What would you call a series of near misses on competition long and short lists? I’m going with riding high, because I am trying very hard to stay positive, even retrospectively. So here we go: I was riding high in 2019, as far as my new(ish) career goes. I’m one of those emerging writers you have never heard of; indeed, it’s likely that you will not have encountered the phrase until now. It came to my attention at some point last year and for an unknown writer with few writing credits, it felt like a lifebelt tossed into the sea of disappointment, failure and silent rejection in which so many new, sorry, emerging, writers flounder. I finally had something to call myself. Writer had never fitted well, whereas preceding it with that hopeful qualifier felt right and honest. At what point, I have often dreamt, will I be able to look my interrogator in the eye and say ‘I’m a writer’?
‘Show up for work.’ That’s a phrase writers hear a lot. The way to succeed, we are told, is to sit down every day and get words onto the page or screen. I had been showing up for work since I had taken the plunge after graduating with an MA in Creative Writing at the end of 2017. This time last year I was on the third draft of my debut novel and had a collection of short stories on the go. Productivity, such a problematic concept in almost all other aspects of my life, had not been an issue. The slowing down began in the weeks after my 50th birthday party, when an ear or jaw infection (we never got to the bottom of it) took hold as autumn turned to winter. Occasional vigorous spurts punctured longer bouts of lethargy, resulting in a couple of stories that I remain excited about, and a Christmas tale – embarrassingly debuted at an open mic in Exeter – which I will spend the rest of my days trying to forget. As the year drew to a close and some of us watched the news from China with more than idle curiosity, I let the writing dry up, convincing myself that a deliberate break – idlers would surely approve – would have me writing my socks off in 2020. It didn’t turn out that way.
I stumbled through January, eyes and ears locked to the news while I polished some earlier pieces and worked on two new stories. I had some contact with journal and magazine editors who liked my submissions, but not enough to publish. One day in February I realised that I hadn’t put anything new down on paper for days, possibly weeks. This led to a number of false starts, for which I have a burgeoning folder on my desktop. In early March I blitzed through competition entries and submitted to agents and independent publishers because that is as important as creating. Except it isn’t. Yes, writers have to put themselves out there, but I have yet to meet one who complains about not having entered enough competitions or contacted sufficient agents. If we’re not writing, how can we call ourselves writers? With Covid-19 dominating everybody’s every waking thought, my inkwell ran dry. Having previously refused to engage with the concept, I pronounced myself blocked. Time for radical action.
In February 2019 I was out for a stroll while listening to Cariad Lloyd on The Two Shot Podcast. I admire and respect Cariad as an energetic and prolific artist and when she mentioned a book called The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron I made a note on my phone and placed an order as soon as I returned home. When it arrived I took one look and hid it on a high shelf in my office: it reminded me of the books we used to put in the Mind, Body and Spirit section in the 1990s when I was a bookseller at Waterstone’s. The subtitle, A Course in Discovering and Recovering Your Creative Self, raised my cynic’s hackles. Cariad had warned that the book might come across as evangelical or hippie-dippie (my words, but you get the picture), but had enthused about an exercise called the morning pages. She was herself evangelical about this exercise, and a week or so ago, with anxiety levels surging, I remembered what she had said about how completing her morning pages every day kept her unblocked. What did I have to lose?