A Writing Life
I’ve been meaning to write something about writing for a long time, but every time I start I’m crippled by gnawing self-doubt: what do I have to say about writing? I mean, I’m not really a writer am I? I don’t make a living from my writing – odd payments for articles, the odd competition prize, they don’t count – and realistically, probably never will. However, the fact is that I have been writing for over 40 years. I’ve edited a community newsletter and I’ve had bits and bobs published by a real bone fide publishing people. I’ve been actively writing a blog since 2009 and have completed a short story for children. One of my short stories is about to be published as part of a local collaboration, and I’m half way through writing my first novel. Isn’t it time I started thinking of myself as a writer; calling myself a writer?
The dictionary definition of a writer is ‘someone who has written something’ so by that count I certainly qualify! I suppose what I often mean when I say I’m not a writer is that I’m not a ‘real’ writer: I’m not famous; I don’t have a book deal or an agent. I refer myself – and you- to my previous point: a writer is one who writes. And it is only by writing that we will ever become the writers we mean to be.
I count myself as fortunate to know a lot of writers, many of them professional: people who have been writing for years, who have been published and made money from books. Let me tell you a secret, which I’m sure they won’t mind me sharing, many of them don’t feel like ‘real’ writers either! Some feel like frauds; that sometime someone is going to find them out, like their success is a big mistake. The thing is it takes courage to be a writer, to be a creative of any kind. Putting yourself ‘out there’ in any form is always going to be scary, but don’t worry, that’s part of the creative experience. Take it from people who know, if you won’t take it from me.
I can’t emphasise this enough. The ONLY thing that makes you a writer is writing. Thinking about writing is not being a writer; reading a book on how to write is not being a writer; attending a literary festival or a workshop is not being a writer. Picking up a pen, or tapping on the keyboard, and churning out words is what makes you a writer. It might not make you a famous writer, or even a ‘good’ writer, but it does make you a writer. Writing is a craft and like any craft you have to work at it.
I have a friend who said she always wanted to be a writer. The funny thing is, she always has been a writer! She’s been writing for as long as I have, although it’s only in the last eighteen months or so that she’s taken herself seriously enough; given herself the permission to write and then actually taken the time to work at it. She’s started her own blog, won a local competition, and is now putting together her first anthology of short stories. The desire was there for decades, but it’s only been in taking time to work at her craft, edit her work and share it, that she has made good on her dream. And she now calls herself a writer.
So, as a writer, the most important thing for me, and for many people, is making the time to write. If you want to achieve something you have to make time for it. It’s no good wanting to learn how to play chess and never allowing yourself the time to attend a club, or have a game with a mate. It’s not rocket science. If you want to do anything you have to allow yourself the time to do it.
Some people have very specific times that they write – first thing in the morning or last thing at night, for example. There is no magic formula. Ignore anyone that tells you there is and that it’s what they do, say writing at 3pm in the afternoon or someone who insists you need to sit in front of a laptop from dawn till dusk. Only you know what is going to work for you; and if you don’t, experiment. Be realistic. If you work full-time and have a family the chances are you are not going to manage anything in the working day. Can you snatch 20 minutes before work if you’re an early-riser, and don’t have a young family to get organised? Can you grab half an hour in the evening a couple of times a week when everyone’s in bed, if you’re a night-owl? Or at a lunchtime? Can your partner, or a friend, entertain the children while you grab an hour at the weekend? Can you do some flex-time or take a half-day break to give yourself a start? The busier your life is the more creative you will need to be. If there’s something you are desperate to write, you will find a time to write it.
