THE SOLITARY VICE
by Ruth Paul
You know who they are. The shiny, clever, good looking, well known, respected, connected authors who radiate talent and possibility and always get CNZ grants. I want to be one of them.
But like every photo ever taken of me, I am shocked to discover that I'm quite ignoble. I have a wonky mouth and a square face. If a chin can be both receding and protruding at the same time, well, I have it. On the bright side, as a picture book writer and illustrator, I work alone and no one has to look at me. I have Radio New Zealand National for company, and for a while there developed a big crush on Jim Mora’s voice. Perhaps that should have been a sign.
There were other signs, of course. The success of fellow authors started to grate. Not in a jealous way that made me want to scratch their eyes out, but in a way that crippled my ability to work. Google took the place of newspaper horoscopes or the Bible. I’d type in things like “What do you do when you’re a picture book author and you feel like you’re not very good but you want to be really good?” or “Picture book doldrums” (which, to save you the time, always turns up The Phantom Tollbooth). I started looking forward to my friend’s disasters so I could live vicariously over the phone through their thwarted romances or office corruption scandals. And I never brushed my hair, convincing myself that birds nesting in it was quite fetching.
When I started sharing these thoughts with Jim, the slight tilt of the dog’s head made me take stock. By virtue of doodling and writing doggerel I had cornered myself in a solitary career, when really I was a people person! Consequently, I seriously considered becoming a City Councillor – a long story, but trust me when I tell you I'm very good at arguing. I consulted the wisest women in the land, email-moaning to Margaret Mahy (reply: “…Writing is a solitary process as you know. You sound as if you might enjoy social life rather more than I ever did.”) and visiting Jeanette Fitzsimons at her home (deftly sidestepping the invitation for a naked swim). My vocation hung in the balance, the clock ticked.
Then, just as I was about to plunge into the cesspool of local body politics, a good friend rescued me. She gave me a job as her illustration assistant on The Hobbit. These were the early days, pre-green light, and a true pleasure. I put on decent clothes, drew gorgeous things, laughed loudly with other fabulous people, chose my own hours, grazed by the espresso machine, realized I had a skill that not everyone else had, and GOT PAID GREAT MONEY BY THE HOUR! I dropped Jim like a hot potato and took up with my new shiny, clever, good-looking friends in the film industry. And politics? Why, with friends on both sides of the actor’s equity fracas I had it all! Highways and by-laws be damned.
Unfortunately for me, but fortunately for the rest of the nation, The Hobbit did eventually get cranking. I had to choose to stay on for the whole ride or find a replacement. And you know what? It never occurred to me to stay. Believe it or not, I missed my solitary career. I had a new book idea to work on, taller things to draw. Yes, having gone There and Back Again, I realized that I loved nothing more than writing and illustrating children’s stories. I just needed to get far enough away from myself to see it.
I am now resigned to my solitary vice, although that sounds rather more pleasurable than it often is. The path of a solo artists career can be a long and treacherous one, so here are some of my hard-earned pointers for the journey:
• Google is a miraculous tool that can take us into the studios of world famous writers and illustrators. It’s a fabulous research machine, but it has limits. It is neither friend nor soothsayer.
• The same goes for CNZ. Never wait on a grant to validate your work or determine your route. If you need to get out, change tack, start a new project or enroll in a fancy course, just do it. It’s up to you to put food into the machine.
• Discover Facebook (unless you can’t control it, in which case it’s like advising you to take up smoking) and phone coffee. Staying in touch helps keep the lonesome ghosts at bay. Good friends are as close as you’ll get to soothsayers.
• Jealousy comes in fits and starts. Welcome it as a catalyst to drive improvement. Frankly, if I'm jealous of someone it’s my highest form of praise.
• Work is a great distraction.
• Exercise. Brush hair. Remind self that the voice on the radio is attached to a real person who is married and is not your imaginary friend.
Most importantly, know that going stir-crazy is a cyclical phenomenon. It’s ok, it’s natural, you won’t go blind. And learn to trust that look on the dog’s face.