Fifteen Things I’d Tell My 23-Year-Old Writer Self

Fifteen Things I’d Tell My 23-Year-Old Writer Self

Hi Ed,

Don’t freak out, but I’m you from the future. 28-year-old you. Well, nearly. It’s our birthday tomorrow.

I’ve been sent here as the Ghost of Christmas Future to tell you how you’re about to screw up your life and say mean things to some crippled Cratchit kid.

Nah, I’m joking. You respect the disabled. You’re not about to screw up your life. But these next five years aren’t always going to be easy. In fact, at least one of them is really going to suck. So I thought I’d drop in with some information that might be useful to you one day. Actually, who am I kidding? I’m you. I know exactly what you’re going to go through. Of course it’s going to be useful.

So buckle up. You’ll read things you’ll be glad to hear. There’ll be a couple of things you don’t want to hear. But since I’m a smarter, more experienced, better looking (seriously – good things are coming) version of you, you can’t really pretend I’m wrong about any of this stuff. So take a moment to get over yourself if you need to. This isn’t the Pollyanna Glad Game. We’re not holding back.

1. Congratulations on getting a place on the Masters course at the RCM. That’s a real achievement in itself. But your biggest achievement this week is committing to a path that says you’re a writer. Congratulations. You’re committing to be a person who creates things that never existed before. The best kind of person. I know you don’t feel like a creative artist right now, but you are, you always have been and you’ll come to accept that soon enough.

2. You’ll be told a lot of bullshit about what it means to be an artist over the next five years. Here are some of my favorites: artists have to write something every day, artists have to struggle and suffer, artists can’t make inspiring and challenging art that is also popular. Fortunately pretty quickly you’ll learn to be merciless at discarding the bullshit and just keeping what’s useful to you.

3. Don’t despair, but it’ll turn out the RCM isn’t really the right place for you. You’re not going to have a terrible time there: you’ll learn a lot, you’ll meet some great people and you’ll have two years just to devote to your work. But that crowd on your course aren’t really your crowd. They’re great enough people. Just not your people. Actually, I’m going to spoil the surprise: you’ll go home to your parents’ for the weekend, have a drink or two and tell them you aren’t sure writing contemporary classical music is for you. You’d rather write songs and write theatre. They’ll say ‘Why not do that?’ and you’ll wonder why it was ever a problem.

4. Speaking of your parents: you’re going to make things difficult for them more than once over the next few years. But it’s OK, they’ll return the favor. Call it late-onset adolescence. But these growing pains will be worth it in the end. Like most families, it’ll just be water under the bridge. You’ll come to be proud of the ways you are like the rest of your family as much as the ways you definitely aren’t.

5. The minor breakdown at your parents’ will teach you an important lesson: breakdowns invariably lead to breakthroughs. Enjoy that one, because it’s a drop in the ocean compared to what’s coming.

6. Despite and also because of the breakdown, you’ll decide to complete your rather serious Masters degree. The subject of your final masters presentation will be Legally Blonde: The Musical, partly because you have some things to say about it, and partly because you suspect it’ll raise eyebrows. You won’t get a great mark for it, but by then you’ll be smart enough not to take that too seriously. Somehow you’ll leave the RCM with a Distinction. Again, you’ll be smart enough not to take that too seriously. Though you ought to be prouder of that achievement than you will be.

7. Next, you’ll be let loose as a freelance musician in London. And you’ll realize how inadequately a first-rate education can prepare you for real life. This is where the hustle begins. Writing is not like other careers where you start on a comfortable bottom rung and just work your way up the career ladder. Actually, it is if you think of it as working for yourself and starting on your own bottom rung. As an unpaid intern. Probably for the next five to ten years. You’ll realize being a writer is awesome, but it requires a lot of chutzpah, a lot of cunning and a crack team around to support you. But don’t be put off by your friends in nice jobs, graduate programs and paid study. For the next five years they’ll continue to tell you how proud and jealous they are of the life you’ve chosen.

8. You’ve become an exceptionally self-aware person, but paradoxically you’re not aware of your self-awareness right now. Maybe read that sentence through again. Anyway, you’ll learn to embrace this in time. You’ll learn to trust your gut, even when you can’t rationalize what it’s feeling. Life is lived forward but understood backwards: that’s why it’s easy for me to sit here smug-as-fuck and connect the dots for you. You’ll also learn that you have a lot of integrity: there’s an admirable consistency between what you say and do. You’ll learn that many people struggle with that skill. Consequently you’ll learn that what people do matters much more than what they say. No exceptions.

