“You ask if your verses are good. You ask me. You have previously asked others. You send them to journals. You compare them to other poems, and you are troubled when certain editors reject your efforts. Now (as you have permitted me to advise you) I beg you to give all that up. You are looking outwards, and of all things that is what you must now not do. Nobody can advise and help you, nobody. There is only one single means. Go inside yourself. Discover the motive that bids you write; examine whether it send its roots down to the deepest places of your heart, confess to yourself whether you would have to die if writing were denied you. This before all: ask yourself in the quietest hour of your night: must I write? Dig down into yourself for a deep answer. And if this should be in the affirmative, if you may meet this question with a strong and simple ‘I must‘, then build your life according to this necessity; your life must, right to it’s most unimportant and insignificant hour, become a token and a witness of this impulse.”
– Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet.
It was in 2012 that I started my long-awaited HNC in Social Sciences at Stevenson College, before it became Edinburgh College. I was twenty-one and had been working my way up to this course in the hopes of becoming a teacher at either a high school or college – at that moment psychology was only just being tried out as a higher education subject in high schools but I figured it wouldn’t be long before that spread. But, I have to admit that the previous sentence is not completely true. I didn’t start studying Introduction to Psychology through open learning at the same college some years before, working my way up to intermediate 2 level then higher then the Access to HNC in Social Sciences course, which was later given an actual qualification name (NQ), to become a teacher. No, I did it to become a cop.
Ever since I can remember I wanted to be a homicide detective. When I was growing up I lived on ‘Agatha Christie’s Mrs Marple’, ‘Poirot’ (This is also an Agatha Christie based TV Series but, for some reason I am not privy to, her name is omitted from the title), Sherlock Holmes programmes with variations on the titles, ‘Cagney & Lacey’, ‘Murder, She Wrote’, ‘Inspector Morse’ and these moved onto ‘House MD’, BBC’s ‘Sherlock’, ‘Numb3rs’, ‘NCIS’, ‘Diagnosis Murder’ and beyond. I could sit here and list them all day. I didn’t just watch them, I read them and I wrote them. I daydreamed, and I hoped.
It was never going to happen though, I just hadn’t really accepted it, I guess. I was born with a heart defect that was fixable but never curable so I was never going to make it through the entrance test to the beat cops, which you have to endure from at least 3 years before you can apply to transfer departments. So, that was a bust, or so I thought. While doing some digging I discovered a programme of sorts that said, if I got a degree in a relevant field, I could transfer over into the department, with a million stipulations and problems etc but it meant I could bypass the physical obstacles and be the homicide detective I had always dreamed of being.
So, I jumped into action. I applied for the open learning access to psychology course, I could have gone straight into the higher course but I didn’t want to miss anything. You hear interviews where there will a question and the person who answers might say something like “well, when I was starting out, before university, in college, I was on this course, just getting into it, and my lecturer said this to me, and I’ve remembered it all these years.” I didn’t want to miss out on all of those things, I might learn something I’ll never forget or I might get a life lesson, you never know. So I started at the bottom, making sure there wasn’t a stepping stone there that might seem pointless at the beginning but years later could come in handy. I progressed onto the Intermediate 2 class, the interviewers reminding me that I could go straight to the higher class and me turning it down in favour of the experiences. I got As in those classes and I moved onto Higher. Then, after that class, without enough Highers to go straight to the HNC, I progress to a course that the college had just started offering and half-assedly named ‘Access to HNC in Social Sciences’. It was a course the college had slung together themselves consisting of the qualifications needed to enter the HNC, so I took that, skipping the classes I already had. I don’t remember what I got for those subjects but since I don’t think it was As, I’ll say Bs. Then I started the HNC.
And everything went to shit.
The programmed was discontinued. Some department head doing his/her job to try and keep the department running while making sure they could still catch criminals decided this either wasn’t a cost effective thing to have going on or it wasn’t working and cut it. In the process this person, lets call them Dream-Killer, single-handedly ruined my life. I know that this person wasn’t out to do this, this isn’t a nineties kids show with villains and superhero. Dream Killer wasn’t in an underground lair cackling while a shadow covered only his/her face but moving enough to see his/her smile while they stroke a white cat on their lap. But it felt like that, it felt like Dream Killer had zeroed in on my life and decided that I was handling everything too well. Heart condition and other health complications hadn’t killed me, depression hadn’t led me to kill myself, in his/her desperation they cursed the fact that my mother had bought me glasses before I wandered blindly into oncoming traffic. So they decided to take away my dream just to see how well I dealt with it.
The answer? Better than I would have a few years before.
I decided that I’d use my back-up plan. I had already started the HNC course so I’d do it and teach Criminology or Psychology when I had obtained the degree. It wasn’t a physically demanding job and I was already on my way there. Very quickly I hated the course, it was the equivalent of the first year at university and I already wanted to scream. I tried to remind myself that this was a Social Sciences course and I wanted to go onto a Criminology course, while not completely different there was a difference and it was that that I clung to in the nights when I couldn’t sleep. When I was in school I had a breakdown of a similar calibre I couldn’t sleep for worrying and I became obsessed with list-making in an attempt to get my anxieties out of my head so I could sleep, to no real avail. The insomnia came back and it was all I could do to keep it at bay while functioning. I just studied four courses at college to get to university so I could get to the police force by climbing in a window instead of going through the front (ironically) and then in one fell swoop it was all suddenly for nothing. I had tried to make the best out of a bad situation but my heart just wasn’t in it. At all.
