren’t so much unlikely, as not even possible to imagine. There were teenage kids around my neighbourhood who tried to form a band, one girl in class who could draw better than the rest of us, but without any examples of artistic success or the right kind of encouragement, this was generally where the dabbling ended, all creative pursuits abandoned amid looming financial prerogatives. When all your adult role models are van drivers, army lifers or work at the local Asda (my home town’s biggest employer), making any kind of living from the written word feels about as likely as discovering a cure for cancer.
But the urge to create was always there, and I was fortunate in many ways.
My parents encouraged my reading habit, my mother taking me to the town’s well-stocked library every Saturday where I soon became engrossed in the adventures of Asterix and Obelix and the fiction of Roald Dahl.
From a young age I escaped into invented worlds while my coming of age coincided with the tail end of student maintenance grants. My family situation back then meant I was eligible for the full amount which, back in the mid-90s, was around £2000 per annum; sufficient to cover my basic living expenses.
Being lucky enough to get the funding for an arts degree was key, not so much because of what I learned on it, but because this course gave me three years to work out what I wanted to do with my life. By undertaking part-time and holiday work, I managed to graduate without debt, something that’s drilled into people like us as vital.
The spectre of money owed prevents many working class youngsters from pursuing higher education these days, and without familial or state support debt can become a matter of crisis; of bailiffs and evictions.
I had the opportunity to understand writing fiction was something I could do, even if it took me a long time to become accomplished at it.
That’s what I’ve been engaged in over the last twenty years, funding my endeavours through temporary clerical work. I would write through my spare time or save up enough to immerse myself in a first draft for a few months. In terms of maximising my income, this was the worst choice I could have made, but when the need to create becomes impossible to suppress a writer will do whatever it takes to satisfy the compulsion. Nothing would make me miserable like having an idea I was unable to follow through, simply because I didn’t have the time.
But the legacy of our working class upbringing lingers for writers who put the work out there, who attempt to gain recognition. A lack of entitlement and social capital hurts us, the absence of connections dispirits and it’s impossible to get noticed when all an agent’s clients come by personal referral. This isn’t unique to publishing of course; rather it’s indicative of a general failing within the collective culture. Ordinary people will never harness the confidence that propels Eton-educated boys into positions of wealth and success, whether the privileged are qualified or not. Nowadays the working class are taught a sense of their own powerlessness early on. The world owes us nothing and, however hard we work, we’ll never bend the establishment to our will. I’ve been trying to interest the literary world in my work for two decades and I must be up to a thousand rejections by now, ever since I sent out samples from my first book, back in 1998.
But that’s the thing about the working classes, we’re stubborn. From day one we had to develop thick hides, to deal with the bullying and chaotic home lives and constant threats to our physical well-being, from others on our estate and elsewhere; those people who would rather our voices weren’t heard. One way to escape the endless cycle of write-submit-reject is to embrace print on demand and digital publishing so that’s what I did, putting out my debut and other works, most recently a collection of short stories inspired by the experiences of individuals around Austerity Britain called ‘Outside The Comfort Zone’, more details of which can be found on my blog.
Self-publishing gave me a readership, however small, and the kind of validation I was never going to receive from the literary industry, as an outsider looking in. I could sell the work to people directly, market it online, show my dear mother this wasn’t all talk; there was something behind the ten thousand hours I had put into developing my craft.
By the time she died in 2015, I think mum was at ease with who I was. She no longer wanted me to follow her advice, to get on the ground floor of a corporation then work my way up. I couldn’t suppress my creative self like that: I was a writer, and a writer writes, even when the gatekeepers of the industry aren’t willing to listen. The joy was in the creativity and the results would have to be enough. It took a while for me to save up and self-finance a Masters in Creative Writing at the London Met but, since completing this course in 2015, I’ve been up to a hundred submissions a year and I’ll continue to seek out rejection. These knock-backs don’t penetrate my carapace any more, I’m beyond that. Besides, I have other outlets for my work, places where it will be appreciated.
That’s my advice to writers from humble backgrounds: don’t stop working towards the goal, but try to understand there are levels of success apart from the conventional ones. Like the man says: when you feel like you can’t go on, keep going.