They were our chips, in place of and yet more precious than coins.
Although each button counted for the same, the bigger, shinier ones were more prized by my brother and me. Who could care, after all, about a tiny shirt button, ten a penny? The real treasures were the coat buttons, silvery and solid, heavy in your palm.
We played Queenie, the hands dealt in silence, including a ‘dummy’ hand next to the dealer. One card was placed face down in the middle of the table, and we piled our buttons into three pots: you could win for playing a three-card run, for playing the Queen of the same suit as the face-down card, and of course for ‘chip’ – being the first to play all your cards. If a pot wasn’t claimed, it would carry over to the next game.
There being only three of us, the hand was large, almost too many cards for my own small hand to hold. Carefully I fanned them out, excitement fluttering in my chest, looking and longing for the faces of those elusive red and black queens, their sidelong glances conspiring with me, seeming to whisper, win.
The number cards were bland, the sevens and twos were the shirt buttons of the deck, the everyday, only a means in this game to reach the Queen.
The Queen of Hearts was my favourite; she looked kind. To me the Queen of Spades seemed stern, the Queen of Diamonds aloof. The Queen of Clubs had mischief in her half-smile.
Sometimes there would be the drop in the stomach, the disappointment of fanning out thirteen cards to find no Queen at all – what was the point in even playing? Okay, you could play to chip, but that was rarely where the big money was, and didn’t hold the same allure. I learned, though, to present a poker face. I wouldn’t let my opponents know what I was missing.
The big black button was the one I always sought out, my fingers scrabbling in the bottom of the tin, and the one I never gambled. I guarded it jealously, held it like a talisman in my palm, worrying at its underside with my thumb, rubbing the ebony topside still smoother, wishing on it.
It had belonged on our mother’s best coat, the one she wore to church.
Now, she was gone. Her button was in this tin along with so many others, and we were taught card games late at night, by a man who never cried.
She is earth in a way I never can be. She has her feet on the ground, bare on grass in the summer, booted in snow in the winter. She is soil and sand and creation.
A practical woman.
She sews and she sows. I can do neither of these things without precipitating some disaster, injury or small death.
Everything she does seems to make the world better.
I envy her tanned legs, her strong back. Her hair is streaked with daylight and her fingernails are neat. She smells of flowers and warm bread.
She is a maker and a doer. She is all at once mushroom-soft and oaktree-strong.
Her eyes are flecked with gold.
She is my shelter and my safety.
I feel a disappointment by comparison, an insubstantial shadow dripping words and ideas which spark, then flicker and dissolve. I leave nothing lasting. I am weightless, a balloon drifting from place to place.
I am certain she wonders how she made me, this unsettled, flighty creature. I am sorry not to be more.
She takes my bitten-nail hands in her solid grasp and tells me, but you are life, my love. You are all the stars in the sky.
I don’t know if it’s just because I’m being alerted to what’s most relevant to me – a bit like how, when you find out you’re pregnant, you suddenly see prams and convex bellies everywhere – but lately I’ve been seeing a lot of writers’ tweets and blog posts about rejection, and about feeling like giving up.
I’m taking this as a sign from the universe to finally share this piece, which has been loitering on my desktop for several weeks. I don’t know if it’s pride, or shame (two sides of the same ugly coin) that’s stopped me from doing so up until now. It’s possible it’s a kind of superstitious fear, because in Writing World we like to share good news, and maybe if I put it out there that things don’t always go the way we’d like, the Publishing Gods will see me as the impostor I am and never smile on me again.
On the other hand, it might help another writer or make them feel less alone, so here goes:
My third book failed to sell on submission.
For the uninitiated, going on submission is when your agent shares your manuscript with a number of editors at different publishing houses and they have the chance to make an offer to publish it, or not. In my case, the answers were all variations on ‘not’.
Even the word ‘submission’ speaks a bit to what it is to be a writer seeking to be published. You submit yourself (I mean your work, of course, but let’s face it, the whole reason it’s so bloody painful is that your work is part of yourself. If you’re any good, anyway) to the tastes of gatekeepers, the trends of the market, the vagaries of public opinion.
(I should add at this point that I don’t mind any of this: publishing is a business, like any other, a commercial operation, and if my book isn’t going to sell, no way should anyone take it on – why would they? To do me a favour? Because I’ve worked on it for four years and five drafts? Because I want it so badly, like a tone-deaf X-factor contestant? Don’t we all?)
My point is there’s the risk of rejection at every turn. It’s an absolutely crackers career.
I’ve recently taught a pilot ‘Aspects of the Novel’ course for writers at the start of their novel-ing journey, and in the first class one of my pieces of advice was “don’t do it, it’s a silly thing to do” – I was only half joking. Novel writing is arduous, emotional and often boring – genuinely, very similar to raising a small child – with absolutely no guarantee at the end that your offspring is going to become a Premiership footballer and buy you a big house with a pool. Erm.
I should qualify that I’m by no means speaking for all writers in this post, and others might be able to cope with the ups and downs of the job better than I can. I would also like to confess here that my writer-self is quite different to my self-self. Bear with me.
As a person, I like to think I’m generally the sunny, positive sort, chatty and sociable. As a writer, I’m grumpy, contrary and often, ironically, short of words, especially when someone asks me about my work – something I simultaneously love and hate (I told you, contrary).