But I wasn’t giving up, this was the only plan I had. I had just had my dream ripped from me by the evil subterranean villain of my story I was not about to give up the years of work I had just done without a fight. I had thought I would finish the course, go onto uni, get a degree, do a year of teacher training and work in a college. But in the previous October, just as I started the HNC, I had been told that I would need a replacement heart valve soon, so that made me think about applying for Uni, I decided that it would be silly to apply for the 2013-14 Uni start when I knew that would most probably be when the valve-replacement process would start and I’d have to quit (and I was right). So, I decided that once I had finished my HNC (I got a B by the way) I would take a break, get my replacement and then rejoin my plan.
Then I watched ‘Sister Act 2′.
Now you’re thinking, “What the hell did I just read?” I know. But, bare with me. One night, I don’t remember exactly when, Feb/March 2013, I sat down to have my dinner and decided to watch a film. I like psychological thrillers but I love the way they sing “Oh Happy Day”.
Just for a little break here, here is the song I mean Oh Happy Day.
I put that DVD on and had my dinner, now there is a part in it when a young girl, Rita Watson (played by Lauryn Hill) wants to be a singer but her mother won’t let her because she doesn’t think it will go anywhere, Whoopi Goldberg’s character, Deloris Van Cartier/Sister Mary Clarence, says to the girl to read this book and see if, at the end of it, she’s still okay with living the rest of her life never having tried to become a singer.
The book is called “Letters to a Young Poet” and is ten letters written from poet Rainer Maria Rilke to Franz Xaver Kappas, a 19 year old cadet at the Theresian Military academy. Rilke had attended the same Military academy and as a result Kappas had decided to write to Rilke, who often had regular correspondence with fans, and ask him his opinion on the young man’s poems and about his choice between a literary career and one in the academy. The book only shows Rilke replies to the young man at Kappas’ request, as is his right, but what is great about Rilke’s writing style is that he refers to which part of Kappas’ letter he is answering so you are never left wonder what Rilke is talking about. They discuss not only writing but love, life, isolation, friends, passion, family, illness, wellness and happiness. On a whim, I decided to pause the film and order the book on Amazon, because if I did not do it just then I would have forgotten, then I un-paused the film and forgot all about it.
Then about two or three days later I got a letter-parcel through the door from Amazon. I opened it and it was thinner than I expected. About the same as when “The Raven” was delivered, I was expected a book but those must have been the student versions with a lot of notes that I would skip anyway. So, that night I settled down with my copy of “Letters to a Young Poet”.
To this day I have never seen it anywhere else with the same cover but it is definitely the same book.
By the third letter, I closed the book, took a breath and started from the beginning. Not only was I so in love with the way that Rilke worded things and described them I was worried, as happened with “Crime and Punishment”, that I was not fully understanding the man’s meaning, so I started from the first letter again. By the time I was finished the book I was close to tears, I don’t mind admitting that, and I’ll tell you why. Rilke basically, not in these exact words, says that if you can’t imagine never doing that one thing again, that thing that you think of when you get up in the morning and when you go to bed, that thing that just flows from your every fibre without push, then that is what you are and if the thing that you are doing does not make you feel like that then why are you doing it. And the whole time I wasn’t thinking about teaching, I wasn’t thinking about that fleeting week of waitressing during daily activities at high school or being a classroom learning assistant, for which I had just qualified before taking the first psychology course. I wasn’t even thinking about being a Police Officer.
I was thinking about writing.
I had been a writer since I was a kid, even after I stopped drawing for fun I kept on writing in my spare time. I had notebooks full of ideas and excerpts of things that interested me, of research and notes, of little bits I had written and then put away in favour of exams and essays. I had never seriously thought about it being a career, not recently. I remember when I was a child I went to school with a kid who’s father was an author (no name dropping here) and when my Mum explained it to me that his job was writing I remember thinking, I wish I could do that but how is that possible? And I always wanted to be him, to do what you loved every day and support your family that way. But that didn’t happen in the real world, in the real world people had boring dead-end jobs that they hated or were on benefits… Right?
But Rilke said differently. He was being paid for his writing, other people got paid for it, the boy from school’s father did it, J.K Rowling did it, Jacqueline Wilson did it. Lots of people did it. I wonder if I could do that. Could I actually do that? …
By the end of that book I had decided that Yes, Yes I could. And not only could I, it was what I wanted to do. It was like walking into a glass door that had the words “GLASS DOOR” printed on it. It was so obvious that it was almost invisible. From that minute I decided that I would finish my HNC in case I ever changed my mind but, as Rilke said, if you write then you’re a writer. It doesn’t, or shouldn’t, matter whether you’re being paid for it or if people like it, if you are happy with what you are doing then that is what you are. And from that day when someone said “What do you do?” I automatically answered, “I’m a writer.” Because I am.
But through it all my writing continues, and that is what I will be doing for the time being. If this were one of my characters in one of my books I might jump to when she was ready to self-publish, passed all the proof-reading, the search for the right editors and the waiting periods in between, passed the struggles for book covers and that moment when you decide you’re ready to press that ‘publish’ button.
But I can’t, all I can do is keep writing and keep on down this road whistling “Oh Happy Day”.