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"Romantic notions are based on lies"

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It was lovely to cyber-meet so many Stylist readers 12 or so days ago during our webchat about how to make it as a writer.

Thank you so much for all your questions (I can’t tell you how exposed you feel waiting to see if anyone turns up; it induces the worst pre-party nerves ever) and I’m sorry I didn’t manage to answer all of them.

But I’ve been mulling over a number of them since – namely those that asked some variant on the theme of: “I’ve always wanted to be a writer. I’m X years old now – should I give up my job and go for it?”

I’ve been mulling it over because it made me think first about the persistence of certain romantic ideals and notions, and the potential harm they can cause.

Let’s start with the writing issue. The romantic version is that you walk out of the office one day, never to return. You hole up in a starkly yet somehow still beautifully furnished apartment (mine was on the Upper East Side in about 1956. Fabulous picture windows). Then you create your masterpiece fuelled by artistic suffering, mild starvation and (if you’ve had the sense to locate your imaginary apartment in Paris) inventive sex with men who smell of Gitanes and despair.

This is fine when you are 23 and/or don’t really want to become a writer. If, however, you are slightly older and seriously hankering after the job, then the first thing you must do is stab this notion through its black, black heart. The second thing you must do is set up a direct debit from your current account to one entitled ‘My Effective Running Away Fund’ and start stashing all spare cash away, instantly.

This is because all romantic notions are based on lies. The ‘chucking in your job and starving in a garret’ dream involves two. One is that you need to be free of the mundane in order to create – that it’s the photocopier in the print room as much as the pram in the hall that is the enemy of promise.

The second, that poverty and uncertainty stimulate invention.

Real relationships are not like sitting on marshmallow clouds being licked by kittens – they’re bloody hard work

The latter was true-ish in the past: the aristocratic writers and poets who have dominated literary history could strip themselves of lavish trappings and play at being poor while knowing that the social safety net would never allow them to fall too far.

But nowadays, the net is largely rotted and the grants are entirely gone. If you jack in your job, you will pretty soon find your creative juices sapped by the need to search desperately for a new one in order not to lose your home. Do you know what really allows you to sit at home writing? A regular income periodically converted into mortgage/rental and utilities bills, that’s what. You just have to think of the deadening boredom of the day job as a valuable prophylactic against the dissipation of your creativity.

But romantic notions do not just threaten your professional life – they can threaten our personal lives too. For example, the idea that a relationship must be the emotional equivalent of sitting on a marshmallow cloud while being licked by kittens is among the most pernicious and dangerous ever sold. Because it’s utter nonsense.

I have lost track of the number of times I have either watched my friends dismiss lovely men because they didn’t match up to a romantic ideal that had lodged at some formative age or go, equally unhealthily, to the other extreme and insist that some absolute cretin was the perfect man because he apparently ticked all the boxes on that insanely superficial but persistent inner list, until the gulf between the ticks and the truth becomes so wide that they topple into the abyss.

Real relationships are bloody hard work. They are indeed not like sitting on marshmallow clouds being licked by kittens. This takes most of us much longer to learn than it should. Just as garrets aren’t the answer, neither is a man who can slash through thorny thickets to wake us from enchanted sleep. A man who then picks up the detritus and puts it in the right sacks for collection – he is. Of course, if he also has a post-war Manhattan apartment with picture windows, so much the better. There are some dreams a girl should never give up.

Contact Lucy Mangan at lucy.mangan@stylist.co.uk and on twitter.com/lucymangan

Picture credit: Rex Features

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