Sunday, 22 May 2011

The loneliness of the long-distance spear carrier

I've been thinking a lot just lately about my part in the world. I feel small and insignificant, in the universal scheme of things, which, of course, I am.

The decision to take my writing more seriously has brought this feeling into sharp relief: I have a long road ahead of me if I want to see my work in print or brought to life on screen; and to an agent, publisher or producer, I will begin life as a complete non-entity, up against very stiff competition, even if my writing has a degree of merit.

I think the idea of the Spear Carrier in drama is a really good illustration of how I'm feeling, and perhaps how most of us feel as human beings, from time to time. I came across a quote recently from the 1968 novel Rite of Passage, by Alexei Panshin, in which he describes the role:

A spear carrier is somebody who stands in the hall when Caesar passes, comes to attention and thumps his spear... A spear carrier is a character put in a story to be used like a piece of disposable tissue. The trouble is that each of us is his own hero, existing in a world of spear carriers.

This sums up nicely, I think, a familiar paradox. It doesn't matter how selfless we are as individuals, how lacking in narcissism, how full of compassion and empathy, we must necessarily be the heroes of our own story, inhabiting our own tiny part of the world, seeing things through our own eyes. And yet, to everyone other than those closest to us, we actually remain largely insignificant.

 This spear carrier on Hadrian's Wall seems 
reasonably happy with his lot in life.
Photography © David Taylor Photography

It's difficult trying to make a mark in any creative field. And this difficulty is compounded by the nature of creativity itself. Most of the creative people I know are much like me: their creativity comes from deep within them, so the fruits of that creativity feel private and fragile, and can be very difficult to share with others.

But if anything is to be made of them in the wider world, they need to be put into the public domain, for others to enjoy, and learn from... and dislike... and criticise! This is a very real dilemma, but one which must be overcome if we are not to remain spear carriers.

I suppose the real trick - not easy to achieve - is to have the courage of our own convictions, and to take encouragement where we can. One of the things I've quickly discovered, to my surprise and delight, since I've been sharing my writing, is how much warmth and support there actually is out there in the creative community. Perhaps it's as simple as everyone being in the same boat, and being sensitive to how difficult the whole process is.

I'm particularly impressed by, and have felt very welcome at, RedBubble, a website where artists, photographers and writers share their work with others. The site has a 'Play Nice Policy', aimed at encouraging friendly feedback, and taking a very dim view of negative, personal and hurtful comments. This is perfect when you're just starting out and feel nervous of letting others see your work, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

I've begun to realise that on RedBubble, everyone is allowed to be his own hero - there are no spear carriers - and perhaps that's the sort of environment we need if our creativity is to thrive and flourish, and develop to its full potential.


  1. Sophie....what a wonderful post! Perhaps one of the spear carriers had this thought: aut Caesar aut nihil...all or nothing! (lit. either Caesar or nothing!) which was the motto of Cesare Borgia c. 1500. Perhaps we can all aim for the stars in little steps? I agree with the RedBubble philosophy in life as well as in writing. As ever...good luck...I am sure you will do well. :)

  2. Hello! How good to see you. Thank you for your warm comments. Yes. Small steps are definitely the way forward. I sometimes find myself getting impatient to achieve big things, given that I have left it so late to try out my writing for real. But there is much wisdom in the idea that every journey starts with that first step!

    I agree with you that the RedBubble philosophy is a good one to adopt - I don't really see the point in being any other way!

    Thank you again for taking the time to leave a comment - it really means a lot! Take care.


  3. Hi again,

    I know what you mean as I am an impatient person but I am teaching myself to become patient...
    Just remember - with perseverance we WILL get there in the end. C. ;)

    PS: One of my touchstones is the biography of Eric & Ernie by Graham McCann. I recommend it. Good in times of stress!

  4. I've never read it, but I'm sure we do have it somewhere. I will seek it out...! Thank you again.

  5. Another wonderful post Sophie and one that I can totally relate too. I am also quite shy about my work, it is deeply personal. I am slowly learning to be more confident and put myself 'out there'. I want to share my work and hope it engages people on an emotional level. I am not sure, however, what if feel is my idea of 'success'. I used to think that it would be lovely to have gallery representation etc, but I have recently heard things from those who really have gone out to get this .. and it scares me .. I just don't think I could do it. So, I feel the best way for me is to just get up and love what I do .. and if anything happens that's great .. if not, then I have left a wonderful legacy for my family. As for you Sophie, you are already reaching out and blessing us with your writing and your vision :)

  6. Hello Deborah, and thank you so much for your comment. I'm really very touched by it.

    I think you are right - the main thing is to love what you do. Without that, there is very little point. I'm convinced wonderful things will happen for you, but you are absolutely right - the body of work you are lovingly building up will be an incomparable legacy for the generations of your family who succeed you. They will be enormously lucky to have it!

    Thank you again for dropping by, and for the lovely comment.