When anyone asks me, “how’s the book going?” I genuinely don’t know what they want me to say. My answer is either going to be so bland and undetailed (“fine, thanks”) as to be meaningless, or so specific and intense (“I’m really struggling with the untangling of the sub plot in the third act, and I’m wondering if a change in point of view would sort that out, or would it alienate the reader at this point?”) that they will wish they’d never asked and have to poke themselves with something sharp just to remain awake.
When someone asks me, casually and kindly, when’s the next book coming out (as if that were something over which I had any control whatsoever), I’m pleased that they’re interested, of course, but I’m also furious and impatient and wildly grumpy.
As a writer, I’m an awful person. I’m sorry.
When the third or fourth pass for my novel came in (‘pass’ sounds so much gentler than ‘rejection’, doesn’t it?) I was in the car, and I couldn’t speak. I wanted so much to share with my partner the feelings that were bubbling in me, but what came out were monosyllables, mumbles. And tears. It felt physically painful.
We’re always told, in the writing business, not to give up. I’ve given that advice myself. I’ve given talks, taught courses (see above), and mentored writers through my freelance editorial services, as well as working alongside so many writing friends over the years, and I genuinely want them to keep working, persist with their manuscripts, keep submitting (there’s that word again) to agents and competitions – because I’ve received a lot of ‘no thank you’s and ‘I just didn’t love it enough’s over the years but I’ve also experienced what it’s like when you get the Yes, the golden buzzer, the entry ticket to your own book launch in Waterstones, and I’m not going to lie, it’s as great as you think it will be.
Over the years since my last published novel and across multiple drafts, my wonderful agent persevered with brilliant editorial advice. I have no doubt each draft was better than the previous. I even think the end result was a Pretty Good Book.
But pretty good doesn’t cut it, and the truth, the big reveal, the secret I want to share with you, is that I think I knew it all along.
So many times my inner voice told me the book wasn’t quite right…and not in the same tone it uses for every single thing I write (I’ve actually learned to block out the general ‘you’re pretty crap at this, aren’t you?’ babble). I even mentally rehearsed writing this very blog, explaining into the social media ether how this was the book that didn’t make it, but the one I learned the most from, etc etc. My fantasies for one day talking about this book became less along the lines of Booker Prize acceptance speech and more How to Fail podcast.
There are reasons. It was never my story – by which I mean, it came from an idea someone else gave me, not from an idea I found by myself or an impulse within me. It evolved over time to incorporate those things, but the spark wasn’t mine to begin with. That might not matter to other writers, and I didn’t know until now (painful lesson) how much it matters to me.
Perhaps as a result of that, it took on many shapes and lost its way, tangled up in too many themes and not enough plot.
Still I persisted.
Even post- the many passes, a large part of me wanted to go on, give it another shot, keep submitting, put it out in the world somehow – even though my heart, my gut, knew it wasn’t quite good enough. I wanted to do that because we are so often told, and tell ourselves: don’t give up.
I recently left a part-time job that was taking too much of my time and emotional energy. It was hard. When a large part of your income comes from self-employment (and hey! Turns out you’re not selling another book anytime soon!), the instinct is to hold on, to security, to money and routine. It’s easy to keep treading water and not notice that you’re sinking. And it’s fraught with risk because it’s only when you let go, when you ‘give up’, that you know whether it was the right thing to do.
But leaving that role helped remind me that every time I’ve given up on something – a job, a relationship, in this case a novel – it’s turned out, without fail, to have been the right thing to do. Very Good Things have happened as a result. That knowledge is the life raft I’m holding onto, now.
I had to grieve my last book for a good while but I’m writing something new now and I’m loving it. I’m excited about writing again. I’m back to ‘shitty first draft’ mode (to quote Anne Lamott) and although on some days it feels like being back at the foot of a very tall mountain, isn’t that the most exciting stage – full of possibility, full of energy?
So maybe we have to change the narrative. Is perseverance everything in writing, or is listening to your gut actually the best advice and bravest course? Is giving up really giving up, or is it giving space to something else – something better?
He said I was the sun and moon. He said I shone. He said I was the world. Unchartered territory, deep oceans. I contained poles and mountains, languages and valleys he would explore. I was a spinning globe in his hands.
Stick a pin in me and decide where you want to go.
The thing about me is I have no sharp edges. I’ve no ’side’ to me, he said, and he was right. The corners had been rounded off me. I had learned to be agreeable; I was a smiling face, a birthday cake, the unchipped rim of a china cup. Perfect.
I could never be spiky or hurtful, I was lost in my own unending smoothness. I would slip onto his finger, his waist, a wedding ring, a belt. I would hold him in my hollow self and he would be safe.
I didn’t notice my own descent from globe to glass marble. Didn’t feel myself shrinking.
Along the way I became a football, kicked and volleyed and caught for sport. If enough force was applied, I bounced. When I deflated I was blown up again, allowed to feel strong, in time for the next game.
I became a hole, an open well, a round red mouth in a silent scream. A surprised ‘O’. A zero.
Now I am a tiny glass sphere, blue as my eye, small enough to be kept in his pocket, worried at by his fingers. I could be rolled away, down a ginnel, into a gutter, and nobody would see me there, glinting and glittering.