Some people never manage to find the time to write because of the pressure and commitments of hectic lifestyles, and if this is you, don’t guilt trip yourself. Accept that you can’t squeeze another minute out of the day and you may have to wait until the children are older, or you’re working less hours, or don’t have a caring commitment. Some people take a sabbatical – 6 months or a year- to complete a specific project, but that is a luxury not all of us can afford. If you can carve some time out to attend a retreat, or simply give yourself a break from your usual routine then go for it. Most of us have to work hard to find time within the restrictions of our already busy schedules. Beware, however. Don’t use being busy as an excuse. If you can find 10 minutes to update your Facebook page or Twitter feed or hug that mug of coffee whilst gazing bleary eyed into the distance then you can find the time to write!
Thinking of writing as ‘work’ will help. Writing is not a fuzzy feel-good activity. What’s that old adage: 10% inspiration 90% graft? Writing is work; often hard, solitary, laborious, frustrating and unpaid work. It can also be fulfilling, satisfying, stimulating and highly enjoyable. If you don’t have the desire and commitment to write, and then put the effort in, you are unlikely to ever get that novel finished.
But don’t be like me and let the fear of not being good enough paralyse you. Like a lot of people I am my biggest critic. I am always convinced that what I’ve written isn’t ‘good enough’. This is really a thinly veiled fear that I am not good enough. That what I have to say doesn’t matter. If you want to be a writer you need to take yourself seriously and develop a tough exterior. You need to take your courage in both hands and share what you are writing with someone. You can tell yourself that you’re writing ‘just for yourself’, that you don’t care if what you write is published or not, but it isn’t true. Writing is a form of communication. It’s meant to be read. What you write can touch people, amuse, instruct, enlighten, inform people. What some people write changes lives. Sharing your writing is your opportunity to share something unique that only you can say: nobody else can write what you do.
I’ve recently joined a local writers group. It’s a new group and some people are novice writers whilst others are more experienced. We are all a bit nervous about sharing what we’ve written, sharing ourselves in some way, and yet doing so has been a liberating and inspirational. Having an audience for something you’ve created is affirming. It doesn’t matter if it’s a paragraph, a short story or a poem, everyone is offering up something that they’ve created to share with the rest of the group.
As a writer, having a people who can offer support, advice and constructive criticism is important. Some of us are working on existing projects and some of us are wanting inspiration to kick-start the writing process. Whatever stage of the writing journey you are on, you need someone other than your mum or partner to review your work – to give honest feedback – and a good writing group will do that. However, don’t let this be an opportunity for naysayers and denigrators to offer negative or disparaging comments. If you’ve made the effort to write something and share it, the least people can do is be supportive of your efforts. Fulsome praise and flattery is no use to any writer, but unconstructive remarks can be seriously destructive to the confidence of a novice writer, indeed any writer, so chose your critics wisely.
So, you’ve actually started writing. You’ve been brave enough to share your writing with a friend, or you’ve joined a writing group. All is hunky-dory. You’ve got that much needed inspiration, or you’ve started the project you always wanted to write. Then the muse desserts you. Writers block descends. I’m sure ‘real’ writers have written lots about this, provided magical formulae by which you might negotiate your way around this brick-wall. I have no idea. What works for me is this: I keep writing. I write it out. If I can’t think of anything to write, I describe an object; I write about a photograph; I make up a story about a stranger; I write a ‘to do’ list, a poem. Anything. If that doesn’t work –although it usually does – I do something else. Read a book, go for a walk, even write a letter. The channel will free up again in an hour, a day, a week. The important thing is not to panic. Congratulate yourself that you’re experiencing a real writer’s phenomenon and move on. Over-thinking things will likely prove less helpful than simply accepting you’ve got a momentary blockage. You’re a writer. These things will happen.
Keep writing. Keep sharing. Keep creating. You’ll be amazed what you learn about yourself, what interesting people you meet, and how positive you feel about this whole ‘being human’ experience. Writing really can shape our thoughts and help us explain our emotions to ourselves and to others. Writing can be a big deal for some people and a bit of fun for others. Whatever your style, form and content, get writing and keep writing. There’s a writer in all of us looking to be unleashed on the world.
Be brave. Enjoy.