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Monday, 4 April 2016

On Being Busy – and Having Good Fortune

On a good day, this is how it feels

The memories are fading, but the record is still there, buried away in the journals I’ve kept since 1994, around the time I was awarded my first book-length commission and decided to cut the ties to full-time work once and for all. I mean the memories of times when I was absolutely desperate for work that paid.

Right now I have three, perhaps four book projects on the go, more lined up, and beside me a shelf containing copies of a dozen books I’ve written or ghosted in the past six or seven years. It’s a long way from the days when my journal entries logged as many as thirty projects I was trying to kick-start – stories, articles, interviews, broadcast documentaries, travel pieces, a novel or two – all of which were stalled, awaiting replies from editors, agents and producers. Oddly, when the flood-gates did open and the work did start coming in, it wasn’t one of those thirty projects that bore first fruit. No, everything that came my way came from left field, from people I’d never come across, far less courted. I have no idea why.

The main strand of my current workload is this memoir of the British guy who went to the States and worked for twenty years as a bounty hunter. I’m 40,000 words into that, enjoying it far more than I thought I would, and it’s going like a train. At the same time I will shortly publish a new travel book for the American market. Then there’s the novel I completed in Taos last year. That is currently with a British publisher interested enough to have sent for the full manuscript. And last week I was in Leeds talking to a publisher who are keen to take on the history of York Brewery, which I completed just before Christmas. If I tell you that the bounty hunter is already talking about further books, whereas I am planning another of my own - subject: Nature, and my life-long engagement with it (or Her) – you can see why I occasionally whistle a happy tune while double-digging down at the allotment. On top of that lot, I should add, I have undertaken to edit and prepare for publication my mate Greg Christie’s magnum opus, the life and work of Eric Knight, the man who wrote Lassie, Come-Home – and an awful lot more that people have forgotten about.

So, everything going swimmingly. But I still look back and ponder those difficult, penurious days – desperately depressing and frightening days, some of them – and wonder what I did right to bring on such a change of fortunes. Well, I can say I deserved a break. But how did it come about?

I do believe in luck – or should I say good fortune? But I am also a great believer in hanging in there. As the father of a daughter who is striving to make a living as an artist (and her partner is about to go to drama school), I do preach tenacity. The longer you stick at doing what you love, the more you’ll find that all those other people – the competition, you might say – have for some reason or another had to give up. Or elected to. I remember a fellow student when I was doing my M.A. at East Anglia, telling me that if he didn’t break through soon he’d have to dip into his capital – and bang went his chance of dedicating much time to a writing career. Maybe I'm glad I had no capital just then. Maybe hanging in, no matter how tough it gets, is what brings you to being perceived of as ‘last man standing’; maybe that’s the point where you start to be recognised as ‘that writer’, ‘that actor’, ‘that artist’. There’s no other label they can pin on you.

There’s also the business of freedom. Commit yourself to any one job and you’ll find yourself restricted. You’ll see a tasty residency or a single, short-term funded project and won’t be free to go for it. A week off work is always possible. Three months? No way. But if you’ve cut the ties that bind you to a steady job, here at last is the upside. You’ll be constantly struggling for money, but when something unusual or exciting comes by, you’re the one who can say 'yes'. That, I think, is what has been the crucial difference for me. Luck? Fortune? You may call it what you wish, but that’s my perception: that if you hang in there, don’t give up, you become the thing you hoped to be. The label attaches itself to you; and the opportunities sort of know where to head.

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