How to be a Successful Writer Human Being
I see memes and posts all the time, littered with adverts, on how to be a successful writer. I often read, them, as I am curious about these people who purport to have the secret to absolutely success and some kind of formula that will take you there. I don’t know of any such formula, because to me, it’s simply a combination of inspiration, hard work and self-belief. I say ‘simply’ but really it is perhaps the hardest thing of all to find the perfect balance of these three qualities in my life. If only, I think, looking at the complexities of a modern life and all its accoutrements, responsibilities and demands.
I recently sent a draft of my next novel to my editor. Full of trepidation and second-novel doubts (okay, they loved the first one but what if they hate this, what if I really can’t write after all . . .?) I chewed on my pen a lot and tried to just deal with the feelings, starting to focus on the beginnings of novel number three. Inspiration – I’ve got that in spades. I could write a novel a week if I had no need to work or do housework. Stories spill out of my mind daily; a sudden realisation can shift my awareness of a character or where to take a plot. Determination and hard work I can also manage. I have plenty of determination and can work very, very hard on projects. In fact, I do work very hard in my day job, and I am very productive. I have four chapters in academic books coming out over the next year. Or is it six? Yes, I think six. But I lose track. I run 3 times as many modules as my colleagues. I run a whole course. I have almost 50 personal students. I also have a part time job. I love working hard, I love being productive, I love my teaching and my students. But . . . . I also run a home, a teenager, and two cats. I set aside time to write and ensure I always have my notebooks, pens, work in progress etc with me to make the most of every spare moment, and of every time inspiration strikes.
I wasn’t always this sorted. This year has been my own personal annus horribilis. The spectacular breakdown of my marriage and resultant personal trauma threw me off track. I had to start again, at 44, having sold my home to live in someone else’s, sold most of my furniture, put a lot of things in storage. I had to somehow help my son deal with significant upheaval as he also sat his GCSEs. Luckily, loving friends and family kept me sane, and I came through the other side stronger than ever. But this current novel, number two, was written during that time, and I felt as if I had lost my mojo, as it were, lost my confidence in my abilities. Writing it had, at times, been like climbing a very steep mountain with a blindfold on. Not only was I unsure I would ever reach the top, I was totally oblivious to the landscape, and uncertain whether there was a top to be reached at all. My work suffered, and I was less than productive, less than my usual efficient self. Less than the perfection I demanded of myself.
During the darkest times, like many novelists, I was crippled with self-doubt. There was too much going on in ‘the real world’ for me to disappear into the world of my own creation, live days with the thoughts and feelings of my characters, create landscapes and metaphors and threads of story. I had lost the ease with which I had once woven multiple and many-coloured threads into the tapestry of the tale. Still, I struggled on. The story always wants to be told. This one had been on hold while I wrote Inshallah, and as soon as my debut novel was in its final phase before publication I had started on this crucial, necessary book. More than any other, I knew this one to be the book that took all of my parts and reconstituted them into creative balance.
I was still in that state of flux that comes after major life change, before the roots can settle into the new earth, the leaves unfurl, before the sunlight really touches the green, when I sent the draft to my editor. I felt as if I was signing the death warrant for my nascent writing career. I carried on with my slow reconstruction of self and life, one day and one act at a time. I could not see the whole pattern, but each day was a brick in something I was building, and I knew it was all part of the process. Eventually, the response came, and I felt like dancing. A promising start. It was enough.
I realised, as life built into day after day of new experiences,that I was waking up. That each morning I felt the story-voice calling, and that every aspect of my new life was enhancing that ability to see, feel and give shape to the people and events of my imagination. I had been in the Slough of Despond, or maybe, a wasteland of my own creation. Suddenly, I was free. And it was simple. I felt, and still feel, that my life needed to be less of a hamster wheel. I needed more time. Not necessarily just more time to write. More time to do the things that make writing possible. I needed to sleep properly, be able to appreciate life, spend time with friends and family, create a lovely living space that fully expressed the real me. I needed to work effectively, and have that satisfaction that comes with a job well done. And I needed to feel the energy and vitality that had eluded me for some time.
All I needed to do to improve my wellbeing and happiness 100% was to move to be near work. This simple change in my life (okay, it was traumatic and complicated too) has brought in a new phase in my life. Torn from one routine, from familiarity and a future I had wanted and believed in, I feared it would be my undoing, but it was instead my saving grace. I wake naturally and easily, and feel little stress in the morning, despite my workload being higher than ever and having greater responsibility. In fact, my overall stress levels are significantly reduced. Even in the face of stressful situations, I feel that I have the strength to rise to challenges. In the absence of that stress, into the void left behind rushes inspiration, understanding, clarity and the heightened perception that drives me to write, that makes every morning feel like the start of something brilliant.
I used to drag myself out of bed at 5.30 every day to shower, dress and drive to work early to secure a parking space and miss the horrible, stressful traffic. I’d spend an hour in the morning yawning and trying to wake up whilst driving. I’d leave the radio off because I was too tired not to be irritated by it. I would arrive at work having had a hundred and one amazing ideas along the way (sometimes with the continuation of a story I had conceived of the day before). Every single one of them would evaporate seconds after I had pulled into the carpark, regardless of what I did to hold onto them.
Now, I have a leisurely shower, catch up on housework, usually have a cup of tea, and greet my son each morning before he goes to college. Often I make him a cuppa too. This makes me feel good, being able to do something nice for him. I never saw him in the mornings before, as I was gone long before he went to school. Now we talk every morning, even if only briefly. I write my diary whilst drinking my tea, and my thoughts might be brief, but they flow. On fine days, I sit out in the garden (though now, in September, I am usually wrapped up warm to do so!). My mind floats along meandering and random passageways, and I let it. The things that I need to understand become clear if I don’t try too hard to pin them down. Sometimes this mind wandering, which I find a necessary precursor to effective writing, will continue through the walk to work.
