Vinay Patel’s New-Year-taking-stock-hope-injection… sort of
New Years Day 2014. It’s a few minutes after midnight. I’m in a cool bar in Berlin. I don’t feel cool enough to be in any bar in Berlin let alone this one.
I’m 27 years old. I’ve not had a full-length play on. I’m single. I’m working a collection of part-time jobs. I’m letting the people who love me down. I feel very much that the life I had wanted for myself is slipping away.
So I grab the nearest scrap of paper (a blank receipt from an off-licence) and with the help of a borrowed pen I wrestle my anxieties about the moment, about the year to come, into a pep-talk note for my future self. When I’m done, I fold it up, write “OPEN ON 1/1/2015” and shove it into the part of my wallet that’s a bit sticky for reasons I never want to interrogate.
My memory is so awful that I immediately forget what I’ve written but that’s half the point. No matter what happened over that year, I knew I could rely on having a hopeful message to hand.
Dear 2015 Vinay. You’re alive (I hope).
This is a tradition for me now and – barring one year where I accidentally threw my wallet under a train – I’ve managed to stick to it. And I’ve always found it motivating to be beholden to the expectations of someone else, even if that someone else is a slightly less haggard version of me.
Big 29 this year and you know what that means.
I’m inherently a hopeful person, I try to instil it in all my work, and I wanted to make this blog a New-Year-taking-stock-hope-injection for any newish writers reading this.
I promise I really did want to do that!
The thing is though: for me, hope is fundamentally a process of extrapolating good outcomes from a small amount of knowledge, a kernel of certainty. And if the last few years have made anything clear, it’s that nothing good feels certain anymore. So perhaps the most honest place to begin is taking stock of some of the bad.
I’m willing to bet that for most of you 2020 and 2021 have not been an artistic highlight. You’ve probably had cancellations. Rejections. Jobs fall through. Creative relationships fractured by pandemic strain. Lots of you will have lost projects. Your efforts suddenly feel a lot harder to justify. Because it’s not just about the time we spend on a project, it’s about that time being understood as a valid use of an existence and if they never happen – who are you and what exactly are you doing?
I’ve watched some of the most brilliant people I know leave the industry because, with everything stalled, the obscuring blur of relentless productions settles and it is easier to see the truth – ours is a sector that relies on fanatical love but has little capacity to love back.
I think you’ve done enough to make her proud and probably enough to leave her behind.
We make attempts to bolster each other, to drive each other on, especially those who don’t yet have a foothold. These are well-meaning attempts. But when our feel-good rhetoric sits at odds with our actions it only adds to the pain. Take awards and lists, for example. It’s the end of the year so there are a lot of them flying about. “Best of”. “Breakthrough.” “Most Anticipated”. In the aftermath of awards, you often see a lot of talk that they don’t mean anything, that we shouldn’t be beholden to them, you have value even if you’re not on them, that they don’t matter.
Except. They do. Don’t they?
Important People look at them. The general public discern your quality through them. They can have consequences for your future. Your financial viability. By every metric, you would much prefer to be garlanded than not, it’s way more fun to be award-winning, to be a purveyor of sold-out stories than to find your anguished soul rated three stars (and it reads like a two).
Celebrating is important. Necessary, even. It’s simply that people insist acclaim doesn’t matter for others while embracing their own (guilty), so it’s hard to take seriously as a comfort. Or rather it’s hard to feel secure enough that it doesn’t matter. Nobody comes into the arts because they have a healthy relationship with validation. Relying on it to make a living is a double horror in the making.
So I am not going to insist you drive on despite the awfulness. Truthfully, some of my friends who have left the industry are now much happier for it. I won’t tell you that an erratic, often abusive, sector deserves unconditional fealty. I don’t want to blithely push supportive aphorisms because you’ve probably had loads and they’re not enough. I can’t reassure you that you haven’t missed your moment when our world when the arts relentlessly feeds off of scarcity and the next big thing.
And I definitely don’t want to tell you that your dreams, your pledges to yourself and others, matter more than your sanity. They don’t.
You’re perhaps 1/3 through your life – that’s enough gratitude and penance.
Personally, this is the year that’s made me want to stop writing more than any other. It has been hard to believe that any of it matters. December 2020 was so miserable – the darkness, the isolation – even the hopeful note I opened on January 1st 2021 felt like naïve wittering, written as it was with no knowledge of what was to come.
Then, the day after I read that note, my grandfather Rasik went into the hospital. This was the man who encouraged me to write at his kitchen table, the man whose life I tried to grappled with in An Adventure at the Bush. I was delighted that he got to see that play. I am haunted that he died alone. I never got to say goodbye.
All in all, this was not a great time to be on an urgent writing deadline and I subsequently spannered it. So badly in fact that my confidence still hasn’t quite returned. Worst still was the rather more urgent deadline of the eulogy. I did not want to write it. I did not want to write anything. You know how I said I found it motivating to be beholden to people? Beside myself, there were two people in my life I wanted to make a creative life work for.
The first was my mother who was the subject of that first New Years note. As I understood it, she was what passed for the artsy one in my family but she never made it to thirty so I felt I needed to live the ambitions she never got to. The second was her father, and now he too was gone and I had no idea why or who I was doing any of this for.
Then. I got a letter.
It was sent in November 2020 and the post was so delayed at this point that it had only now turned up in mid-January. I immediately recognised the handwriting. It was his.
I wish I could tell you it was a spectacular call to arms instead of a Diwali card with the usual platitudes in it. Yet the simplicity of it, “wishing you good life and career”, was enough. To feel his hope, not born of certainty in the world – he never got to have that – but in the certainty of love.
And look, if a dead man could write, I could probably manage it.
It was still awful. I delivered that eulogy to a handful of mourners, stood outside in the rain afterwards, unable to touch anyone, knowing I’d be returning to a flat with only grief and more deadlines to greet me. But I had some clarity again of why writing has its grip on me, for better or worse. It’s because I’m scared. It’s because I’m vain. It’s because I don’t want to disappoint people. Because it helps me shape what I don’t understand. Because I want to share my misery. Because I get pleasure in – finally! – finding the right words in the right order. Because it lets me feel like an emotional time traveller who gets to hold the past and pre-feel the future and briefly escape the terrible weight of now.
Because I believe, to the very bones of me, that every story that’s written is one that someone out there has always needed. They might have to wait a little longer for it. It might not be how you make a living. It still matters.
Writing can be a way to calcify prestige, it can be a paddling pool for the bored and wealthy. But it is also the start of a search. The opening gambit of a conversation that someone, someday will pick up and embrace with all their being, even if you’re dead, even if they aren’t – as of yet – born.
Wait. Is that an aphorism? Maybe. It’s suspiciously too tidy to contain real truth isn’t it? Actually, I don’t know if I really know what an aphorism is and it feels against the spirit of this to look it up. OK, this blog is definitely petering out along with the year so I’ll finish up with a request.
Will you write a little something for someone?
Not to yourself – though you’re welcome to take that tradition – but for another person. Not necessarily the most obvious, maybe the fifth person who comes in to your head. It can be a proper letter or a scribbled note or a tweet. Then make a note to send it in time for January 1st 2023. I don’t know what next year has in store for us, but I do know whoever gets your words will need them.
If you can’t do that, that’s OK. You’ve got plenty on! Thanks for coming along anyway. I’ll leave you back in 2014 where we started.
Please keep writing, make yourself useful to humanity and try to love as consistently as you can. I know you find it hard sometimes, but don’t tell yourself you can’t. It’s the most important thing.
No one needs a new story more than you.
Vinay Patel is the Bush Theatre Writer in Residence.