One of my favourite musicals of all time is the criminally underrated ‘Chess’, written by Tim Rice along with Benny Anderson and Bjorn Ulvaeus of the pop group ABBA. If you are unfamiliar with it I highly recommend giving the original concept album a listen. Some of the songs from Chess are admittedly well known in musical theatre circles even if the Cold-era show itself does not get the attention it deserves- songs such as ‘Anthem’, ‘I Know Him So Well’, and ‘One Night in Bangcok’. Netflix hit ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ has led my friends to develop a new interest in the centuries-old strategy game, and with their interest in the game and constant discussion of it my interest in the musical has been reignited. It is a truly brilliant musical masterpiece. One song I have been listening to quite often recently is The Russian’s ‘Where I Want To Be’, performed by Tommy Korberg in the original concept album and Michael Ball in the 2018 West End Revival.
The chorus of the song goes as such:
Where I want to be,
And who I want to be,
And doing what I always said I would,
And yet I feel I haven’t won at all.
Running for my life
And never looking back
In case there’s someone
Right behind to shoot me down
And say he always knew I’d fall.
When the crazy wheel slows down
Where will I be?
Back where I started.
All that to say, I’ve been thinking about the concept of ‘dreams’, ‘success’, ‘failure’, and ‘ambition’ quite a lot this week as a result of listening to this song in place of Christmas music like a normal person, and I’ve been reflecting a lot on my own long-held dreams, too. (Again, I recommend the musical. Carol sobbed for the entire second half, if that’s any indication of its genius).
Like most children, I always had a fairly rough idea of what I wanted to be when I grew up. I always knew that I was destined to do something related to History, or English, or Religion, or languages- something in the Humanities. I was hopelessly rubbish at anything even remotely resembling a STEM subject, which is a great misfortune. I was always destined for a life of unemployability. Over the course of my childhood, my future career aspirations ranged from imagining myself as an Archaeologist, to a Tour Guide, to a Historian, to an English teacher in Japan, to a Journalist. My ambitions were dynamic and ever-changing and yet one thing remained constant- whatever job I held or whatever position I qualified in would be a fallback to what I really wanted to do.
I wanted to be a writer.
To misquote Ray Liotta in Goodfellas- as far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a writer. That was it. That was my Holy Grail, my one end-goal. Every other job I envisioned myself having- Tour Guide or Journalist or all the rest- that was just a little something on the side and never the main course. They were the answer I could provide when asked what I wanted to be, and they were something sensible to work towards becoming qualified in. But the only thing I ever consistently aspired to be, the only thing my heart was ever truly set on being, deep down, was a writer. A published writer.
The fact that my first book is set to be published in January is still rather surreal to me. Yes, I always wanted it, but I never actually thought I could do it. I dreamed of being a writer just like a lot of kids dream of being an Astronaut or an Olympic Champion. They know it’s not going to happen even if they are reluctant to admit they know it. It was always just a little out of reach, and if I’m being honest with myself, I envisioned it as being out of reach for no good reason. Growing up, every teacher I had told me I was extremely talented at writing. I flourished in English. My head was always overflowing with stories. I read like the end of the world was nigh when I was a child, and the books that I read were always far beyond the scope of my age. The only obstacle that ever stood in my way was my own disbelief, and my own steadfast and stubborn refusal to think I might actually make something of myself. Writing a book was on par with winning the lottery in my eyes, and publishing a book was on par with winning the lottery twice. Like all the kids who grew up wanting to be an Astronaut or an Olympian my aspiration to be a writer took up residence somewhere in the back of my mind, gathering dust; it was something I still dreamed of but stopped striving towards as soon as the dull cloud of common-sense set in.
