On slow-ripening artists

In the foreword of The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver writes, ‘I spent thirty years waiting for the emotional maturity to write this book.’ You can see why she needed it. It’s a compassionate, multifaceted book that clearly required deep and wide understanding of humans (though Rachel is a bit of a one-dimensional Terrible Person. God, she’s terrible. But anyway). I felt hugely grateful to her for saying that. It seems I’m only now getting the hang of writing, despite having announced I was going to be a writer when I was 8. But it wasn’t just that I could relate to it, it was the way she said it: like the book had happened when it was supposed to, in the fullness of time; like it was a well-known fact that emotional maturity helped you write books. Not apologising that it had taken time to bloom, just saying it matter-of-factly as though reading off the back of a packet of seeds with her picture on the front.

Stories like this are rare and precious (see also Write Like A Motherfucker, which I keep going back to in hard times) in a world full of narratives about creativity which assume that Talent Will Out, and will out early – already fully formed, hand in hand with the tough-mindedness you need to put yourself forward. In fact it’s perfectly possible to be sure from an early age about what you were born to do, but not be able to do it yet because important parts of you – abilities or confidence or both – are still being born.

I was not very mature as a teenager. And I don’t mean that in the disingenuous humblebrag way that some people say it, like, ‘oh god I was so immature and embarrassing, I was reading Camus and smoking clove cigarettes and I thought existentialism was a credible philosophical position.’ I was not reading French intellectuals or smoking anything. I was actually young for my age, still drawing actual rainbows on my homework diary in actual crayon. I had eaten all my schoolbooks whole, for all the good that did me, but looking back it seems like important parts of my brain were missing – bits that dealt with nuance, subtlety and subtext, for a start; some kinds of abstract thought; handling social cues at anything approaching the speed of conversation – and I didn’t grow them until much later. Like, my late twenties. I definitely didn’t have them when the usual time came round to be an Edgy Young Writer. Looking back, I was still barely out of the womb.

So when I did manage to write, it usually sucked because I didn’t know how other humans worked.  But much more often, I didn’t manage to write because I didn’t know how I worked. I had no understanding of how writing happened, or what was happening when I edited something to make it better (and therefore, how to do the same to other things), or how to split it down into smaller, simpler tasks, or how to keep track of all the parts of a massive document – but most crucially, how to make the writing happen when it didn’t want to. It was like a car with a non-removable cover around the engine, which was frustrating because most of the time it wouldn’t go. Now, somewhere along the journey of writing and redrafting my PhD, it seems I managed to pry the cover open and all of a sudden, at long last, I have some idea of what I’m doing. Once when I was angsting about creativity and failure my partner said, ‘You’re not ripe yet.’ I suspect there are many like me. (And, relatedly, if you haven’t arrived yet it doesn’t mean you won’t.)

The problem is that what with the way we do work, careers and households as a culture, if you ripen late you might not be able to do anything about it. My thesis funding, and the fact that when it came I was in a position to take advantage of it, was thanks to a combination of several astonishing strokes of good fortune – even less likely for others like me now, as funding dries up more and more. But most of the opportunities to pause and figure out what you want to say, then learn how to do the day-to-day work of saying it, are for the very young – gap years, some kinds of university experience, grants for talented youth (if such things even still exist). Time out to find your voice is not very compatible with permanent jobs. More insidiously, it’s not compatible with most temporary/precarious jobs either; we tell ourselves they give us freedom to stop and do our thing when the time comes, but in practice they never earn us enough to make the break viable. And if you have children, in this culture where creativity pays so catastrophically badly and there’s hardly any safety net, taking such a chance must seem like rank irresponsibility unless you are very fortunate indeed. There must be so much amazing stuff we don’t get to see and enjoy, stuff that stays locked up in its creators’ heads for good, because the way to do it only became clear to them after their lives had filled up with commitments.

I imagine a society where there’s enough slack in the system, and enough value placed on this kind of voice-finding, that it can happen at any point in a life, repeatedly if necessary. But thinking about what else would have to be different to make that possible opens out on to a bunch of grand-scale questions about work, and what it’s for, and its future; families, how we do them, how else we could do them; and how societies should look after their artists. Each of these is a very deep rabbit-hole which seems worth delving into. But there’s also a lot of backlog to get through. Let’s go.