I got into a minor spat on Facebook recently, after someone posted a link to the BBC Opening Lines submission details, remarking that it was a ‘career-changing’ opportunity. I commented that yes, it was an excellent thing to go in for, but not necessarily career-changing, adding a link to my recent post on that very subject by way of evidence. This led to a slightly heated discussion as the original poster clearly felt that getting a reading on BBC Radio 4 (albeit via a different route) had changed their career.
So I began to wonder about the nature of career changing moments. Actually, I also began to wonder about writing careers, full stop. When do you start to call yourself a writer? Even after four books, if anyone asks me what I do, I still say that I’m a software developer, and, oh, I do a bit of writing as well. Because after all, software is what pays the bills, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.
I do know the exact moment at which I started taking myself seriously as a writer. It was when I got the e-mail to tell me I was on the shortlist for the University of Hertfordshire Creative Writing Award, back in 2007. I eventually won third prize, but that was just the icing on the cake; I’d already made it to base camp. Even then, though, I remember my father saying to me ‘Well, what does that mean?’ – a question only an accountant could ask. The irony is that the one thing that might have convinced him that I wasn’t totally wasting my time was getting picked for the BBC, and that happened in 2010, four months after he died. He might have seen it as career changing, even if I didn’t. To me, it was just another – albeit very prestigious – credit to add to the list.
So at what point can you say you have a writing career? When can you say you have a successful writing career? As I was considering this, up popped a remarkable series of blog posts from Harry Bingham, a writer who seems to have had the most extraordinary switchback of a career, and is – unusually – prepared to spill all the beans. And quite by coincidence, this considerably more downbeat blog post from another Facebook friend, Sally Zigmond, appeared today. Both of these gave me pause.
I know a lot of writers both online and in real-life. I’ve also known quite a few of them long enough to see them make it big, make it small, fail to make it at all, make it big and then have to retrench and sometimes walk away altogether. The only consistent thing that seems to emerge from this is that writing careers demand a Sisyphean level of perseverance. Relying on a single career-changing moment is a recipe for disaster. The only consolation is that a significant level of obsession comes with the territory, so we are remarkably well-suited to Sisyphean tasks. We keep buggering on, and eventually with a bit of luck something good may happen.