9. Lots of things aren’t going to work out over the next five years. Remember those other Masters interviews where you felt kind of patronized? That wasn’t because you are stupid or lack potential. Months later little clues will pop up to tell you you’d have been unhappy on those courses anyway. Versions of this will happen to you over and over again. Eventually you’ll come to trust that when even the things that seem most exciting or promising don’t work out, it means something better is coming if you only wait. Patience is a virtue, my friend. Eventually, you’ll become a red-flag ninja, and by 28 you won’t have the slightest of reservations about saying no to things that aren’t serving you.

10. You’ll invest a lot of time and energy in some real douchebags over the next five years. In your personal, professional and romantic lives. Yep, The Holy Fucking Trinity. You’ll give these people the benefit of the doubt way more than they deserve. You’ll be reasonable and considerate with these people way more than they deserve. Eventually you’ll realize that it’s your responsibility not to associate with these people. Simple as that. You’ll realize it’s better to be alone than to be with people who don’t, won’t or can’t treat you as well as you treat them. You’d be embarrassed if I told you how long you’ll take to figure that out.

11. Oh, you’ll move to America. Crazy, huh? New York Fucking City. A lot of things will magically fall into place and you’ll be off. In fact, you’ll move there at a week’s notice. It’ll be the most exciting few weeks of your life so far. (If you were wondering why the word ‘douchebag’ had suddenly become such a central part of your vocabulary, that’s why. You’re writing this from New York. Hip-as-fuck Williamsburg. I know you’ve never heard of it yet. Google it.)

12. At first you’ll be so besotted with American Culture that you’ll think that pokey little island you come from is a bit of a mess. You’ll later realize that America is also a bit of a mess. And I’m not just talking about racism, gun crime and those ridiculous toilet stalls that you can kind of see into. You’ll come to see that life here can be kind of superficial – more about cult than culture, more about being seen than doing good – and that America is not always as great as America might tell you it is. So in time you’ll realize British Culture wasn’t so lame after all. But most importantly, you’ll end up adopting your favorite bits of British Culture and your favorite bits of American Culture (plus some cultural bits from other places you’ll visit) and this will make you culturally superhuman.

13. In New York you’ll have the privilege of meeting some of your heroes in the industry. This will be humbling, inspiring and exciting. It will also be a let down. By then you’ll have made the common mistake of elevating these people to the status of gods. It’ll turn out they’re actually just people too. Normal people who are just as imperfect as everyone else. In many cases, more imperfect than everyone else. You’ll love and appreciate their work all the more for this.

14. Over the next five years you’ll learn a lot about the industry you’ve chosen. It’s a good thing you’re pretty clueless right now about how challenging it can be. I say this partly because I’m proud of your optimism, but partly because I’m afraid if you knew what I know now you’d pick a more stable career, and that would be a great loss for you and your field. Let’s just say there’s a lot to learn. One important thing: skill, success and fame are not as closely related as you might think they are. Life isn’t fair. This industry isn’t fair. But if you really want to be here you’ll keep pushing along anyway. And you do, so you will. All good things in time.

15. Oh, and you’ll found a company at 27. You’ll run a songwriting website. It’ll be the culmination of everything you’ve been through and it will be totally you. OK, there’s more to it than that. The year before you finally commit you’ll spend a lot of time worrying that it’ll just be a distraction from realizing your goals as a songwriter in your own right. You’ll ask yourself what the hell gives you the right to dole out songwriting advice. You’ll worry that because no one’s done what you’re imagining before that must mean it’s automatically a terrible idea. Fortunately you’ll get over all of these things. Going ahead on this project will be one of the best things you’ve ever done. It’ll fuel your own work in miraculous ways. Not everyone will like or get what you’ve made, but what you do will find enough devotees that you won’t give a shit about that. And good for you.

Anyway, I’m out of quarters for the time machine. Yeah, you’d think they’d take credit cards by now.

Good luck with what’s to come. You have a unique creative gift. I’m proud of you for choosing to let it out. Know that even in the toughest days, I have every faith in you. In time you’ll learn to trust yourself too.

See you in five years. I’ll be waiting.