My life, standing on the shore.
By Warren Ellis
Illustrations by Jacob Magraw
I live on the shore. Some people jokingly refer to it as The Thames Delta: the confluence of the river Thames and the North Sea, with an alluvial island and a range of high, dangerous sandbanks. Our denatured, elided Cockney accents are officially named Estuary English. I’ve spent my entire life out here. I grew up an hour away by bus, in a village that started out as a Viking forest clearing, and moved to a place just one road back from the water’s edge before I was 20. I’m a coastal creature. I navigate by my proximity to water. I can stand on the hill and pick out the riptide without even thinking about it, and point out the stretch where sand was dumped in the 1970s to make new beach atop the swathe of shoreline that had been scoured down to bare stone and pebble. The shore is True South. In Brighton, I stay in a place thirty steps from the water. In Berlin, I orient by the Spree, in Paris, by the Seine. I measure New York and Los Angeles by the coastlines. I’ve trained the internet to tell me about tides and surges. I live in littoral spaces.
The littoral zone is defined as the intertidal segment of a beach, from the splash region above the high-water mark to full submergence of the shore. It’s the part that is constantly shifting and changing. You can certainly measure the high-water mark with a strong degree of accuracy over years, but you can’t predict how the spray will land when the tide is high, and the waves will do as they wish. The ocean has its own agency, and the sand is always shifting under your feet.
I’ve been a full-time freelance writer for something approaching 25 years, now. For most writers, me included, that is a littoral space to live in.
The sand is always shifting under my feet. The tides are broadly predictable on an ordinary day, but there aren’t many ordinary days. There have been days out here where a storm system has been bouncing around the estuary, travelling out of sight towards the far tip of the Kent coast, and then ricocheting off and dragging the river with it to unexpectedly smash up against our walls. Sometimes a weather system will get stuck and wheel over the town for days. Every now and then, some nightmare storm will brew up in a dark and unseen region of the North Sea and then hammer up the river like the Mongol Horde in full stampede.
Sometimes a producer will get fired before your outline is approved, or, even, while your pen hovers above the contract’s signature line. Sometimes, you’re put in the position of having to rely on someone else’s diligence and skill, and it turns out that they couldn’t give a shit. Sometimes you’re lied to, and there’s not a thing you can do about it. Sometimes you can do everything right, and it still doesn’t work, as if you were a slave to the phases of the moon and the tide just wasn’t high enough to float the boat.
There are times when you’re working all the hours there are, on long projects that won’t see the light of day for months or years, and your reputation sinks under the river mud. You’re invisible, and invisibility is death in this business. There are also times when you can’t get arrested, let alone paid, and yet your acquaintances and representatives tell you that “everyone” is talking about you. You read the “inspirational” and “motivational” blog posts and realize that they’re all written by rich people who have assistants, while paperwork piles up on your shelf because your choices are spending two hours doing it and lose an entire day’s work time.
You realize in your 20s that you’re not a genius. You get past that first blush of success, if you’re lucky enough to have experienced it, and get next to the fact that, in the words of Patton Oswalt, you’re not going to be the next Bill Hicks. But you do harbor the notion that it’s going to get easier, and that there will be a calm place in the future where you’re not working 16 hours a day, and you’re not going to be subject to the ebb and flow of other peoples’ contempt and attention.
You discover, later, that you’re not good enough, or not lucky enough, or not present enough, and you made too many important decisions on the fly because you were too busy or too scattered or too tired, and that you’re never going to be that person who writes one of those inspirational blog posts about success. You’re in your 40s and you’re still standing on the shore, keeping a wary eye on the riptide, because you know that all the small things you’ve built could be swept away overnight.
I am lucky. I make a decent living at this job, which puts me into a rare percentile among those identifying as professional writers. I almost always have work, I get to travel, and I can provide for the people around me. But it never gets easier. That’s the only lesson I can pass on, as I get older and I get slower. It is, perhaps, the only lesson worth passing on. You have to want to live like this. You have to love the words more than anything. You’ve got to be okay with your skin getting weathered, and the damp getting into your bones, and that little thrill of fear that never, ever goes away as you stand on the shivering sand at the cold water’s edge.