Learning from The Boss
Bruce Springsteen's brilliant 'Badlands' features these unforgettable lines:
Poor man wanna be rich
Rich man wanna be king
And a king ain't satisfied
Till he rules everything.
Of course, this speaks primarily to a materialistic urge, to a society wedded to the idea that progress is measured in pounds or dollars and that power is its necessary corollary. It speaks as well to the dark heart at the centre of the American dream, a dream denied to millions who will now not be better off than their parents and for whom countless doors are forever closed. That this song was written in the late '70s, matters little. It's as relevant today as it was then.
Its other resonance for me is more personal. I have just started reading Oliver Burkeman's 'Four thousand weeks' (the number of weeks, more or less, which fills a life lived till age 80) which explores the idea of time and how it has come to define and control us. He writes about the fear of missing out, the bucket-list, and the stress of managing (or failing to manage) the huge to-do list of life. We are in hock to time, believing we can beat it rather than accept our limitations. It makes us ask, what is important? Is it clearing the inbox? By doing more, we paradoxically create more to do. And so the inbox of life can never be cleared.
So, how does this link to my own to-do list? My next stage on the ladder to being king of my own world? Well, it has been my goal to write and get published my own Young Adult novel - The Storm-chasers' Daughter. Never mind that I have written over 150 educational books and resources, had some minor plays performed, won the odd short story competition etc etc. Never mind that I have had two recent short YA novels published by an English language publisher. None of this is a proper novel published by a proper publisher. How can I call myself an author if I don't have the gold standard of the trade novel against my name?
But of course there was a time when the goal was the very first educational book I wrote. I was the poor man of the writing world at that point. Then it was some short fiction and non-fiction for reluctant readers, as they were then called. Then diversifying out of English and into Drama and other subject areas. Each was a way of emptying the inbox, ticking off the literary bucket-list, chasing a new sort of richness. And what if I do manage to place Storm-chaser with an agent? What if I do get it published? Will I suddenly feel fulfilled? Richer? King of the hill? Perhaps. But I suspect that if I do, it will create its own pressures and new things to do. Yes, I want to write but in the remainder of the four thousand weeks I have left maybe it's about doing less, not more. To taking more from the now than from the prospect of what might be coming when I have got stuff finally done. Life cannot be lived purely on the basis of a future ideal which may never arrive.
I'm not binning the novel. But equally I need to accept that much of the pleasure I derived from it was in the process of writing it, the everyday enjoyment of creating Leila and Bear, of researching Californian wildfires and not in the delayed gratification of a publishing deal which may never come.
You're welcome, Mike. (Oh, and by the way, forget the music career, buddy. Your songs ain't bad but the Promised Land is already here, not just around the corner.)