I am standing in a field, outside a large marquee at a literary festival. I am on in fifteen minutes. The event going on in the marquee right now is an award ceremony: the Primadonna prize 2023 – the lucky winner will get money and representation from a top agent – fame and fortune. The funny thing is I entered this competition. Didn’t even get long listed. In the meantime, my novel found an agent, a publisher. It’s a strange position to be in – on the edge of this tent – both a loser and a winner. A punter and a published author.
Right now, I am keenly aware of how many agents, of different kinds, there are in my life. A literary agent. Several estate agents. A financial agent. A mortgage broker. A relationship manager with the Arts Council. People who manage, broker, make or break deals and decisions on my behalf, while I sit near the phone – except that’s an old-fashioned image of angst because phones these days are not fixed points, with wires in walls, but go everywhere in pockets. Which means I can be anxious anywhere. Doing anything. Waiting to hear…
If any offers for my novel have come in from Europe, or America.
If the novel makes it on to any lists – long or short.
If we can get a mortgage, a bridging loan, to buy the house we want.
If I will get funding for the show I want to make.
I don’t like what it does to me – this waiting. This sense that my fame and fortune, my agency, are in the hands of other people, and all I can do is pray, touch wood, light candles, wear my lucky socks. It narrows me, as if I were a corridor, or someone trying to hurry down one. I feel gripped by the story of it, the one inside that tent- the applause, the winner’s acceptance speech which I half heard from outside – the story of being chosen. It’s so powerful as to make me forget what I want, because – when I stop to think of it – I’m sure it wasn’t fame or fortune I was after.
My daughter asked me last week what the oldest fairy tale in the world is. I did a bit of research. No one can know for sure, but Cinderella is a contender. Certainly, there are an astonishing number of variations of it that have emerged from different cultures round the world. We’ve been waiting to be chosen – to be the one who fits the shoe- for a very long time.
A few years ago, after, once again, not winning some competition or other, my husband sent me a blog by the business guru Seth Godin called: “Reject the tyranny of being picked – pick yourself.” It reads:
“It’s a cultural instinct to wait to get picked. To seek out the permission and authority that comes from a publisher or talk show host or even a blogger saying, “I pick you.” Once you reject that impulse and realize that no one is going to select you– that Prince Charming has chosen another house– then you can actually get to work.”
Seth writes a blog a day – his blogs are a lot shorter and punchier than mine, so if that was all I had to say, I would just direct you to this pithy point – ‘Pick yourself’ – and end things here. But there’s something else that’s troubling me…..
Because I have picked myself, and got to work, many times, out of stubbornness more than self-assertion but…. it’s not enough.
Because it’s lonely.
But I don’t think the lonely part is the self-reflexiveness of the act- that it’s just me, picking myself. I think that being picked, singled out, is an intrinsically lonely business, whoever does the picking – me, an agent, a prince.
I remember I was picked once….
I won a competition in school when I was six. The prize- some sweets. I remember everyone looking at me with envy, as I was offered my award, at the front of the class. And I thought, desperately, that perhaps if I refused the prize my classmates wouldn’t hate me for winning it. So I told the teacher that I didn’t like sweets. And then everyone hated me more because, not only had I won, but I was too weird and stuck up to eat a sweet.
I got picked, and then I got picked on. I think the former can turn into the latter, all too easily. Ask any celebrity. So, what’s the answer to the loneliness? What do I want, besides, or instead of being picked?
Not friends exactly. At school at least, friendship itself seemed like a process that involved a high degree of ‘picking’- who you did or didn’t hang out with at break time was all down to the picking pecking order.
Not romance. I got picked up once when I was 13. That particular prince took me to see Platoon – not exactly a charming choice. I remember his arm about my shoulder in the dark, his fingers pressing at the edge of my upper arm, as if testing me, as I tested the plums on the tree in our back garden to check if they were ready. I told him afterwards, politely, that it was nothing personal, but I didn’t think dating was for me.
My daughter gives me the answer. Because she came up with a version of Cinderella, unlike any I have heard told, from those many different cultures round the world. In her rendition the prince goes off with a pizza, and Cinders hooks up with the fairy godmother.
Drawing by Tenar, of Cinderella and her fairy godmother, living happily ever after, with their fairy child.
Quite aside from the fact that this sounds like an outcome with a far greater chance of happiness than the traditional story – the prince gets to munch his way through a pepperoni pizza in the palace, while Cinderella is a free woman, with another woman, guaranteed a lifetime’s supply of gorgeous frocks- there is something else my daughter’s story helps me recognise….
….Which is that the person to whom I feel most attraction in the tale has always been the godmother.
Not because of the sparkles, fairy wings or wand so much – in the Grimm version an ash tree on a grave, and a pair of doves play the part, and in the Chinese version it’s a magic fish – but because she/ they hold the role of the mentor and the artist. The one with the ability to transform, to take the everyday and make a wonder with it. The one who can change the world, until midnight at least. She’s the one I want to love, because I love what she can do. And I want to learn from her.
