For my leaving cert art project my mother had to lock me in the dining room with a bunch of clay to make a model fish the night before the thing was due. Like, she literally locked me in there and said, “Don’t come out until it’s done.”
I got a B.
Which I think says more about the expectations of Leaving Cert Art standards in the 90s, than anything else.
My original idea was to create a model aquarium with zingy, colourful papier-mâché fish, floating in some clear resin stuff, or something. The finer points were never worked out. It was supposed to
be whimsical and impossible and fun. This was long before The Life Aquatic, but it was along those lines. Instead I made a salmon out of clay. Then painted it like a goldfish.
The lesson this should’ve taught me should’ve been “If I don’t pursue my vision with tenacity and vigour, then I’ll never be satisfied with what I create.” The lesson I actually learned was, “If you don’t make an effort and you’re up against a deadline, you can still get a B.”
That’s why I was so well suited to journalism.
But that wasn’t the plan. By 25 I was supposed to be at New York art parties with people whispering behind my back- “That’s that guy! He writes these crazy off-beat novels about being, you know human, but not in, like, a really up his own ass way, more like a oh-wow-life is-really-like-that way. He’s a lot like Nick Hornby. But way richer.”
My path to glory would’ve been a hard one. I would find success as a failed novelist living in some impoverished central European trash heap selling hash and co-habiting with a bi-polar model, soused in absinth and home-distilled vodka. It would take months of work before the underground literary scene would catch onto my genius, and probably at least a year before The Guardian got hip to me. Hollywood thereafter. Wait, no, HBO. I’d hold firm and wait for the right offer. Write the screen-play myself. And possibly star in it also. Or direct. Not both. That would be boorish.
The absinth, the model and vodka I managed, but I only got as far as a mouldy hovel just off Mountjoy Square. And I never quite managed to write anything.
Hemingway said that writing is easy. You just sit down and bleed. And he’s right. You’ve done all the hard work by the time you’re ten – you’ve got nouns and verbs and commas and the fucking alphabet. What more do you need?
I could of course have picked a sexier art form. But everything else required practice and expertise. Being a writer doesn’t. Writing I suppose you could argue is a skill, but being a writer is a totally different thing. You have a very vague and infirm super-power. People sort of accept that you are artistic, and different, and maybe in some way special. But no one really knows how, or why, or more importantly, cares.
If you’re terrible at the thing you say you do, you’ll be found out eventually. If you’re an artist they’ll see a sketchbook. A musician, someone will hand you a guitar. But being a writer is fucking brilliant. You could be walking around with photocopied pages of Catcher In The Rye passing it off as your own and no one would be any the wiser. Because no one would be bothered to read it.
Calling yourself a writer will be enough to impress a sub-set of potential partners. Which is obviously the whole point of being a creative in the first place: to catch the last of the girls that the sports guys have turned down.
Everyone starts off more or less on an even keel in their twenties – you’re all working shit jobs with weekends that last all week. Then suddenly you’re thirty. You look around, and all the dance kids you knew from getting maggoty-eyed in clubs for a decade have suddenly become designers and illustrators and scientists and film-makers. And sure, some of them are still working bars and restaurants, but soon they’ll be yoga teachers and bee-keepers and brew craft beer.
Everyone else’s identity had come into focus and mine was still fuzzy. Everyone had been serious about making it as a creative? We were all really ready to turn adjectives into careers?
Then I got a job as a journalist by accident.
It was not glamorous. Nor, indeed, had I heard of the publication before I began working there. It was a medical newspaper. One of three medical newspapers that produced weekly news for the 4,000 odd medical doctors in Ireland.
Doctors, it turns out, are one of the most news-serviced demographics in the country. While titles like Digger Hire and Sewage and Waste Quarterly (‘the’ magazine for civil engineers) struggled, this little medical newspaper thrived.
It thrived because doctors are extremely vain. The business model was to feature as many doctors as possible every week, so that the esteemed members of the medical community would pay the extortionate subscription fee in the hope that they’d be in print. Or perhaps in the hope that their colleagues wouldn’t be.
In the pages that weren’t photographs of poorly dressed nerds at functions or open letters to the Minister for Health, there were ads. Ads for every type of medication, for every type of disease and discomfort, admittedly with a high steer towards stuff for old people with chronic conditions. There was page after page of smiling, airbrushed elderly people strolling through out-of-focus daisied meadows, their joint pain completely gone.
I was now a medical journalist. I didn’t know much about medical issues. I did not read the health supplement. I had slept with a couple of nurses and I had been under a general anaesthetic as a kid when I was circumcised, but these two factors, I openly acknowledged, hardly made me an expert. I resolved, however, to give it socks.
My job was to write the What’s On section of the paper. This covered listings of must-see happenings with titles like “Cardiology and Your General Practice: An Evening with Dr Bram Royce”, “Acute Renal Failure: A Bedside Approach” or the unintelligible “Angiotensinogen in Hypertension and Kidney Diseases.”
For someone with only a loose grasp of basic spelling, even this small role proved challenging. I would be provided with some poorly-worded press release that would be well under the 100 words needed to fill the space for each listing. So I would re-write the press release only longer and equally poorly worded.
It was not quite bleeding for my craft. But I worked three days a week and I got paid real money to write. I was finally making my way in the world.
I was a success in grey slacks. My trousers were an inch too short, I wore frayed black shirts left over from my bartending days and too-tight shoes that I’d borrowed from my uncle’s closet.
I was thrilled. So I didn’t really notice how odd the office was.
It was computer-hum quiet. And the work only kept me occupied for about two hours on day one, and I would spend the rest of the week hiding behind my iMac wondering if I should ask someone for more work. I didn’t know that it wasn’t supposed to be like that.
But no sooner had my ship come in, it sprung a leak and sank in the harbour. Three things happened in quick succession.The editor ‘parted ways’ with the company. I was disappointed because I had liked him. The man had given me a break, had paid me, and hadn’t asked me to do any work of real difficulty. He seemed affable, easy-going and pretty relaxed. Why would anyone fire an editor like that? Without him, it was suddenly quite clear to the deputy editor just how little I was achieving in my three days in the office.
Then the chief subeditor got fired. He was a young swarthy American who had told me on my first day that I should quit and run a mile from this place. He was true writer. Tortured and driven by truth and honesty. When his moderately successful memoir was published, with its revealing passages about his disillusionment at working in an unnamed medical newspaper, and more revealing passages about masturbating in the toilet of said newspaper, it was a victory for art and truth. But it was also goodbye.
With him gone I finally had my shot. I interviewed for a permanent position in the company to be a proper reporter who would report on actual things.
I prepped well. I answered questions with frankness, openness, and enthusiasm. And then two days later I got my pension information in the post. Nothing says you’ve got the job like a pension. Then I too got let go. One of the other weekly medical newspapers had folded and suddenly the town was flooded with hot-shot medical reporters. Or it’s possible that I was just no good.
For someone who has been calling himself a writer for almost two decades, I’ve put very few words down. I tried being a novelist, but it turns out that it’s quite difficult to get published. And it’s even harder to get published when you haven’t written a novel. It’s easier to get published as a journalist, but much harder to get paid.
Then suddenly companies were falling all over themselves to hire people to write Tweets. So I did that. And now I write ideas in single words on post-its and move them around whiteboards doing strategy. It doesn’t matter if I can’t spell.
It’s been the dream all along- A writer who doesn’t have to write – there’s a truism to my ‘career.’ The fewer words I write the more I get paid. There is a cosmic force that is using all of its will to gently say – stop.