Last week I was off work and it was nice. I did some gardening, spent a couple of nights away for my anniversary, and read a couple of books. At the end of the week, I also decided to have a bit of a frank conversation with myself about this writing malarkey.I’ve spent a lot of time floundering of late, in pretty much all areas of my life. I’ve been overwhelmed with the stuff I think I should try to do within certain deadlines, and ultimately not really committing to any of it because I’m too tired and stressed. I’ve also fallen into the trap of comparing myself to other writers around my age who are already more successful than I might ever be (always a slippery slope) and wondering whether I should just admit defeat right now.
I think we all probably get that way at times, but at some point you have to try and pull yourself out of it. And if not, you have to address the elephant in the room.
Hey there elephant – or to give you your full name, Do You Still Want To Be A Full Time Children’s Writer Some Day Or Are You Actually Perfectly Happy Having A Normal Person Job That Actually Pays Your Bills?’
So I took myself to the seaside with a notebook and free-wrote to try and help me work out:
- What’s the sketch? (i.e. where am I now)
- Where do I want to be?
- How do I get there?
I didn’t time it, but I think the exercise took about an hour and a half. I found it quite therapeutic.
After a week off work, taking this time out gave me an opportunity to step back and figure out what’s really bothering me. This goes wider than my writing life but I’ll stick to that aspect for the purposes of this post.
I feel guilty about a few things. One is that I put a lot of creative energy into my day job, leaving me quite tired at the end of the day and less inclined to open the laptop because I’ve already told a load of stories. I also see a lot of gaps in my work, and regularly get frustrated that I don’t have the time to research and tell even more stories. Often I try to come up with ways to fill the gaps, but ultimately lack of resource makes me feel like I’m bashing my head against a wall. And then I feel bad that I’ve put all this energy into something unsolvable when I could have been writing.
I feel guilty, too, that I’ve spent years writing and editing and starting and not finishing stories and have very little to show for it. This is a self fulfilling prophecy, of course – if you feel guilty for taking time to write, like you should be doing something more productive or useful with your time, you do it less, have less to submit, get fewer acceptances/rejections.
Feeling like I’ve nothing to say
Lately I also increasingly feel like by chucking my stories into the slushpile at all I’m taking up valuable space that could be better used, say by a BAME or LGBTQ+ author.
It’s not like there’s a shortage of white cishet belligerent bookish girls with brown hair on offer in the already competitive world of children’s books. Technically that’s the only type of character I am 100% qualified to write about based on my own lived experience. And whilst I think it’s daft to say an author can’t imagine themselves into a life outside their own, I’m increasingly conscious of the number of white voices telling white stories and drowning out everyone else – or indeed telling stories that aren’t theirs to tell.
I tie myself in knots over whether it’s my place to write BAME protagonists into the kind of nonsense stories I like reading and writing, because wouldn’t that be whitewashing unless I do some interviews and research? But you don’t normally get much back story for these types of characters (we are talking chapter books for young readers here). So in turn by doing that, would I not be forcing something into a story which doesn’t particularly advance the narrative, but does look akin to performative wokeness? I can’t see that getting young kids reading, which is all I want to achieve.
I want young people to see themselves represented in fiction, from nonsense to YA, and I want them to keep reading so they can see there are all sorts of ways to be. I don’t want to preach, or tell stories wrongly, because that could be equally off putting. But intent is irrelevant when you’ve irretrievably muffed something up.
Trying to do too much
Another problem I identified, and I’m sure I’ve blogged about this before, is that I am trying to take on too many things. Clearly this is why I feel overwhelmed, and like I’m losing my way.
There are big things – for instance I can’t change the culture at my work all by myself in one go, or save publishing from institutionalised racism. There are smaller things, like I can’t sort out junking half my flat, redecorating two rooms and digging up the entire garden all in one week.
Then there are ongoing things. For instance I know it’ll take me months to become a physically stronger and nutritionally more sensible person. And I also know from experience I can’t whack out a daily blog post and short story every week in addition to revising and submitting all my manuscripts with tailored query letters to the agents on my list who I think might be a good fit.
I tried to keep my navel gazing reasonably focussed so that I could take some actions to stop myself drifting inexorably towards giving up on the dream I’ve had for over 20 years.
I concluded there are some things in my day-to-day life which are completely out of my power to change in the foreseeable future. Also, it seems like nobody cares about them except me. So it’s probably fine to stop wasting creative and emotional energy on them, and crack on with things I can do.
Meanwhile, there are some things I know I need to be better at, such as writing every day, limiting my time on social media, and taking time out to think about how to prioritise/address problems rather than automatically throwing myself into a thought shower of fixing it myself.
I am going to try and devote a bit of time every week to looking at where I am and breaking things down into manageable chunks. It sounds a bit work-y, but I’m going to try and do it both in the office and in my personal life. I’m hoping that way I can ask people for help ahead of time. Maybe that’ll keep me from becoming overwhelmed and deciding I can’t be a writer after all.
Because truthfully, I’m not sure what else I really can be.