I believe that I’ve been looking for this kind of love all my life. Fairy godmothers. Mentors. Wise creatives. Magic fish. Almost always confusing my longing for them with the wish to be picked, because of the prevalence of that cultural narrative, and often looking for them in entirely the wrong places and people. I have looked for them in teachers, directors, other artists, agents. Sometimes I have found them. Sometimes I have been deeply, even disastrously, disappointed. But I have always felt ashamed of my desire. As if it were either deeply uncool or sordid. I mean it is deeply uncool, when framed as a wish to be picked, because then it turns me into the teacher’s pet. And it can be sordid if the teacher figure misconstrues my wish to learn as another kind of love, to which I did not consent.
But it’s only now, at the grand age of 49, that I am finally disentangling these two stories, because of my love for, and loss of, the novelist, Nicky Singer, who unofficially and yet wholeheartedly mentored me in my writing for what turned out to be the last five years of her life, and to whom I will be grateful for the rest of mine. It was stupendously clear that I loved Nicky, not because she had picked me – I picked her, approached her – but because of the work she did, and shared so generously with me. I loved her because of a mutual point of passion we held, not for each other, but for a third thing- a common interest- which, in our case, was stories, and how to write them.
Thanks to Nicky, I have begun to realise three things, which I find profoundly helpful. First, that what I want is not, ultimately, to be picked. I want creative exchange. I want to share the fruit, not be the fruit. Second, that the people who do the ‘picking’ are unlikely to offer me such an exchange – it is important not to muddle up prince and godmother. And third, that even if I pick myself, I still need creative companionship, and that this is up to me to find. Not to pick so much as to seek out – if Cinders has any agency in the versions of the tale I know, it is in this: she goes to the ash tree, she calls out for help. She actively and sincerely summons up support. I believe that this support – be it tree or godmother or fish – is not a luxury, but a necessity. Not so she can help me get to the ball, but so she and I can study magic, together. Screw the ball. I want to stay home with my godmother, look into the fire, and make some crazy stories from the ashes.
This helps me, as I wait anxiously for the phone in my pocket to ring, to realise that the agents may keep the gates- choose who does and doesn’t get invited to the ball, dish out the gold, the fame and fortune – but they don’t necessarily commandeer the magic.
It helps me to differentiate, at last, between the desperate magical thinking I do when I long to be chosen, miraculously picked, and the deep magic I want to spend my life listening for, seeking out. The magic that is in the land – in an ash tree, bird, fish, or godmother – and that pays little heed to gates and gate-keepers. A magic against which the gates seem like rather flimsy little structures. The land doesn’t care what boundary lines you build on it. One side of the gate, or the other, is much the same.
I can testify to this. I passed through one of those gates earlier this year. In large part, thanks to the mentorship of Nicky Singer, my book is in print. In the bookshops. I am not trying to belittle this achievement, but – honestly – the bedroom floor, on which I write, is still the same. The ground hasn’t shifted. My practice has, my life has – but that’s thanks to my exchange with Nicky, not to the fact of publication. The transformation took place beside the fire, in the ashes, not at the ball. I felt it when I stood outside that festival tent – inside/ outside – it doesn’t make much difference.
Because there will always be another gate ahead, another ball, a posher palace. Whereas it is good to know I can rely on the bedroom floor, and the transformations I can practice there. Good to know that the land is the land, and the words are the words- no matter what fame or fortune comes or goes. It is good to know that what I am interested in is not a gate, but a gap. Not a closed barrier, but an open question. It’s this I am drawn towards, because in that space – between me and a godmother, or an ash tree, or between me, writing this, and you, reading it – that’s where the magic resides.
Which is in large part why I started and continue to run M/Others who Make. Because I think Seth Godin’s advice is good – don’t wait to be picked, pick yourself – but I also think you can’t do it alone, and do not have to do so. Mothers and Others – we all need godmothers or god-others, spirit guides, creative mentors – and I believe we can be this for each other. It’s why MWM runs peer support groups, and a creative peer mentoring scheme (coming up early next year – you can sign up here!). It’s also why I am founding a creative home with Improbable, called The Gathering, at Bore Place (also with thanks to Nicky Singer) – a place where you can go to find a tree, a bird, or another kind of mentor, with whom you can converse, can study the art of transformation, of making something amazing from a pumpkin, and a story from a pile of ashes.
Because it’s time- achingly so – to tell a different story to the one of being picked. A new story. And a very old one – since it’s probable that Cinderella is not the oldest in the world. She is a mere 2000 years old. There’s another that goes back 6000 years, in which a blacksmith outwits the devil – he picks himself, in other words. And it’s likely that there are even older tales. A story, for instance, in which we pick, not each other, but berries. In which we pick the land. A story, in which we pick life – again – at last.
So, here are your questions for the month:
Do you want to go to the ball?
And if you do, can you invite yourself?
What would this mean, to pick yourself?
And, lastly, who are your fairy godmothers? Those aids, mentors, guides, whose business it is to support your transformation…. I believe it is your job to seek them, to find and summon them – not the other way around.
Pencil drawings by Xavier Singer-Kingsmith – Follow for more https://www.instagram.com/xotuski/?hl=en