|Photo by Horia Varlan|
What does it mean to be a writer? It’s a question that I’ve been grappling with a lot this year. And it’s a question that seems to naturally spawn many others:
- Do I need to be published?
- Do I even enjoy writing anymore?
- What would happen if I stopped writing altogether?
- What would my friends think of me?
- How much of my personal identity is bound up in my status as a writer?
|Treadmill photo by Quentin Stafford-Fraser|
I’ve written some high quality and even inspired fiction during the last twelve years, as well as some less high-minded but much funnier stories. But no matter what I’ve written, none of the book-sized work seemed quite good enough to get past the gatekeepers. My short stories found a publisher, but I was unable to see them as anything more than a stepping stone to long-form publication. Simultaneously, I was finding less and less pleasure in the act of writing itself. What began as an escape from the everyday and a vital form of self-expression, became a laboured activity laced with insecurity and ambivalence.
At the beginning of 2016, I decided to stop writing the Ten Minute Blog Break for Words & Pictures magazine. I had been doing it every Monday for almost three years, and quite frankly I felt like I deserved a change. But what I hadn’t realised was how the weekly process of reading SCBWI-BI members’ blogs was anchoring me to the group. Without that link, I was ready to begin the unconscious process of drifting away.
Things got busy at work too – really busy. And it was easy to use that as an excuse, even though I had managed to write and blog through the toughest work periods in the past. I now realise that the simple truth was, if I had wanted to write, I would have found time for it.
I did not want to write.
After 12 years of yearning to be a published novelist, I suddenly lost the desperation that had been driving me. And then Stew Magazine - which had been printing my short stories for two years and been on a financial knife edge for almost as long - finally ceased publication. It felt like the universe was sending me a message.
|My story in the last-ever issue of Stew Magazine|
So – consciously now – I began to withdraw. I stopped writing fiction, stopped writing for Words & Pictures, and only blogged reluctantly for Notes from the Slushpile. I stopped going to SCBWI events and book launches, and withdrew from social media pretty much entirely. I had an almost fatalistic approach to the whole business, because I wanted to see if anyone would notice. And by and large, they didn’t.
I don’t say that to make anyone feel guilty, because it’s interesting (and somewhat freeing) to observe how the world keeps turning in your absence. Other people wrote challenging and inspiring blog posts. Other people continued to get book deals and win prizes. Newbies with annoying questions on Facebook continued to get them answered (in many cases with far more patience than I would have mustered!) We all want to feel that we’re incredibly important with indispensible talents, but at the end of the day each of us is disposable. Did anyone ever imagine they could live in a world without David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Louise Rennison, Prince, Lou Reed, Caroline Aherne, Leonard Cohen or Victoria Wood? Well, we are.
By October, I was well into my process of drifting away and envisioning a future where I didn’t have to do anything creative ever again (you know, like a normal person!) Except, I had already agreed to run a fringe session on biog writing for the SCBWI Conference, which rather trapped me into going to the conference itself. Looking back, there was a big part of me that didn’t want to go to Winchester, because I knew that it would challenge the story I’d built for myself – that nobody wanted me and nobody cared. Growing up as a child of divorce, living with an unstable single parent incapable of unconditional love - I wonder how much this fed into the inner beliefs that I carry around with me to this day.
As usual, the conference was a blast. I really enjoyed the sessions and then all it took to change my negative attitude was a couple of people telling me that I’d been missed. Candy Gourlay summed it up perfectly when she said “You haven’t been present this year.” After that, I felt like a fool for ever doubting my friends or second-guessing their feelings.
So, what next? Well, I’m in the midst of a process of recalibration. Somewhere along the line, my joy of writing was subsumed by delusions of publishing grandeur. In turn, those pressures conspired to make writing an anxious, fraught and distant experience. It’s unrealistic to believe that writing can become "fun" for me in the same way as it used to be, but I think I can find my way back to a place of self-expression (which is exactly what I wanted to achieve with this blog post).
After years of "never giving up on my dreams" and "reaching for the stars", it’s time to think smaller. Accordingly, I’ve begun something new in a more confessional vein, which is likely to appeal to a niche audience (it’s too early to say what it is, as it may yet crumble or morph into something completely different). I’m also building the whole project from the ground up to be self-published – there will be no dreams of glory and no getting on the treadmill this time around!
I also recognise that I need to renew my commitment to the community. To that end, I'm discussing bringing back the SCBWI Blog Network and the Blog Break to Words & Pictures next year.
My period of drifting is coming to an end, as I explore what it means to be anchored, without feeling like the chain is pulling tight around my neck. Perhaps the universe doesn’t care if I never write another book or blog post. But I’m hoping that at least one reader out there will.
Nick Cross is a children's writer and Undiscovered Voices winner, as well as being the once-and-future Blog Network Editor for SCBWI Words & Pictures magazine.
Nick received a 2015 SCBWI Magazine Merit Award, for his short story The Last Typewriter.