I have a lovely walk to work, regardless of the weather, looking at the birds, the sky, the sea, the trees. I arrive at work feeling energised, alive, and having processed a lot of thoughts and feelings along the way. I am much more productive now in work, and have ten times more energy than before. My memory is improving, and feel no disjuncture between work and writing, because the writing mind, the story voice, is still awake, muttering away happily to itself in the background.
I used to feel drained and exhausted before I even started. Now I feel motivated and focused. I don’t feel rushed to finish up everything by 4pm so I can try to miss the worst of the traffic going home, and I don’t waste a second hour each day driving home, too tired to think, my creative energy dispelled by the day, the drive, the thoughts of all that needs doing when I get in. Instead, I finish my work for the day, and walk home in a good mood, sometimes stopping to pick things up at the shop. I arrive home feeling tired but positive, not drained and ‘flat’. I feel much more energised even after a full day, and this means it is not so hard to do housework, shopping, gardening. If the time is right, I start writing straight away, and fit an hour in before thinking about maybe doing a few chores or preparing some food. It doesn’t feel difficult. If I don’t feel like housework, I don’t do it. It’s easy to keep the place in a state of tidiness and general cleanliness anyway. Germaine Greer, I believe, once said that a woman should never do more than 1 hour of housework per day. I fully subscribe to this philosophy. For a writer, it’s very liberating. Interestingly, a colleague loaned me a book this week, Mrs Woolf and the Servants by Alison Light. I have only read a few pages in, but its brilliant. It was in response to my comment that I wished I had servants because it would free me up to write. This isn’t strictly true. I enjoy making order out of chaos, and the sense of belonging that comes from knowing that I made this comfortable home, I gave it shape, I brought all its disparate elements together and I maintain it, is akin to writing a novel. So each feeds into the other. But I still wish I had someone to do the necessary tasks from time to time so I could disappear into my writing.
I now have a better relationship with my son, despite him growing up more and becoming more independent, having his own life in college doing his A levels. This is liberating. I waste far less energy on worrying about him, trying to get him out of bed, and dealing with family conflict. Yes, he is still a teenager. But he’s also a lovely young man and we seem more able to talk about things. He is proud of me, I can tell, and sees my writing as a good thing. He respects my space, despite apparently losing the use of his hands each evening if I am around to cook for him.
I am writing more. It is glorious just to write. To not worry, not think, just write. To set aside time to write. To just drop everything in the face of idea, grab the pen or laptop, and write. To view Saturdays and Sundays as long stretches of possibility. To reward myself after a morning of errands and chores with an afternoon of writing licence. Glorious.
I spend more time talking to friends and to my wonderful sister. Sometimes I work in the evenings too, but this is okay, as I enjoy what I do and if I feel like working, I can work. It doesn’t stress me out. I no longer spend weekday evenings longing to just go to bed. My time is my own.
To be happy, I simply had to remove the worst stressors from my life. Yes, it was a painful process, but it was absolutely the right thing to do. For my health and wellbeing, for my happiness and peace, it was the right thing to do. I think moving here might have saved my life. It certainly saved my writing life, the part of me that has struggled for air and demanded attention since I was seven years old. I was seven when I made up my mind I wanted to be an author. Now, I am doing it.
So, according to the trends online, I am supposed to give the potted version. Here are my own five steps to becoming successful as a writer.
- You are a writer because you write. So write. In whatever way suits you, write. Write lists, write a diary, write silly jokes, write letters to friends and family (remember those things, you have to put a stamp on them?). Just write.
- Cut the dross from your life. If something is holding you back, deal with it. Cut it out. I don’t mean necessary responsibilities, I mean the things that aren’t necessary. If life throws stress at you, find out what is really stressing you out, and deal with it. Because then you suddenly find yourself with more energy for yourself. And that gives you the energy to write.
- Surround yourself with beauty, comfort and the people and things that make you feel happy and positive. I sound like a self help book, but objects have strong object identities, carrying emotional signatures that significantly affect the way the we feel and act. If you love books, and want to be surrounded with them, do so. If you have an old picture from your childhood that you wish you had put on the wall, do it. If your room is full of things you don’t like, change it. Take ownership of your life and surround yourself with the things that bring that positive flow. Spend time in nature, open the windows at every opportunity, open the doors. Let the wind and rain in. Let the sun in. Let the night speak to you and sit in the darkness, drowning in the mystery. Spend time with people who make you feel good about yourself.
- Don’t waste time and energy on people or things that don’t enhance your life. Even if you have to work in a job you don’t like in order to survive, find the smooth handle (for this reference, you must read What Katy Did). In particular, build barriers against people who bring only negativity and drama. You are in charge of your life, just as you are in charge of the lives of your characters. Take charge. Create the life you want to live. Often, it’s hard, painful and messy to begin with. You may have to break things down to rebuild. But just like good editing, it will leave you with something better.
- You’re a writer. Be thankful you have the time, resources and ability to do that. Be thankful for the people who enhance your life. Be grateful, every day. It sounds trite, clichéd, almost too easy, but every day is a gift. Walk in nature. Breathe in and out. Tell the people who matter that you love them. Tell them often. Smile more. It all helps. And it will change the way you write. Gratitude cancels out fear and self-doubt. Action eradicates fear.
You’re a writer.