It was for that reason, amongst a handful of others, that I surprised everyone I knew and opted to not study English in college. If there is one thing I fear more than anything else- even more than birds, my one mortal enemy- it is failure. I didn’t want to fail at writing, the one thing everyone said I was good at. I have a tendency to refer to myself as a ‘former-gifted-child’ and I was terrified that I would go to college and be forced to realise that I wasn’t the fantastic English prodigy everyone told me I was. I loved English as a subject, loved books and poems and the intricacies of language, and I was so afraid of falling out of love that I decided to major in Religion instead. Ultimately I like to believe I made the right decision, given that I am in the first year of my Postgrad research and moving towards a lifelong career in this department, but I spent the majority of my time in my Undergrad mourning that choice. One of my favourite poems is ‘The Road Not Taken’, by Robert Frost. It is a very simple and justifiably famous poem with a variety of interpretations, but I have always understood it to mean that it doesn’t really matter what path we take when faced with making a decision; we are going to regret our choice anyway and wonder what would have happened if we chose otherwise. A picture of Robert Frost hangs on my wall for a reason- he is a remarkable poet and a true wordsmith. Of course, I often wonder what might have happened if I chose to study English. For peace of mind, I like to tell myself that what I predicted would have come true. I would have stopped reading books and started hating literature. Even still, when I chose to study Classics and Religion my dream of being a writer seemed to step further and further away.
I wrote a blog not long after I found out my book was going to be published about my experience with Lockdown in Ireland (My Lockdown). Having nothing better to do than stare at the ceiling was the kick I needed to take a long-held dream and make an attempt at transforming it into reality. I didn’t exactly set out to write a novel earlier this year, when the seeds of what became ‘The Night Belongs To Us’ first took root. I just wanted to pass the time and have something to do during my gaming breaks. I shared a bit of writing with my girlfriend and my best friend and they essentially took it upon themselves to bully me into writing more. The original ten or so chapters were extremely unlike the finished product, with entirely different characters, a different plot, and a different setting. Maybe someday I will go back to the original plot and actually finish it. But no, I decided halfway through that I didn’t like my plot and rewrote the whole bloody thing several times over. And then I got bored, as someone with my attention span would, quit writing, and moved on with my life. Lockdown ended. I began socialising again. Life began to show some semblance of normality.
And then we went back to Lockdown.
I wrote in a previous blog about how I came to finish my novel, and my decision to submit it to a Publisher (The Writing Process: 20% Writing, 50% Editing, 30% Staring at my laptop). Without the confidence that my friends gave me I imagine that never would have happened. Honestly, I still don’t think my book is that good (terrible publicity, I know). But I suppose that’s just the type of person I am. I know it’s not the error-riddled train-wreck that my villainous mind tells me it is. I know it’s got to be at least half-way decent if it’s getting published and my two supporters have promised they weren’t lying when they said they liked it. But it just doesn’t feel that way. If it was written by someone else I imagine I would like it very much and consider it a decent book but because it was written by me that simply cannot be possible. I envy anyone with even a pinch of confidence, I really do.
I was hit with a rather significant existential crisis following the email from my Publisher- a crisis regarding the fact that I had achieved the one thing I ever wanted and if that didn’t bring utter, limitless, eternal joy to my heart, nothing ever would. (I am quite prone to the odd existential crisis or two, every so often). Like The Russian in ‘Chess’, I am, technically speaking, ‘where I want to be’ and yet, I feel at a loss.
After I calmed down I found that I actually was rather pleased with myself, before the question of ‘what comes next’ set in. As I said, it’s hard to believe I am actually going to be a published author in less than a month. What do you do when you’ve achieved the one thing you always wanted to achieve? Like most people with a dream, I never really envisioned what came next. When a dog spends its life chasing its tail, what does he do when he catches it? What would a child chasing the moon do if she could hold it in her hands? I always dreamed of getting this far but it is then that the dream becomes a little hazy. In between the image of my name on the front of a book and the image of myself lounging by a private pool with a Grey Goose vodka cocktail in my hand, the picture is quite murky. I became rather alarmed upon realising that what comes next is marketing and promotion and reviews. It turns out that the writing part was actually supposed to be the easy part. According to everything else I’ve read, the hard work still hasn’t started. That was never part of the dream!
The reality is that life as an author isn’t as easy as most people are lead to believe. I certainly won’t be getting rich from sales anytime soon- if ever. My conception of a private pool and Grey Goose vodka is apparently a misconception. This whole affair is a lot of hard work that in monetary terms just isn’t going to pay off. In personal terms, however, the publication of my book will pay off immensely. In fact, it already has. Not everyone achieves their life’s ambition at the age of twenty-three. It is so easy to get bogged down by the realisation that ‘success’ and the attainment of a dream do not in and of themselves immediately mean ‘happiness’. It has given me more to strive and aim towards, and what once seemed an impossible feat has been made feasible. ‘What comes next?’ I can ask myself again, but I know the answer already; I’ll have to just keep on dreaming.