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Never Mind The Pigeonholes

A writer’s need to stretch

Illustration by Fran Pulido of woman by window thinking what to write with book birds flying past window.

Pigeonholes. They’re fine for pigeons. Handy for letters. Try to push a writer into one and, well…that’s not such an easy fit, especially if you’re expected to stay in it for the rest of your professional life. If you’re creative in any way, there’ll be times when shifting into different genres, broadening your range, changing style, even reinventing yourself completely feels natural, essential even. However, once you have established yourself on one particular path, growth and change can be harder for others to accept, understand, even approve of — and so, many of us remain rigidly on one course lest we are ‘not taken seriously’.

I’d encourage you to resist that cosy pigeonhole if you’re feeling the need to expand. Pay no attention to the quality birdseed they might be offering in return for staying the same. It takes bravery to put your work out there, let alone do something no one expects, but for all sorts of reasons – mostly fear – it can feel easier to keep some aspects of our creative life hidden, or worse, simply not explore them at all. If you’re ready to develop and show a facet of yourself no one knows exists, screw up your courage and do it for your own sake. Some people will be surprised. To that I say: good.

The first time I exhibited some artwork in a small group show, a local creative approached me. He told me he knew of my books and then blindsided me with the following stinger: ‘and now you’re an artist all of a sudden.’ In reality, there was nothing sudden about it: it was just the first time he’d become aware of me doing anything other than what he already knew. But this remark was, of course, intended to shame me back into my pigeonhole.

Showing creative work that others didn’t expect made me feel vulnerable, but I did it, and was glad, and encountered much positivity too. This barb might have been undermining, but it didn’t stop me from taking joy in making more art, or accepting opportunities to exhibit when they arose. All creative practitioners – all people indeed – must stretch and experiment in order to be fully realised, fulfilled human beings. Different dimensions of our creativity will bud and bloom depending on what we feed ourselves culturally, or what we need personally. They’re all part of that which makes up who we are. The work we make may appear to be different at different times, but it all springs from the same well.

Which brings me back to my writing. Since my twenties I’d been writing music books, mostly artist biographies. My first was written not because I had a burning desire to dedicate my life to writing biographies — I didn’t think I had the chops anyway (and, as certain trolls informed me at the time, neither did they). No, it was written because I had a burning desire to spotlight a cult female band which was not widely appreciated despite being one of the most interesting groups to emerge from punk. The band’s contemporaries (male) were garlanded with books and films galore. That was why I set to work on Typical Girls? The Story Of The Slits, writing them firmly into her-story with great love. One project led to another and a biographer I became. I’ve always felt privileged to be trusted with the stories of others but, like anyone, I had my own stories bubbling beneath the surface, eager to be written. These were my experiences, my memories, secrets, mistakes and discoveries, many of which pre-dated my life as a writer and delved into other worlds I’d inhabited.

I relished the idea of using the veil of fiction to deliver truths, arranged like a spiky bouquet, tied together as a dark romantic satire of the music industry. I wanted to process my thoughts through creative writing, using the past like a rich, loamy compost, turning it, tossing seeds into it, seeing which ‘took’, which refused to germinate and which flourished like an invasive weed as soon as I turned my back.

Over a period of seven years, Shine On, Marquee Moon slowly emerged, and I felt that happiness and freedom you feel when you are in ‘the flow’. For once, everything I was writing was coming from within, rather than without. Stories that had been pushed down and hidden were cracking their way out at last. There were no egos to concern myself with…well, other than mine, which was more than enough. There were no arguments to balance, no self-aggrandising hangers-on, no arbitrary spokes being shoved into wheels.

There was also no serious interest, not least because, as one publisher told me, ‘women don’t want to read about music’. This was irksome because a) that’s not entirely true, b) context aside, it’s a story about some humans and c) who said I only wanted women to read it anyway? Comments like this underestimate both female author and male reader alike. But I also found myself encountering the ‘and now you’re this, all of a sudden’ attitude again. I’d carved my groove working with the stories of others and that was where I was expected to stay. It takes cojones to look beyond other people’s expectations of you, let alone your own. Trusting your voice is a process in itself, and fiction puts you into a position in which you have no choice but to find your own way through the fog.

As a biographer you should always be keenly aware that, while you are researching, writing, arranging – being the ‘director’, if you like – ultimately people want the book because of who it is about. That is not you, and that is as it should be. As a result, once you decide to put your own story out there, insecurity looms because…it’s just you. No rock star to hide behind. Will anyone get it? Will anyone care? Is this just self-indulgent? We need to challenge these thoughts if we’re to even start writing.

For Shine On, I worked with an editor but, for better or worse, I didn’t push for a publisher after the initial testing of the water — in fact I turned down a deal. This was my first, perhaps only, novel: it was intensely personal and therefore important to express the story without being pushed and pulled by someone who would never care about it as much as I did, or be made to write scenes that didn’t come naturally just to adhere to a formula (you can always tell when an author has shoe-horned a sex scene in against their will). And so, I went rogue. I self-published.

The novel might not have been anything close to a bestseller, but the process of writing it gave me so much. It earned a place on the Virginia Prize shortlist – something that will forever thrill me – and I still love hearing from readers who really connected with the book, although I remember someone enthusiastically telling me they loved that I’d woven the story together from my own ideas and ‘inspiration from other people’s’ stories. This bemused me: no harm was meant by the assumption, but where had it come from? Then I realised: someone who had only known me as a biographer just couldn’t compute or relate to the fact that I had my own stories to tell: they knew me as a vessel for other people’s. Again, the expectations and projections of others are best ignored.

We live in an era of self-identification, so use this paradigm shift to your advantage. Before you allow others’ definition of you to yank your chain, remember it comes from their own limited perceptions, and then consider how you want to define yourself. The rest will follow.

While we should write without fear of what others will think, every writer wants an appreciative reader: storytelling by its nature needs someone to listen. However, something special happens when we write unselfconsciously, without thought of what others will make of it. We come to an understanding about the things we think and feel, and the things that have happened to us, in a fresh new way. Our writing is a mirror, and the reflection can be surprising.

Once you start writing fiction you also realise that, whatever happens to you, it’s all material. You’ll find yourself murmuring, ‘this is good material’ at the most inopportune of moments. Keep it in your heart, write it down, use it. And if you ever sense the walls closing in around those wings of yours, find another perch for a while, and stretch.

Zoë Howe has written biographies of artists including Poly Styrene, The Slits, Jesus & Mary Chain and Stevie Nicks. Her debut novel was shortlisted for the Virginia Prize, and she was part of the team behind the documentary Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché. Her next book is Witchful Thinking (Llewellyn, 2022).

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