Saturday, 22 September 2012

Book review - We Can't All Be Astronauts

I’ve mentioned Tim Clare once before on this blog, in a post about my days as a member of the Creative Writing Society at the University of East Anglia. Tim’s a good couple of years or so older than me, and I didn’t know him particularly well, but enough to chat to from time to time. He was, and I’m sure remains, a very nice chap.

I was always very impressed with him as a writer when he read out excerpts of his work at the CWS feedback sessions. He always seemed like someone who would have no trouble in going on to be professionally published.

I’ve owned a copy of his book We Can’t All Be Astronauts for a little while now, but it was only earlier this month that I finally sat down and read it. Nothing against either Tim or the book, but it was a mixture of having other things to read and to do, and also the fact that I always end up feeling jealous of anybody who I’ve personally known who’s had a book published. Who’s been allowed in through the sacred gates, onto the hallowed turf of publication.

I’m not alone in this. I know this both from having spoken to other people to have the desire to write, and specifically in this case from Tim’s book in and of itself. We Can’t All Be Astronauts is the story of Tim’s yearning, desperation even, to become the author he had always wanted to be, and the misery it reduced him to as all his friends and peers seemed to acquire lucrative book deals, leaving him feeling left-behind and a failure.

In one sense, it’s actually comforting to read about Tim’s struggles, his occasional self-loathing and chasms of doubt about his chosen ambition. Because it’s all so familiar – so much of this had me thinking “That’s how I feel!” The knowledge that having a book published, becoming a novelist, is the only thing that will stop me feeling as if my entire life has been an enormous waste of time and effort. Coupled with the gnawing, sapping paranoia about what might happen if that never occurs. If I never reach a standard that’s good enough, or never have that moment of good fortune where a well-written book meets an agent and a publisher who are receptive to it.

It’s also comforting to know that, however bad things have felt for me, I’ve never had it quite as bad as poor Tim. Unlike him, as detailed in the book, I’ve never been medically diagnosed as being depressed because of my bleakness over not being a writer. Some of you may snort with derision at the idea of not having a novel out being something to get depressed over. Many of you would say millions around the world would happily swap their lot for the “depression” of such a life. But it’s not specific to wanting to be a writer, I think – it’s any ambition, any desire, anything you’ve wanted to achieve in life but are worried you never, ever will.

Of course, it’s difficult to feel all that sorry for Tim, because however hard his struggles related through the book, however grim his prospects of becoming a proper writer seem, you know that it all works out because of the simple fact you are holding his published book in your hands. He made it. He did it. However much you might give this book to someone as a warning against wanting to be a writer, it will only add fuel to that ambition, because this is someone who struggled and succeeded.

It’s also a sobering thought to consider that Tim struggled, almost gave up, faced a brick wall seeming to separate him from publication forever, then just about made it... And he’s a far, far better writer than I could ever hope to be. I know this not simply from reading this book – with its wit, its eloquence, its insight – but because I know him. Or used to know him, at any rate. And if even he struggled, if even he almost gave up... Well then, what chance do I have? If a writer of his quality can be driven to despair and the point of surrender, why should I think I have the faintest hope of making it?

The fact is though, as Tim’s book makes clear, you can’t give up. It will always be in you, and it will always be there. If you’ve ever decided you want to be a writer, it will never go away. It will gnaw at you and not allow you to quit.

There’s much in this book to enjoy, and that will provide a knowing smile of familiarity to anyone who has ever wanted to write. I particularly enjoyed the bit at the end where, after an emotional conversation at his dying grandfather’s bedside, Tim confesses he was thinking all the while: “this will make a great ending for my book.” I think it’s something all writers do – absorb real life and use it to fuel their work.

There is nothing either good or bad, only source material.

I met Tim again, for the first time in years, a few months ago when he was a guest on an edition of our drive time show. I was producing drive that day, and he was in to talk about a poetry event in Norwich. I didn’t expect him to remember who I was, but he claimed to do so after I introduced myself. I wish I’d read this book before then, so I could have said something to him about it.

But then again, what would I have said? What could I have said? Probably nothing more than: “You lucky, lucky bastard.”

Which is how I feel about all published writers, really. Talented, achieving, bastards.

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