On being a writer, or not

I’ve been writing all my life, but it was only a few years ago, when I self-published The War of Undoing, prompting literally ones of pounds to roll into my bank account, that I began to feel okay about calling myself a writer. In a small way, I suppose, I saw this label as a reward for all the years I’d poured into that book, for having finally got it into a state where I could sell it (albeit at a permanent £1.99 price point) without feeling as if I was ripping people off.

But the truth is, I’m still not sure I’m cut out to be a writer. I’m even less sure now that my novel has actually received a bit of exposure and even some kind words. I always told myself that if that happened I’d suddenly feel motivated to get back on track and catch up with all the writing I’ve been finding excuses to avoid since publishing TWOU. And certainly, it does give me flashes of excitement; getting through to the final of SPFBO 2017 was a thrill, and I’m hugely grateful to all the reviewers, even if they didn’t like the book, for at least giving it a chance and taking it seriously enough to read it and write thoughtful responses. It really does mean a lot.

But honestly, flashes of excitement aren’t enough to keep me going right now. Writing books is a marathon, not a sprint – it’s an all-consuming process that requires me to remain motivated for long stretches of time. That just isn’t happening right now. It hasn’t happened in several years. And I’ve begun to question whether it will ever happen again. Perhaps even more significantly, and for the first time in my life, I’m questioning whether I actually need it to.

The reasons behind this are a long story, but here’s a short version. If you know anything about me personally then you probably know that I suffer from fairly severe social anxiety, as well as some more general anxieties and a murky dollop of depression. Over the last couple of years I’ve been fighting this with rather more success than I’ve had in the past. Medication is filing the nastiest edges off the depression, and some very lovely people have helped me get out into the world more, including volunteering in a charity shop, which is challenging my anxiety if not actually curing it. Now there’s a possibility on the horizon, just the faint glimmer of a possibility that I might, in the not too distant future, be able to get into paid employment. You have no idea how impossible this seemed to me even a year ago. Now it’s something I’m almost excited about. Scared? Yes. Hopeful? Well… kinda, actually, yeah.

So, given that I seem to be making progress in other areas of my life, should I continue piling all this pressure on myself to go through the motions of being a “writer”: to keep coming up with ideas I have no faith in, churning out words that never seem to flow, trying to convince myself I’m good enough and that I still have things to say that are worth saying? I used to love writing, but it’s turned into another stick for my mind to beat me with. If I’m going to keep writing, I want to make it my own space again, my place to play and reflect and make as much or as little noise as I want, without the phrase “target demographic” ever entering my head. Maybe that means it’ll always be just a hobby for me, never a career. But that’s fine. Maybe that’s all it should be.

I’ve ranted about this before, but it’s a rant worth returning to: one of the most harmful but pervasive beliefs in our society (and there are quite a few to choose from) is the belief that creativity is not for everyone. It’s this belief that’s at the rotten heart of shows like The X-Factor, whose primary mission is to convince people who derive untold joy from singing that they absolutely must stop making that godawful racket, because they just don’t sound enough like the few dozen megastars who have been appointed to sing on behalf of our society so the rest of us don’t have to. We shame people for something that, throughout history, has been an inclusive, communal, fundamental human activity with the power to bring people together and make them happy.

My point is not that we shouldn’t have pop stars or bestselling authors, but that creativity is enriching even if you never show the results to anyone, or only share them with your closest friends or family. Creativity can be deeply personal, life affirming, a way to get to know yourself, a thing to share with the people you love, a salve to help heal wounds and process complex thoughts and emotions. For some, sure, it’s a career, a skill set to be honed based on critical feedback so that it can appeal to a wider audience. But this does not have to be the way for everyone who creates. You can create for just one or two people, or for yourself. That’s what I used to do, and that’s what I’m going back to now – or whenever I feel like going back.

So, at least for the foreseeable future, I’m not going to call myself a writer any more (except in the name of this website, which is already annoying me but it’s too much faff to get a new domain). Maybe I’ll change my mind tomorrow and resume my quest to write another novel that doesn’t fill me with shame. Maybe I’ll keep writing for my own amusement and never share it with anyone else. Maybe I’ll pack it all in and do something entirely different. I dunno. I’ll probably still post random crap on Twitter sometimes, so if you do want to follow whatever, if anything, is next for me, that’s probably the place to do it.

One last thing: I’ve uploaded the full ebook and PDF of The War of Undoing to this website. You can now download the whole thing for free, indefinitely, if you’re interested. It’s still on sale on Amazon and a few other online stores, but think of that like a tip jar so you can throw me a couple of pounds if you enjoy it. I can’t promise you will, so no pressure to pay. Personally I’m still very proud of it, even with all its faults, and some day I would love to be able to write something else that comes as much from the heart as that book did.

For now, thanks for reading, and I’ll see you around.

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