The email I received quite recently was rather sad. It came from a novice setter – I won’t give any details here, but it revolved around the frustration of what was felt to be an inability to get a full set of clues good enough for publication or submission. Essentially the tone was “I keep getting it wrong”.
Well, we all get things wrong, even the most experienced, and it’s because we’re human. The following (which is a true story) will, I hope, illustrate how giving up can be something for which you’ll never forgive yourself.
It’s about 9am on a Saturday morning. Making coffee in the kitchen, the phone rings. The call ends and I put the phone down. Debbie appears near the top of the stairs; sits down and asks who I was speaking to. I say it was just a personal call. At that moment a 5-year relationship comes to an end.
Of course it does. At a time when our relationship is a fortnight into a sticky patch, telling her (in her own house) to mind her own business is a fatal mistake. I deserved it; unfortunately none of this is what it appears to be. Let’s slow down the events.
We had an argument. It wasn’t nasty or all that serious but, for various reasons – mostly stress – I’d started smoking again and she found an ashtray hidden in a wardrobe. We still ate together, went shopping, watched TV; we just weren’t sleeping in the same bed.
Debbie was convinced I was having an affair with Julie-Ann, an ex-work colleague who, like me, was in the early stages of running her own business. I had graphics and typesetting skills which were useful to her and I needed the extra income. The affair never happened, never could. There were many reasons to do with personality, but these were minor compared to the basic one; until our time ended, I was with Debbie.
A month before the argument we’d been shopping in Walsall and I gently tapped the front of a parked car. I left a note with my contact details and an offer to pay for repairs. The owner subsequently pestered me for all kinds of unreasonable costs.
Back to that Saturday morning. It was him on the phone again. What I meant by “Just a personal call” was that I had no choice but to deal with it myself. Involving Debbie was going to add stress to an already difficult situation.
I once thought the truth was simple; Debbie assumed it was Julie-Ann on the phone. At a time when she and I were having problems, here I was ‘arranging things’ with my (as Debbie called her) little tart. Wrong. If I’d thought more carefully I’d have realised she would have heard enough snippets of conversation to know it wasn’t her. In the end, her actual question had little significance; what mattered was the moment immediately beforehand.
In confrontation, if one person is standing the other will be, too. I stood by the phone, but Debbie sat down. Not weak, not submissive. Conciliatory. A fortnight of me being in the doghouse was enough, and it was time to talk. She was reaching out for communication. Not only did I fail to see it – inadvertently I rejected her.
None of this can be undone and she will never know the truth, so I will live with it. There is a nagging fury inside me, though. If we were at the threshold of rebuilding what we used to have, one very unwelcome phone call from an irritating nobody killed the chance.
When people found out we’d split up, the most consistent reaction was “That’s wrong”. The irony is that none of us – them, Debbie, me – knew just how wrong and why.
When clue-writing doesn’t go the way you want it to, never make the assumption that it’s a reason to not carry on. After a couple of years on the Birmingham Post I basically gave up for quite a few years – I’d burned out, and that seemed to be a reason. It took over ten years for me to realise I was wrong. I wasn’t exhausting all of my good ideas; rather, I’d imagined every clue had to be a best idea on its own.
It was only thanks to the new medium of the internet that I was encouraged to rethink; without it, there’s every chance I’d never have got back into setting. It allowed me to try again and offered a medium through which I could get some feedback.
The worst thing you can ever do to yourself is narrow down the ‘bad stuff’ in such a way that you can miss the real cause. Maybe you just need more time and practice, a different working environment, different/fewer/no distractions.
My point is that if you enjoy the process of writing clues then you have it in you to write them. This isn’t some silly saccharine US-style end-of-film cosy moral. It isn’t so much about ‘believing that you can’ – I’m just saying that there will be moments when you’re tempted to believe you can’t, and that’s what you have to get out of your head.