The anxious manic novelist: doing an MA
by Sam Taylor-Pye
I started writing my novel the summer before starting an MA in creative writing. I had my main character pretty fleshed out. The storyline was chugging along nicely. And some of the dialogue scenes I felt were sounding impressive. I figured the degree was where I’d hone my already amazing skills and by the end I’d have, not only a certificate, but also a NYT bestseller, and possibly a lucrative deal with Netflix.
So when October came around, and classes started, I was feeling fairly confident and eager to get going.
The first thing we had to do was submit a novel synopsis, and a couple of first chapters for something called a ‘critique’. I wasn’t worried. In fact I was elated.
What I didn’t know was two things. First, I had a severe vitamin b deficiency, so, at times like this, I was slightly manic. Second, I had no idea that ‘critique’ on the MA level, was akin to having an invasive medical procedure, by a surgeon who isn’t happy in his day job, minus the anaesthetic.
The glowing picture I had in my head, of people reading my work, mouths hanging open, heads shaking at sheer awesomeness of the words, glasses being removed form eyes and heads looking up to heaven saying, ‘my god, this is incredible. I’ve never read such a work of pure genius. Somebody, quick! Give this woman a Pulitzer Prize!’ was never quite realised.
Almost immediately after finding my brilliant writing downgraded to ‘a work that has potential’- my cycling lack of b12 induced self-deluded mania turned into abject self-loathing. The head in your hands, no-I’m not getting out of bed-ever- kind that only depression can do so very well.
Stung, after my first assignment, I would not be deterred. Some people dropped out, but others braved the pain and carried on with the next chapter. Or in my case, a complete re-write, that took the story back in my main characters lifetime. My work thereafter became an act of defiance against my tutor, my mother, the planet, the universe, slugs; whatever levels my mania was at, at the time. But, I can say, the writing improved. A lot.
In the end it all turned out not too bad. I ended up was a great final mark, but only three quarters of a novel completed, and no Netflix deal. In fact, I had come to the conclusion that the Netflix deal might not actually happen in real life.
As time passed, and I finished the novel, another realisation occurred: that I might not actually ever see the novel published. No window feature in Waterstones. No people lined up down the street for book signings. No me having to wear sunglasses, and possibly disguise myself to avoid paparazzi. And, most worryingly, no me buying that million pound mansion I found on Zoopla, and had pinned in ‘favorites’. It seemed I might have to continue living in rental accommodation, just a little more.
Sad, depressed and anxiously looking for a humane way rid my home of slugs, I decided to watch ‘Gone with the Wind’. This was a movie I’d heard lots about but never seen, and, it was featuring as ‘popular’ in the rolling ‘classics’ section on Netflix. The end was a revelation. Rhett Butlers just finished his famous line. Scarlet O’Hara’s head lifts, and her eyes light up. Of course she can rebuild Tara! Why couldn’t she! And so could I! Just as she could do nothing about Rhett Butler having that ridiculous tantrum and slamming the door annoyingly hard, I could do nothing about Netflix possibly never buying the rights to my pure work of genius. But, I could do something about getting published. And I did!
So, to conclude, in the words of one of my tutors,’ I’m not sure where your [this] story’s going from here,’ I bid you well, and remember: tomorrow is another opportunity to edit that chapter. The one that isn’t really working. Yes, that one. You got it!
About Goldsmith Jones
Fourteen-year-old Goldsmith Jones is left stranded in crime-ridden, gangland territory. He finds himself living at The Shades, a home to local street kids. While selling sexual favours down the Dead Man’s Alley to survive, Jones is charmed by a seaman he knows as Sweet Virginia. Moving further away from the relative security that The Shades and his best friend, Raccoon, offered him, Jones is drawn ever closer to the manipulative Sweet Virginia. When Raccoon falls gravely ill and is taken to convalesce on the rural Rancheria, Jones is left under the controlling powers of the unscrupulous navvy. Swindled and wrongly accused, he is unexpectedly rescued by the leader of the villainous Suarez Brothers, the charismatic Saul. Faced with a choice between becoming Saul’s ‘little brother’ and saving Sweet Virginia’s life, Goldsmith Jones must embark on a dangerous journey which will change his young life forever.
From Chapter 26 ‘Beat the Devil’
Jones has been reunited with his lover Sweet Virginia, who’s been beat up and is on the run from Saul’s gang. Jones, keen to find a means to get some money, so they can split town, sees an opportunity come his way.
Standing at the end of the dark dripping alley was a well-fed man in a white hat and a long brown leather coat. He was holding an umbrella against the rain.
“There you are,” he said, not looking at me.
I said nothing. I waited for Virginia. He said nothing neither. Only slid further back into the shadow and let the rain do the talking.
I saw Virginia was hiding, so I walked up to the fella.
He smelled of beef pie. Gave me the once over about ten times running. “This is what you had in mind?” he said, looking to the shadow.
I followed his eyes back to Virginia hiding in the dark.
The rain was getting angry and calling on the thunderclouds to come and make hell-fire across the piss-yellow sky.
“Do you know the Pacific Hotel?” the fella said to me.
“I caught sight of the fine white suit beneath his coat. He had thick gold rings squeezed on every knuckle of his fingers.
“Yessir. I think I know it,” I said.
“Good. I’m looking for a boy to help me with my bags. Interested?”
I looked for his bags. He didn’t have none. I looked to Sweet Virginia, to see what his eyes said. Even if I had seen them they would have told me nothing. They were so closed up they could not say a thing. His hands were busy digging in his pockets, fingering our small fortune: rustling my two-bits’ worth of everything between his fingers. I wanted to go to him and say, “C’mon Mr. Hakes, let’s cut and run from this city and all this Dead Eye shit!” But that Daddy was dripping in gold. Gold rings, gold buckle, gold watch chain peeking through his clean white jacket. Everything about him said white picket fence and high living. His beard was cut smart. Which meant he saw a barber every day. His eyes were all lined, as you would expect from a gold digger who’d been out in the desert sun too long and who was pretty close to being “an old-timer. His cheeks showed he’d had the smallpox at some time in his life. But being ugly didn’t mean nothing. Being rich did.
I looked behind me, to Sweet Virginia. I ran to him. I put my hand to his arm.
He forged a smile.
I shot a fast look at the Gold Daddy. Then moved closer into the shadow with Virginia.
“Mr. Hakes,” I said, “I’m going to get us a ticket out of here. Tomorrow, we’ll be on that train going anyplace. Any place away from here, I promise you.” And I kissed his ear, and his cheek, and I could not find a word big enough to say what I felt for him right then, so I said, “I love you, Mr. Hakes,” instead.
And he said a whole lot of nothing. When I went to kiss his lips he turned his head and said, “Ain’t you got a job to do?”
So I let him go.
When I neared the end of the alley, I turned to give him a last look and held up my hand to say goodbye.
He gave me a little nod.
I turned back to the Gold Daddy .Took the umbrella from his hand. Held it over his head to save him from the rain, and headed up to Pacific Hotel.
About Sam Taylor-Pye
Sam Taylor-Pye grew up on the border between Washington state and British Columbia, Canada and currently lives in Kent in the UK. She received her BA from the Open University, and has an MA in Creative Writing. This is her first published novel.