When to give up on your dreams (courtesy of Woman’s Hour)…

Inspiration arrives through many doors, including the one marked Woman’s Hour.

A tweet from the BBC Radio 4 programme asked whether it could be liberating to give up on a lifelong dream, citing listener Monica who’d “stopped trying to be a novelist at 71”.

As it happens, this 66-year-old had just sent off another novel to a publisher. This one is a Victorian murder mystery set in a reimagined York where steam technology has raced ahead of anything 1890 actually saw. My hero, Investigator Strode, is unhappy with the pace of change.

I chose the publisher as, in my role as a retired person who can’t quite retire, I’d just interviewed a writer whose books are published by that house.

Suckered in, I listened to what Monica had to say.

She’d wanted to be a novelist since she was at school and that was a long time ago. Always had a headful of ideas. So many ideas it gave her a headache and stressed her out. Agents were willing to listen – or, as she put it, willing to listen until their eyes glazed over and she still hadn’t stopped talking.

Monica has given up on the dream and says she feels better for it. She still writes but no longer obsesses about being a novelist. Although she has just written a short story.

Has she really given up? I have my suspicions about that, but it got me thinking about when, if ever, you should give up on your dreams.

I thought of myself as a novelist long before I became one. Thinking about writing is easier than sitting down and writing anything.

Aged around 40, I finally dashed off a crime novel called A Fine And Private Place. It was OK but never found a publisher and the title had, I’ve only just spotted, already been used by an American fantasy writer.

Another novel followed that one into the great bargain bin of lost novels. Maybe more than one as I don’t recall them all. The other day I found on my laptop a novel about a hitman. I’d forgotten writing that one, until I skimmed the first chapter. It seemed pretty good, if self-consciously writerly.

Anyway, I did have two novels published around ten years ago, here and in the US, and that more or less allows me to appropriate the title of novelist.

Although I do worry there may be a “best read before date”. That long ago? Oh, we’ve removed you from the list of novelists, struck you through with a chewed biro and added the words “No Longer Active”.

I’ve written a few: a time-hopping whodunit based round the York Mystery Plays (decent idea, never worked) and another more recently about a murdered TV presenter. And now I’ve sent off the latest one.

It’s a weird hobby, writing books that mostly never sit on a shelf.

Like Monica off the radio, would I be happier giving up on still thinking of myself as a novelist? The answer to that, by the way, is don’t be stupid. I’d be happier if this latest one was published.

Still, it was written to entertain myself, a good enough reason.

I am not good at giving up. I am still having guitar lessons, for heaven’s sake, aware that I will never be Richard Thompson or John Martyn or, to reach for another great guitarist, Prince.

Eric Clapton was once asked about what it was like to be the best guitarist in the world, to which he responded: “I dunno. Ask Prince”.

His words went viral across social media after Prince died. It’s a good quote, but apparently not true. Clapton had expressed his admiration for Prince but never in those words.

I’ve always liked that quote and it turns out not to be true. Much in the way that I’ve always liked an idea of myself that turns out not to be true, or to have only been true for a while.

Anyway, now is the hopeful interregnum between sending and hearing back. While I wait I’ve got this other idea to work through. Make that two ideas…


  1. An important question, Julian. And one that really needs a comfy pub and a few jars to discuss in pertinent & personal detail. However, I thought you might appreciate what Werner Herzog once said about a film he had been struggling for years to make, but never quite managed to get going:
    “If I abandon this project, I would be a man without dreams, and I don’t want to live like that. I live my life or I end my life with this project.”
    That ended up being ‘Fitzcarraldo’, by the way.

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