Poem – “Summer of Something”

Here’s a poem from my chapbook, “Other People’s Butterflies”. I’ve no idea what is going to become of this chapbook. I’ve sent it to The Black River Chapbook Competition, but given the standards of their past winners, I’m not holding my breath!

 

Summer of Something

It’s summer, and I’m in love

with the graffiti on the side

of the Tesco Express. It says

I take the brakes off and I ride.

Its voice is a young,

seen-it-all-know-nothing voice.

 

I’m squishing like a girl.

Good moods, daft plans and

nerves nerves nerves.

He’s a loudmouth. I always liked

people who are easily known.

A friend asks what colour his eyes are.

I give her the old slow blink.

 

I buy a white sundress

and try to drink whisky.

It’s a June full of new, and

for the first time

I’m not trying to feel anything

but this.

 

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What To Write About When You’re 100% Done Writing About Love

When I was a kid, I thought that most poetry was about romantic love. Like pop music, only more high-brow and with no actual music. The poems we studied at school didn’t do much to dispel the illusion. From “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun” to “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways”, the preferred theme was definitely romantic relationships.

I mentioned, in my first post, that I’m currently working on a poetry chapbook. I also mentioned that I’m asexual – meaning I don’t experience sexual attraction. For the record, I’m also aromantic – meaning I don’t experience romantic attraction. I hate writing the word aromantic because it looks like a spelling mistake, but needs must.

Fake it ‘til you make it

As I grew up, waiting to feel all the things that my friends were feeling, I became more and more impatient. I wanted to be a writer, and writers – particularly young, female writers – wrote about love and relationships. This might seem like the naïve assumption of a schoolgirl, but I don’t think I was entirely wrong.

If you’re a young, female writer from an ordinary background, with an unremarkable life story, your work is in constant danger of being dismissed as trivial. Intense female friendships are so often mistaken for “girls giggling and shopping together”. Serious conflicts between young women get misconstrued as bitchy catfights.

A way of getting around this is to write about romantic relationships: Wanting them, having them, ending them, being damaged by them, etc. Readers of all genders are comfortable with the image of a young woman as a lover – it’s the role she most often portrays in mainstream media, and one of a few topics she can speak on with authority.

I had zero authority to write about falling in love or having my heart broken, so I found ways of faking it. I made up lovelorn characters and wrote poems from their perspectives. I thought of the most intense feelings I’d ever had and tried to transfer them into a romantic context. I wrote the things I thought I was supposed to write.

It actually wasn’t that difficult. Modern life revolves around romantic love and the media is saturated with it, so I was accustomed to the language used to describe it from a very young age. I knew what a kiss was supposed to feel like. I knew all about pounding hearts and weak knees. It didn’t matter that I didn’t understand any of it. Until, one day, it did matter.

Everything else

Somewhere along the road, I got sick of faking it. I think this was around the age of twenty, when I knew for sure that I wasn’t just a “late bloomer”, but was wired differently, somehow. I was never going to feel the things I was supposed to feel.

I was reluctant to give up writing about romantic relationships, because of a nagging voice at the back of my mind. It was the voice of some hopeless romantic in an old movie. “Ah, love,” she sighed, “What else is there?”

Quite a lot, as it turns out. Actually, there is everything else that ever existed or didn’t exist. Travel, family, nature, learning, dogs, work, goblins, the list is endless. When I look back at poems I wrote in my twenties, there are surprisingly few about feelings and a surprisingly large number about beetles.

Write your own story

But the thing is, feelings are kind of important. Some would say they are where all the best poetry comes from.

It would be easy to imagine an aromantic person’s life as being the same as a romantic person’s, but with blank spaces where the romantic feelings are supposed to be. Not so. There are usually a shitload* of other feelings in their place.

Why hadn’t I ever written about the confusion of growing up aro? Or my disastrous attempts at dating? Or the slow, crushing loss of my friends as they started to get married and have babies? Or the jaw-dropping realisation that it wasn’t just me – that there were other people who felt the same?

Two reasons. Firstly, I didn’t have the necessary vocabulary for it. Language is inevitably shaped by the majority, so people with minority romantic or sexual orientations often find that there aren’t words to describe certain crucial experiences they’ve had.

For example, I was in my late twenties before I knew that there’s a word for the kind of platonic infatuations I’d had, where I wanted to hang out with someone from dawn to dusk, drinking in their every word, but still felt thoroughly grossed out at the thought of kissing them (it turns out this is called a “squish”).

Although not having the words to describe your experiences can be frustrating, I’m starting to think that it’s actually great for poets. It gives us a chance to be creative. To experiment with different combinations of words until we’ve found the ideal phrase to describe how something feels. To create new words, and use them as seriously or playfully as we like.

The second reason I never wrote about my experiences of growing up aro is that I thought nobody would want to read about it. I figured that it wouldn’t be relatable to most readers, and that would inevitably result in a lack of interest.

As I work on the chapbook, I’m becoming less and less concerned about this, as certain universal themes pop up again and again. Who hasn’t felt baffled by the world around them? Who hasn’t felt alienated, or worried that there’s something wrong with them?

