31st December 2011. I got severely fucked up. Why break tradition? Ever the gracious host, I had a party. At that time I lived in a penthouse in Dalston. You could fit about 100 people on the roof terrace. Three of us lived there. Night time views of the Gherkin and a wonderful vista of Stoke Newington until the council built some flats next to us and my cohabitants’ liberal façade began to wane. “Oh, world hunger is so terrible. And so is poverty and all that…And I know we should look after those less fortunate, but Christ, Jack, you do realise we pay for them to live in that flat? They could at least have the decency to take their pram in from the balcony – it’s a real eyesore. Another cosmo, Jules?”
I guess I got to bed around 6am on 1st Jan 2012, dripping with booze and unrequited lust. Flicking between RedTube and Facebook, my life began to seem very bare. Old Mother Hubbard scenario. The world seemed very dark, which was ironic as the sun was rising at that moment. But there I was, kicking off the New Year in an unmade bed with a hangover and MILF Hunter 3. Alone. And I was out of cigarettes.
What the fuck was I doing with my life?
So I dusted off my credit card and I did 3 things:
- I bought a treadmill.
- I signed up to a yoga class.
- I signed up to a creative writing class.
Then I passed out.
I forgot about the treadmill until the courier turned up to my door with a huge cardboard box.
“Sign here, sir?”
“What the hell is this?”
And then it all came flooding back. Jesus Christ, where the hell was I going to fit a fucking treadmill?
Anyway, that was the least of my problems – later that month I had to attend a Creative Writing for Beginners class.
Late-January, on a bleak Wednesday afternoon, somewhere around Marble Arch, I signed in to the Gentlemen’s Club. Plush, oxblood carpets and gaudy Edwardian staircases. Hugh Grant’s England. I had started to earn money at this point, but to tell you the truth, I have never felt comfortable around pomp. Give me a fucked jukebox playing The Stooges in a dank basement bar on the Lower East Side any day. But I had arrived from work, so I was wearing a tie, which was probably from Paul Smith. They liked me just fine.
About 4 weeks had elapsed since I drunkenly signed up to the class and in that time, I was less interested in writing and more interested in getting it on with one of my fellow students. Combine a fervid imagination with gut-wrenching loneliness and I had conjured up an evening with bright, beautiful, single women, who would all be impressed by my wit and ability to drink a bottle of Scotch in one evening, neat. I surveyed the room. To my disappointment it was a graveyard of engagement rocks and fat men with bad skin. Ah fuck. £300.
We all had to introduce ourselves.
“My name’s Billy and I have written a play, which was performed in London last year. I have come here to get advice on my first novel.” (Turned out Billy’s ‘play’ was a one-man show, performed by Billy, above a pub, for one night to his (soon ex) girlfriend and her mum.)
“Hello. My name is Annalise and I like shopping and writing about shopping and shopping and Twilight.” (Married, too, which, for some reason, was kind of galling.)
“Hello. I am Gabriella. I am Spanish and I am here to learn English.” (Kind of like joining a football club to learn how to run.)
“Yeah, my name’s Mike. I’m mad, me. I like lad lit. Chicks. Tits. Guns. England. I also drive a BMW and live in Essex, which is in England.” (I’m pretty sure I work with Mike now.)
“Good evening. I am Doreen. I dabble a little.” (Doreen was seventy going on twenty-three. She was actually rather lovely, but she stopped coming after two classes. Rumour was she died. Sad emoticon.)
“Hello, I’m Erica. I’m working on a book. I’m just here for some guidance, really.” (Erica was incredible. Her writing flowed effortlessly and she had this wonderful grasp of creepiness and romance. Also, irritatingly betrothed.)
“Hi, I’m Jack. Can we smoke in here? No? Jesus. Fucking Nazis.”
The course began. Four writers took turns to take the three-hour sessions. They veered between patronising and disinterested (a sample of my notes from session #3 are the in the picture above). Money’s in the bank. Fuck the lot of ‘em. Professional writer, motherfuckers.
We had to pair up for our first task and, together, describe a painting on a postcard. I am not a team player at best of times, but when I got stuck with Spanish Gabriella, I really started to grind my teeth.
“Only visually describe the character, not the room, not the feelings, just how the character looks” instructed the disinterested teacher.
Unprompted, Gabriella launched into it: “She is reading a letter, she is very sad. Her skirt is green and her jacket is red. I don’t like her jacket. There is a painting on the wall of the room and –”
“Hang on, weren’t we supposed to just describe the character?”
She ignored me and ploughed on. “Yes, next to the painting is a, what do you say? A mantelpiece? Is that right?”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“And what do you think this is here? An ornament?”
“We’re only supposed to describe the character.”
“I think it’s an ornament. And the carpet is red. Or would you say pink?”
Thankfully, the 90 minute break was upon us and, to my delight, Erica smoked. We sucked away on the balcony, croaky-voiced.
“You know they’re all assholes,” she said.
She touched my arm with her ring-laden left hand. There was nothing in it; smokers have this unspoken fondness for each other. We are – or rather, I was – in a dwindling subset, ousted by western society, soon only to be remembered on film. She told me about Edith Wharton and I told her about Martin Amis. She could construct these wonderfully complex and evocative sentences. She told me my style was “Sharp.” She meant this a compliment I think.
The classes we stuffed full of these stupid rules.
“All novels must have three parts. Like a play has three acts.”
I’d raise my hand. Eyes would roll. “Yes Jack.”
“What if I want to write a novel with six parts? Or seven? Or one long part?”
“Well, that’s not how novels are written.”
Fuck you, I’d think. I think that a lot.
Anyway, as the course dragged on, I suspected the thing was a scam. On the final week, we all said “Goodbye.” Feigned sadness for everyone except Erica and I. I’m pretty sure Gabriella told me to fuck off and die in Spanish. When the ‘writers’ wheeled their novels out and signed them for us at £20 a pop, my suspicions were confirmed. I bought one of their books – out of curiosity more than respect. I got through ten pages and donated the fucker to Cancer Research. Then I went home and ran on my treadmill for 20 minutes.
Sure, there are techniques that will help you write, but there are two things that you won’t get from a classroom: Practice and perseverance. If somebody asks you for money to turn you into a great painter or a great writer or a great musician, think very carefully about whether it’s actually going to do you any good. You could spend three hours a week with some fucker telling you how best to describe an orange, or you could go home and practice writing about the shit you really love.
I google Erica every now and then to see if she’s published her novel. Nothing yet, but she will.
The treadmill broke, but the yoga class worked out pretty well.