Monday, 12 December 2016

Drifting Away

By Nick Cross

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?
I’m quite sure that no-one has been following my blog posts over the past couple of years as closely as I have. But you may have noticed some trends. For a long while I’ve been feeling more and more disillusioned with the publishing industry and the treadmill that is:

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.


I did start a new feature called Alphabet Soup, and for a few months I was on a mission to bring the world of illustrated children’s media to the W&P readership. But I had underestimated the sheer amount of work required to research, commission, write and present those articles. And I had also overestimated the interest in what I was serving up. No matter how good the content was or how hard I tried to promote Alphabet Soup, its readership remained limited to a hard-core group.

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.


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.

29 comments :

  1. Oh Nick, thank you for your generosity in speaking about what is probably on the minds of many who are also struggling with the same demons. It really is tough out there. At the same time, you can't deny yourself the joy of making stories. I for one have really missed the Blog Break column and I'm glad you're trying to bring it back. And we ALL know you can write - you've won Undiscovered Voices AND short story awards! It's getting found that is a mission. Fingers crossed that the right time and place will happen eventually. But even more important than getting found, I hope your renewed efforts will bring you joy.

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    1. Thanks Candy. I definitely agree that the stress of trying to get found ("Look at me!" "Look at me!") gets in the way of the joy part.

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  2. Thanks for the honest blogpost, Nick. And really good luck with this new chapter. x

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  3. I can totally identify with so many of your feelings. Great post - but then I think all your blog posts are great! Good luck with the new chapter.

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  4. Nick, it as if you rare challenging my inner termoil! I've spent the past year drifting in a very similar way. It is both a relief to learn I'm not alone and inspiring to see that you're back working on a creative project.

    Hope to see you at an event soon, (says me from my living room when I should be at the social!)

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    1. Thanks Sally. Why does it have to be so tough to get and stay published? I think we've both been at the point where we were sure that *this time* it was actually going to happen, only to have our hopes dashed and find ourselves back at square one again.

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  5. Wow, what a totally honest account of your feelings on your writing journey. You have echoed what me and no doubt numerous others feel from time to time. Please don't give up, I shall certainly enjoy reading your blog posts in the new year.

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    1. Thanks Natalie! I guess I'd better go and read some blog posts then...

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  6. You have been much missed, Nick, and I hope you do bring the wonderful blog break column back. (I'm afraid I didn't see any of the Alphabet Soup posts but sure they were brilliant too.) More vitally, I hope you rediscover the joy of writing, the thrill of making language bend to your narrative will (a skill which everyone who has read you knows you have in abundance). Your willingness to be honest about how hard the writing life is is one of the proofs that you are, and always will be, a writer.

    Kate x

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    1. ps that was from Kate Scott -- lesson is don't try and leave comments when you're on a phone you don't understand unless you're as tech savy as Nick Cross or Candy Gourlay...

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    2. Thanks Kate. It's not too late to catch up on Alphabet Soup BTW, you can read all the posts here: http://www.wordsandpics.org/search/label/Alphabet%20Soup [Advertisement ends]

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  7. Nick, I feel like you were crawling around inside my head again! This is exactly how I've been feeling for most of the year, just overwhelmed and disillusioned and feeling like maybe I should pack it all in because I have barely written anything since January, and I'll never be good enough, etc. However, your nomadic writing blog encouraged me to try writing in small spurts, and that has proven more effective than the mammoth NaNoWriMo machine.

    This blog post is also a breath of fresh air, acknowledging that it's okay to have periods of doubt, to step away for a while, to make different choices about how to go forward, to try again. I was also unsure about the benefits of the conference, but volunteering with Susie and the rest of the crew was awesome. I had a really helpful 15 minutes during my 1-to-1, in which we confirmed that my story was still only a first draft, and I need to rework it a few more times. I am a slow writer, or late bloomer, or something, and maybe that's okay too. *Hugs* Nick, you rock!

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    1. Nick, stop crawling around inside Colleen's head!

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    2. But it's soooo interesting in there!

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  8. I'm sorry you've had a difficult year Nick. From reading the comments it's interesting to see how many of us have been going through the same emotions. I too have felt increasingly distant from SCBWI because of the difficulty of connecting with people when you see them so infrequently and partly because I sometimes find it hard to be open about what's going on with me. People don't always want to hear about challenges after publication (You're published - so don't moan!). I know the answer would be to get more involved but I'm still not sure how to do that without impacting work and family life. I wish you oodles of luck and enjoyment with your new project!

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    1. Paula, I know how insanely busy you are, and I'm sure that makes it harder to juggle the social stuff as well. I hope we'll see a lot more of you in 2017 :-)

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  9. What a moving and inspiring post! Only a true writer could have written it. And yes, please do bring back the Blog Break. It was a lovely guilty pleasure which I enjoyed in tandem with a hot cup of milky coffee. Bliss and missed since it's been gone....

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    1. Ally, I shall endeavour to make sure that your milky coffee breaks are restored to their former grandeur :-)

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  10. Thanks for your honesty. I totally get this post. Those inner beliefs are powerful things and desperation is not a healthy driver. I think the comments show that you are appreciated and you do know how to strike a chord with your readers. I always enjoy your posts. Best of luck with the new leg of your journey.

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    1. Thanks Ana. I shall try to learn the trick for how to be driven by my demons and not subsumed by them ;-)

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  11. Honest, and amazingly inspiring - because it reflects you coming of age in the kind of journey I should think the majority of writers are probably privately going through in the current mad publishing world. It's the old, old familiar thing - it's not you that's out of sync with creativity or quality - it's the conventional publishing environment. Go for it, Nick, in whichever way gives you greatest pleasure: the least important thing in the world is whether the conventional publishing world decides to let you in. In the here and now, personally, I think that is the least important factor in whether we write and the least important measure by which to judge your own worth. Write for your readers, and get the books to them by whatever means you can. And write for yourself. And for the rest of us who rate books for young people.

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    1. Thanks for your heartfelt reply, Beverley. I agree that the modern publishing landscape is a big factor in my struggles. Children's publishing has been a buyers market for a while now - the quality of unsolicited submissions is ever increasing, while the market niches that publishers are targeting continue to narrow. My reaction to the challenging market has been to make my work ever more commercial, but that has been at the cost of my personal enjoyment of writing and possibly diluted the uniqueness of my voice in the process.

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    2. Your voice is your USP Nick. It's the only USP any of us have really. Sometimes it takes guts to let it out because it is part of our personality and we may not want to share it but when you write with your own voice it is so much fun. And it's easier because you're not trying to channel someone else's voice. I had an awful year once and wondered if I was only writing so I could stay part of such an amazing group of supportive writers. But it passed. Lovely to see you at our slushie celebration xxx & Hugs

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  12. Oh Nick - I utterly understand what you're saying: it's so like what constantly replays in my head.Thank you for being so brave and candid. I can't not write ( I get ever so grumpy if I don't) but after a decade of struggle, I've pretty much had enough of trying to get published.
    There.
    I've said it.
    I wish you the absolute best with whatever way you express yourself in future, Nick. (I'd certainly like to read more of your work).

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    1. I hear you, Philippa - that "trying to get published" thing is getting old. We, on the other hand, remain as young and vital as we were ten years ago ;-)

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