But I’m trying not to get too hung up on appealing to the majority. If you can’t see your own experiences in the things you read, this is all the more reason to write about those experiences. Somewhere out there is a reader, waiting for that jaw-dropping realisation that they aren’t alone.

 

*I have just found out that “aromantic” is not a real word according to Microsoft Word, but “shitload” is. Grrrrrrrrr.

 

 

 

Confessions of a Failed Writer

At the tender-ish age of thirty, I consider myself a failed writer. The logical part of my brain knows this is ridiculous. Success in writing can come at any age. Unlike the fields of athletics and underwear modelling, youth doesn’t give any concrete advantage when it comes to writing.

A lot of my favourite writers were late bloomers. Raymond Chandler published his first novel at fifty-one. George Eliot published her first book at forty, and it took another twelve years for “Middlemarch” to arrive. Bram Stoker wrote “Dracula” at fifty. With so many writers becoming successful in middle age and beyond, why do I feel like such a bloody failure?

It would be easy to blame the media’s obsession with trendy, fresh-faced young talent, but in reality, my disillusionment is my own fault.

That one dude at the writers’ group

In my first year of university, I joined the writers’ society. This was my first experience of actually talking to other budding writers. Being one of the last people in Britain to grow up offline, I had no access to writers’ forums or anything like that. I was young, socially awkward and intimidated.

There was this one dude at the writers’ group who I think was called Edmund. He certainly seemed like an Edmund. He was a little older than the rest of us, and the only one in the room with letters after his name. I know this because he told us that he was the only one in the room with letters after his name.

So this guy, with grave authority, told us all that we wouldn’t have any significant writing success until after we were thirty, because we didn’t have enough “life experience”. These days, I’m wary of men who tell me I need “life experience” in order to become a better writer. As an asexual woman, I’m frustrated by how often their idea of “life experience” involves their penises.

At the time, though, I was full of the bravado that comes with being deeply insecure. I told myself, with absolute certainty, that I was going to prove Edmund wrong. I was going to get a novel published well before my thirtieth birthday. It probably wouldn’t even be that difficult.

Actually, writing is hard

It turns out that writing is really f*cking difficult. Getting published is even more difficult. Not that I learnt this straight away – it took a while for the lesson to sink in.

After graduating from uni, I spent my mid-twenties writing a lot of poetry and a few short stories, while working Proper Jobs in order to pay rent and eat. Just after I turned 27, I got around to writing my first novel.

I wrote it during the mad, feverish burst of creativity that was my first NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month – more on this in a future post), polished it up and sent it off to a large number of agents.

A small miracle happened. Not one, but two agents were interested in representing my novel. I took the train to London to meet with them both, feeling like Cinderella at the ball. Assuming Cinderella felt sweaty, nauseous, and terrified of being found out (Imposter Syndrome – more on this in a future post).

Both agents were lovely, and I went with the one who seemed most confident about the prospects of my novel. I signed a contract, started using the phrase “my agent” the way recently engaged women use the phrase “my fiancé”, and became convinced that it was really happening. I was going to become an actual, proper writer. And I was still 27.

My first lesson in being an actual, proper writer is that you have to compromise a lot. Before my agent showed my novel to potential publishers, I had to add ten thousand words to make it a more marketable length, de-age a character so that his relationship with a teenage girl lost most of the ick factor, and change the ending to make it more upbeat.

Finally, it was ready. My agent pitched my novel to twenty major UK publishers. Every sodding one of them said “Thanks but no thanks.” Not enough plot, was the most common reason for rejection. Too character-focussed.

Disappointed but undeterred, I wrote another novel. A paranormal YA mystery, this time, and it had shedloads of plot. Twists and turns and exorcisms galore. I showed it to my agent, who told me she couldn’t represent it because she didn’t have the necessary YA contacts.

So I started the whole process again, looking for a new agent. This time, nobody was remotely interested. My big break had come and gone without ever actually breaking. I felt gutted, completely helpless, and of course I felt like a shitty writer. Then I turned thirty and felt old.

Now what?

I actually quite like the idea of being a “failed writer”. There’s something very cool and European about it. It gives me a mental image of someone smoking outside a Parisian café, being all wistful and filled with bitter humour and hard-earned wisdom. Unfortunately, I do not fit this mental image. I am very uncool, and I live in a small town in Oxfordshire, not Paris. I can be wistful or bitter on occasion, but I don’t feel wise at all.

Most importantly, I don’t fit the mental image of a failed writer because I can’t stop writing. No time to sit around smoking outside a café – I have a poetry chapbook to work on.  I also can’t stop trying. Trying to get things published. Trying to get people to read the things I’ve written. Trying to be heard.

Maybe it’s like marrying for money, but waking up one morning to realise you actually have feelings for the aging, overweight, heart-attack-prone stockbroker. You start out with a goal in mind, and somewhere along the way, you fall deeply and unexpectedly in love.

So, maybe I’m not a failed writer. A failing writer. Yeah, that’s better.