Author Lizzy Dent on embracing judgement and making art for pleasure…
Fear of judgement leads you to ignore your true passions. And ignoring your true passions is to deny yourself pleasure. My biggest mistake was believing there was only worth in first place.
When I was 19, fitting in was a series of easy small purchases: the right band t-shirt and the correct album on your iPod and you were cool enough. By my twenties it was an in-depth knowledge of Dogma, or Darren Aronofsky’s creative process, and saying yes to whatever drug was being cut on the unread coffee table book: Bauhaus Architecture.
Hanging on the edges of the arts, you get used to the way people talk. Criticism is the safest form of review, and so if you put a bunch of awkward, insecure music and art lovers in a room together, someone is going to declare the thing crap. Derivative. Unoriginal. Sell-out. The next morning, of course, they all shuffle back to their advertising jobs and figure out a way to make a car company look like it’s saving the planet. I should know, I’ve done exactly that.
It’s no wonder I never took my true passions seriously. I was terrified of the kind of biting, cutting judgement I’d seen all around me as a teenager and twenty-something. I was convinced that unless I could debut on stage at Wembley or win the Booker prize with my debut novel, it wasn’t worth the risk. And so, my twenties are what I now refer to as my wasted years. Because I was both permanently wasted and I wasted a lot of time.
There is an incredible pressure on young people to know what they want to do. From the age of 15 the big life decisions begin. Trouble is, the only real decision I wanted to make at that age was whether I fancied the singer or the guitarist from the school rock band.
‘Arts or Science?’ the school guidance counsellor asks.
‘Can I have both?’ I reply, absent-mindedly gazing across at the boys hauling their instruments into the school hall. (As it turns out, Lizzy, you can.)
At seventeen you’re choosing a degree that you will spend the next decade paying for; and worse – you may end up hating. This is the time you hear a lot about ‘back-up plans’, just in case you don’t make it as a rock star. But how could I have a back-up plan if I didn’t even have a plan?
Later, if you still don’t know what you want to do, it becomes a lottery. You apply for a zillion jobs and – if you can afford it, internships – and whichever overworked CV shuffler in HR gives you a shot can set you on a path of desperation forever. Cue endless dread of being asked ‘so, what do you do?’ at dinner parties.
‘I trade insurance for a living. I just kind of fell into it.’
I was someone who had pretty cool jobs, for the most part, but I was completely unable to focus on my career in my twenties. At one point, I had an enviable job making a music TV show for MTV. We travelled the world filming interviews with rock stars – Jack White, Dave Grohl, Kim Gordon – people I revered, adored and turned into a giggling mess in front of. The truth was, I wanted to be them so badly. It was crushing.
One sunny London afternoon, everything changed. I was sitting in a café and I saw the singer of a band I adored standing at the bus stop with his guitar. I knew him. I’d filmed with him around ten years earlier. They had a hit song. They toured the world. I crossed the road to find out what was going on with him now.
‘Lizzy, yeah of course I remember you,’ he said, ‘what are you up to now?’
‘Pregnant,’ I replied, ‘what about you? Are you still…?’
‘Nah, I just play for the fun now. I love it. I work in mental health. A therapist.’
It had never occurred to me before that moment that art and music and writing could be done just for my own pleasure. Not really. The concept was so fucking liberating to me. We waved goodbye and I stared at the bus as it trundled down Mare Street, Hackney and I headed back to my flat and marvelled at the new colours of the blossoms outside my window.
A few months later I was made redundant. And then – maybe it was the exhaustion of new motherhood that stopped me from over-thinking it – but I finally took the creative leap and wrote my first book.
What pleasure awaited me. I loved every minute of it. I was so thrilled to have actually written a full novel! To have focused and finished it and to have written THE END on the last page of a hundred thousand words that I pulled out of my brain.
In the end, the leap into vulnerability and judgement was easier than I thought, and I felt very proud of myself (a very, very rare feeling for such an insecure person). I was able to work hard for the first time in my life. And – what a side effect – I was able to make some cool coin doing it, even if I do still need a day job.
I think I will always have the gremlins in my head: Lizzy’s book isn’t that good. Loads of books get optioned, it’s not that great of an achievement. It’s all just luck and timing. She doesn’t shut up about it. Blah blah blah. There is almost nothing anyone can say that I haven’t said to myself. But now, instead of feeling hurt or angry, I just feel sad for them.