Nice To Be Nice

If you want to get ahead in the arts, learn to be charming.

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Write every day is probably the first bit of writing advice you’re likely to receive, should you seek out writing advice, and I do write every day, actually, and read every day too, which is possibly more important; but that isn’t enough. You have to be nice every day too. I’ve always been able to write, but I’ve also always been an obnoxious old goat. It’s taken me years to learn to be nice to people. When I mastered that I started to get published.

In the arts it isn’t sufficient to be talented. It’s a necessary component, of course, but possibly the least important. I experienced an epiphany last year when I pretended to care about someone’s cat and got a commission out of it. Oh, I thought. That was easy. For a brainy girl I can be extraordinarily stupid at times. I’d spent thirty years sitting home alone complaining about how well I wrote, yet no one ever noticed. I thought it was because I’d been to the wrong school and born to the wrong family. No. It was because I was sitting home alone, sending words to people who didn’t know who I was. As soon as you step outside your home and start being charming you start to get results.

My husband insists our marriage was the turning point in my career. Since knowing him, he claims, my writing’s improved, and that’s why I get published. It makes him happy to believe this, so I don’t contradict: it’s become one of those charming myths upon which marriages tend to be predicated. Actually, he has helped my career, although not in the way he thinks. Being a sociable, charming tinker, he’s forever making me go out to literary events and plays and parties, and I meet people and hear about new opportunities. This has indeed made a life-altering difference. I met a Thanet-based writer at one party (easy to be nice to him: he’s a poppet) who insisted that I submit an essay to Thanet Writers, so I did, then a short story. Now I’m Managing Editor of Thanet Writers and they publish my guff all the time. All because I was forced out on an evening I’d rather have been enjoying a tender but fruitless clinch with my laptop.

I doubt somehow this is how it works in other disciplines. If I were a particle physicist it would probably be enough just to be good at my job, discover some interesting stuff about particles, to have my work published. I wouldn’t have to talk to every other particle physicist in town about their cats before I could be taken seriously. But literature is subjective, the behaviour of particles not. If you like to write about life and love and loss, as I do, then your personality tends to be judged and critiqued as much as your ability. Since I accepted this I’ve got much further much faster. You can be the biggest arsehole on the planet—and some days I really suspect I might be—and the greatest literary genius and you’ll get nowhere, at least until you get a few bits published and noticed. Until then, drown your inner arsehole under a tsunami of compliments and smiles.

“Nice to be nice,” James Kelman wrote, with withering irony. Not sure it’s nice, but it’s certainly useful.

Melissa Todd completed an MA in creative writing at Canterbury Christchurch in 2009, and writes novels, short stories and opinion pieces.

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