A couple of years ago, feeling that my career was somehow 'stuck' and that I was floundering about a bit, I booked an advice session from the Cultural Enterprise Office in Glasgow. It turned out to be very helpful in allowing me to assess where I was at, and where I might want to go in the future and I would certainly recommend it to any writer who, in mid career, has that familiar feeling of frustration that things may not be going quite the way he or she expected or wanted.
The single most useful piece of analysis, however, and - as it turns out - the thing that has stayed with me over the succeeding months, has been the idea of 'focus.' What emerged from an afternoon of detailed one- to-one discussions with the adviser, was a sense of my own dissatisfaction with the way I work - not so much with the work itself, which I love, as with my propensity for spreading myself too thinly. Am I a playwright who also writes novels? Am I a poet who writes plays? Am I a historian who writes lots of other things? A number of conclusions and recommendations emerged from the session but the one that I have carried with me all this time is the idea that - for various reasons, some personal and some of them practical - I have always found it hard to focus. I don't mean that I start things and don't finish them, because I do. I finish lots and lots of things! But ... when I'm working on a novel, I do find myself wondering if I should be writing a play. When I'm writing a play, I'm distracted by the thought that I could be making more money writing for business. I'll have a spell when all I want to do is write poems, and then, quite suddenly, the need to do this will vanish, and everything I want to write will present itself as a novel or a short story.
Over the year or so since that session, however, it has become increasingly clear to me that my main focus, the place where my true love of writing lies, is definitely with novels. There is quite simply nothing I would rather be doing. And the result is that I have a couple of manuscripts to sell, and another one on the way. But this is also a frightening realisation since it is now so hard even for agents to find publishers, and yet novels take up very large swathes of your time! And so, it's time to recognise my own fear - and do it anyway.
I was considering all this last night, when - having watched The Dragons' Den - I was involved in a discussion about successful people in all walks of life - how some people make it, while others, arguably with equal amounts of talent - don't. The conclusion we reached - and it may seem obvious, but I hadn't clarified it in my own mind until that point - was that the people who had made it in a big way all had massive 'focus' in some aspect of their working lives. My friends who have been most successful are those who - perhaps not immediately, but at some point in their lives, maybe even quite late in their lives - have found out what they really want to do and then gone for it, relentlessly. This may or may not have involved money. For some of them the money-making was purely incidental. For others, they made very little money, but didn't care. The focus on something was all important. If you look at successful people currently in the media you'll find plenty of examples. Mary Portas has that same almost scary focus - in her case, on the retail experience. The Dragons themselves seem to have a focus not so much on their individual businesses - but on making money. I know a few people like that. We probably all do! They are the businessmen and women who seem to have the midas touch. All their enterprises prosper, and it isn't necessarily because they are ruthless or greedy. It's more that the actual business of making money, of profit and loss, seems to fascinate them so that they focus on it more clearly, more exclusively than any of their competitors, regardless of whatever business they are involved in.
Looking at some of the most successful writers I have known or worked with, the single most important thing they seem to have in common is that same ability to focus. And I don't just mean the ability to ignore distractions and naysayers. It's more than that: it's a kind of singlemindedness. Given the obvious necessity of a baseline of real talent (without which, nothing) success so often seems to come to those who are very clearly focussed on some aspect of writing. They seem to know exactly what they want to do and they go for it, like an arrow, strong and straight and true. Obviously, they may then go on to do other things, to branch out and experiment but I become more and more convinced that part of the trick of professional success in all walks of life, is to find out exactly what you want to do - and go for it.
Of course, the finding out can be tricky. Self help books tell you to listen to your 'inner voice' - but I'm not sure that it always tells you the truth. Because your inner voice can be frightened as well. And of course - as we concluded in our late night discussion - it may be that what you want is not to focus on any one thing. My own father was a case in point. He was clever man and a distinguished research scientist, with a myriad of other interests. He had a good career, but by no means as starry as some. It didn't matter to him. His interests were many and varied, he loved his life and his family, and he was one of the happiest people I have ever known.
All the same, I've reached some conclusions, the main one being that from now on, my focus has to be on novels. Long fiction seems to be where my heart lies, as well as my head!