Have a purpose. I got that phrase from Joe Biden’s memoir Promise me, Dad – about his time as Vice President – but more importantly about his son Beau’s battle with brain cancer and how it affected their whole family.
That is what the doctor said to President Biden when he asked: “how should he live?” referring to Beau after he had been diagnosed with glioblastoma.
The doctor replied: “He should live as if he’s going to live.” Which I loved.
We all need purpose, that’s what keeps us carrying on, even when the odds are against us, even when people have told us we’re just too damn old.
I don’t know about you, but I love those stories about the 90 year old that just got their PhD/decided to sky-dive/took up ballroom dancing. I want to be that 90 year old. I want to live my life to the very last moment, not think, ‘Oh well, I’ve probably only got a couple of years left, what’s the point?’
BUT I do understand that it’s not easy to get in that carpe diem state of mind in lockdown when your options for doing anything exciting are limited, and your finances are, well, non-existent and you’re kinda wondering how the hell you’re going to pay your bond/car loan/school fees/credit card or perhaps even buy food.
Not to mention that there is this dreary Ground hog Day sameness about everything.
I’ve been feeling this too, and it’s certainly affected my fiction writing. Quite a few people have been asking me when my next book is coming out and the truth is that for most of last year, I just couldn’t be arsed to write. I have had some terrible disappointments which also didn’t help. Let me fill you in for those of you who haven’t had the pleasure of hearing me whine about it, which I have done EXTENSIVELY.
I’ve been fortunate enough to get three novels published in South Africa, and after the last one came out (in…ahem…2017), I decided that I wanted to try my hand at getting something published Overseas. I wrote a domestic thriller set in England and sent it to a bunch of literary agents in February 2018.
I was thrilled to immediately get a response from seven of them expressing interest. Two of them liked the book enough to want to represent me. This is a VERY BIG THING for South African authors, it’s quite difficult to get an international literary agent. It was hell trying to choose between the two agents, but I eventually decided on the very high-powered one who assured me she had a hundred percent track record of getting books published.
At the same time, my second book Things Unseen was optioned for TV here. I was over the moon with excitement at the thought of my book being turned into a TV series.
I was convinced that 2018 was going to be my year.
I spent eight months working on the novel with the editor at the agency and it was one of the lead titles for the agent at the Frankfurt Book Fair that year. And guess what?
The book didn’t sell.
Yes, I ruined the high-powered agent’s 100% track record.
At the same time, my contract was not renewed for the one soapie I was working on.
Then I found out that the production company that had optioned Things Unseen had decided to make another TV show instead.
I can’t really put my disappointment into words, except to say that I did feel like I had been repeatedly punched in the gut.
But I picked myself up and wrote another book. Because that’s what writers do. We write another book/poem/screenplay/script.
I wrote the book and sent it off to the high-powered agent to read. The weekend before I was due to meet her in London, she wrote me an email saying that there was no point in meeting as she basically hated the book, and she thought that perhaps I would like to seek representation elsewhere.
We consciously uncoupled.
The marriage had not been happy for a while, so although it was tough to let go of my dream of my Overseas agent and getting my book published there, it was the right decision. Having the wrong agent is just as bad as having no agent at all, because you can spend years trying to write something they like, and in the process lose yourself and what made you want to write in the first place.
I then took the book she hated and showed it to the other agent that I turned down (also high-powered but funny and KIND). The kind agent sent me some really useful notes, told me it had a lot of promise and asked me to revise it and resubmit.
That’s where I’m now at, revising the book. Because something I’ve realized is that although I write quickly (I usually finish my shitty first draft in 3-4 months), I need a lot of time to edit and especially with books like these that have very twisty plots.
I’ve also learnt to value the process.
I love writing, I love stories, I love the process of creating characters, but I’ve had to let go of my expectations regarding the outcome. Yes, I would love this book to be published, but the truth is that when you write a book, there is always that chance that it might not find a home. Every book is a leap of faith.
I started off speaking about having a purpose, and how important it is especially now during the time of Rona where we feel like we have no control over anything. For me getting a certain amount of words down every week on a new novel and revising my other novel is what gives me purpose.
So, at the beginning of this year, I went back to my novels and I’m a quarter of the way into my new new novel and I’ve started revising the one that my ex-agent described as “a book I can’t see anyone wanting to publish”.
She may, of course, be right (she is after all an extremely successful agent). But there’s this tenacious part of me that so badly hopes that she’s wrong.
Time will tell. Watch this space.
Book recommendations for this week: obviously Promise me, Dad. I found this fascinating having just read Obama’s autobiography and blubbed my way through Joe Biden’s inauguration. Thank you to Helen Holyoake and Exclusive Books for my copy. It’s available for the very reasonable price of 226 SA ronts. I also finished The Searcher by Tana French, she writes so beautifully, I highly recommend it and I found Girl A by debut author, Abigail Dean both disturbing and intriguing. A must read.
Film recommendations: I loved A Promising Young Woman – on at Cinema Nouveau at Rosebank Mall. Carey Mulligan gives a stunning performance and the social commentary about toxic masculinity is spot on.
On Netflix, I’ve enjoyed How to Ruin Christmas, The Dig and I don’t feel at home in this world anymore – which is basically about someone who has decided she’s not going to let people behave like assholes anymore which leads to her doing a bit of carpe diem-ing and having a whole lot of crazy adventures.
If this pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that life can change in an instant, everything you took for granted can be taken away, so as soon as the Rona is over, I think it’s time for us all to do a little carpe diem-ing and get out there and try stuff we’ve never tried before. And we will abolish phrases like “I’m too old” and remember that Joe Biden became President of the United States at the age of 78.