“Where the hell are we?”
“Geographically speaking, in the northern hemisphere. Socially, on the margins. And narratively, with some way to go.”
-The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus
I’ve been writing a lot recently. I have ‘been a writer’ since at least the age of twelve. I’ve kept notebooks and journals for the last decade (most of them are gathering dust in a Bag For Life at my sister’s place in the UK), but I only decided I wanted to ‘be a writer’ four or five years ago. At the age of 27 I started to send some scripts and writing samples to various corners of the UK in the hope of turning pro.
I had some success. Within six months I had interest from the BBC Writers Room regarding a script I’d written for a potential children’s fantasy series. I nearly got an agent. I landed an internship as head writer on an exciting transmedia project. I script edited a so-far-unmade science fiction series for a very pleasant Belgian filmmaker. I worked with some wonderful actors and I even met, and spoke to at length, two of my favourite authors, both of whom proved that the caveat ‘never meet your heroes’ is bollocks
After that, though, something went slightly sour. I wasn’t making money as a writer. I was in a relationship that I didn’t want to be in. I wasn’t seeing enough of my friends because I was devoting myself to my writing in the way that a catholic nun devotes herself to her husband, Jesus. I spent a year writing an X-rated choose-your-own-adventure-style fantasy before realizing that it was a tangled mess of pseudo-narrative and dick jokes, then consigning it to the ‘better luck next rewrite’ drawer of my digital filing cabinet. I toyed with the idea of writing a mystical self-help parody called Everything You Know is Utter Monkey Spunk.
I was a bit of a mess. I had long hair and a big beard, which made me look like the cover of Gregory Macguire’s novel A Lion Among Men (which, ironically, was a perfectly inadequate way of describing myself at that time).
I started looking for a ‘real’ job, only to discover that I’d made myself virtually unemployable in the UK. I’d studied performing arts and digital filmmaking, only to discover that the ability to caper through a Commedia Dell’arte routine or talk at length about the French Nouvelle Vague is about as useful in the world of gainful employment as a paper boat is to a drowning man. I ended up on the dole, living in my sister’s attic, my confidence having taken a few gut punches. I spent most of my days lying in bed, reading self-help books or writing in notebooks.
I started searching for jobs abroad. I tried very hard to land a job in Carlsbad, California writing online content for the Transformers franchise. I even considered doing research by sitting through the film version staring 90s pop sensation Marky Mark, before wisely deciding against that. The job probably went to someone who actually gives a crap about giant metal things that can change into other, slightly less conspicuous metal things. The truth is, I just wanted to sip beers on a beach and write science fiction stories.
For the last few weeks I have been back on the writing, though. I have been lazily scripting a short horror film for a friend in England, and I have been slowly Transforming an old script of mine into what I’m pretty sure will be my first full-length novel. Part of my new-found productivity is to do with the simple fact that I earn a low wage and that there’s bugger all to do in Tongzhou except wander about whistling the theme tune to The Prisoner. Part of it is to do with some of the inspiring people I’ve met since coming to Beijing. Part of it is to do with the fact that I feel I’m starting to find a voice. Mostly, though, it’s down to me realizing that I still want to ‘be a writer’.
I enjoy teaching, and it was a particular joy to orchestrate my first graduating class with my Chinese co-teacher a few weeks ago. I also enjoy exploring Beijing, but the truth is that the feeling I get standing on the Great Wall or watching the sunset from the rooftop of a hutong bar is no different from the feeling I used to get sitting in a coffee shop in Northampton or a pub in Banbury with a Muji notebook and some coloured pens.
I have a lot of confidence in my writing that simply wasn’t there a couple of years ago. Maybe the writing has improved. Maybe my self-esteem has. I’m not sure. Either way, I have somehow ended up with about a third of a science fiction novel within the last eight weeks or so. It’s the most productive that I’ve ever been, and I hold out hope that it is, at the very least, publishable. Strangely, the novel keeps taking my mind away from Beijing and bringing back childhood memories: riding my mountain bike to the shopping mall, reading comic books about the death of Superman and shoplifting issues of Vampirella because I was too embarrassed to ask my mum for parental consent.
I was talking to a friend here the other day. I haven’t known him for that long, but like most of my friends, he is both trusting and trustworthy and he speaks his mind. “You know that your next story has to be an autobiography, don’t you?” He said. “You’ve got to tell some of these true stories of yours!” Then he took a sharp intake of breath and said “Trouble is, there’d be too much truth in it! I reckon you’d have a hard time publishing it, and you’d piss a lot of people off!” He’s probably right. On all counts.
Look at superhero stories, for example. I remember the death of Superman like it was yesterday. It was such a well-received story cycle that, ironically, it resurrected the fortunes of DC comics. But nobody ever buys the origin stories, do they?