I’d be hard pressed to pick a period of time in which I’ve been more hectic than I have been the past few weeks.
In fact, when I sat down at my desk today, I glanced at the papers strewn across it, including a very dated and half-completed to-do list, and realised I had not touched my laptop or sat down in my nice cushy IKEA chair for an entire two weeks!
It’s been that long since I threw together a blog post, too, which is hideous as I try hard to get the weekly blog posts happening with regularity.
If you follow me on Facebook or Twitter, you will know a bit about what’s been keeping me flat out in the writing space: a couple of really big wins that I will dedicate my next blog post to. I’d talk about them now, but it’s already 11pm and I’m knackered.
The other weight on me has been work. Like a lot of authors, I juggle a whole bunch of part-time and casual roles (and, foolishly, some voluntary ones, too). Usually this is manageable, but lately all of them have demanded my time at once, and I’ve found myself feeling like I’m desperate for air but stuck underwater. I am totally overwhelmed and the situation I’ve put myself in is quite clearly no longer manageable.
I blogged in July about this same sense of burnout, and it is becoming really clear to me that I still haven’t learned my lesson.
There is a latter-day Alanis Morissette song (circa 2008) called “It’s a Bitch To Grow Up”, and some of the lyrics are hitting home right now.
Namely the verse:
I’ve repeated this dance ad nauseum There’s still something to learn that I’ve not
This is really so true. I have burnt out a few times now. As in, ending up in hospital kind of burn out. And like a magpie attacking its reflection in a flying rage, I somehow keep repeating the same mistake ad nauseum.
I’m an ambitious person by nature, so I like to take on more and more stuff, but I really have to come to grips with the fact that I can’t do everything at once. It’s just not possible, especially when I have five different paid jobs, a couple of voluntary positions and a writing career. It’s lunacy.
And as I’ve already established through my musings on this blog and elsewhere, writing is the thing that matters most to me.
So I think it’s time I learn that I can’t do a million things at once without making myself sick. I need to stop. I need to slow down. I need to recalibrate and work out how to run my life effectively in a way that allows me to prioritise my writing career without letting the day jobs and other commitments choke all the air out of the room.
I really just need to learn how to take care of myself, don’t I?
As Alanis said:
I feel done, I feel raked over coals and all that remains is the case That it’s a bitch to grow up
I have to admit I usually don’t bother myself with questions like this. Partly because I tend to think of them as pseudo-philosophical bollocks: there’s no point reflecting on who you are; just be. Partly because it is a super cliché artist question and I view it with some level of disdain (I have been told I am just a tad judgmental …). And partly because I can only hear “Who am I?” asked in a Derek Zoolander voice, and that thought makes the teenage boy inside me – who adulthood has never quite managed to kill off – guffaw like a boofhead.
But for the past couple of weeks, I’ve been dwelling pretty extensively on this question and others. Who is Holden Sheppard? What am I all about? Why do I exist? Why do I write? What do I want?
It all started innocently enough: I attended a guest lecture by an advertising expert who talked about the importance of personal branding. I was intrigued and made some vague notes, but didn’t allocate much time to actually coming up with an answer.
A few weeks later, my quest for personal development brought me to a workshop at the Peter Cowan Writers’ Centre in Joondalup. The topic was Personal Branding, Marketing and Social Media for Authors, facilitated by a truly brilliant consumer psychologist and author, Glennys Marsdon. I don’t use the word “brilliant” lightly here: Glennys is a superstar and laser-sharp, and I could not recommend her advice more highly if you are an author at any stage of your journey.
I never knew a simple three-hour workshop could have such an impact on me.
Glennys’ workshop – both during and after – made me reflect deeply, and at length, about who I am and who I want to be. And finding a concrete, clear sense of identity was actually quite difficult.
I’ve been mulling this over for a few weeks now; this post, in fact, has been sitting as a draft for weeks because I couldn’t quite get my head around it.
I’ve been analysing myself, maybe a little too harshly, and essentially trying to work out why this is such a difficult task for me. And I think I’ve zeroed in on the crux: I have a lifelong tendency to be highly adaptable to my environment. My (very human) instincts as a kid and even as a grown man have been to adapt, fit in, be normal, as I found myself in each new environment.
For instance, I was a bookish kid and I felt really isolated in a lot of ways during high school. There was an external persona that learned how to (barely) survive in peer groups at high school; while the more bookish, creative, outspoken side of me learned to flourish only in online forums among fellow writers and readers and gamers.
This model of behaviour adaptation has chased me through life. At uni, I would drink coffee and talk about literature and theory and culture and feelings with my uni mates – during the day. At night I’d hang out with a different set of mates, drinking VB from long necks and playing pool and generally being bogans.
When I worked as a labourer and mini-excavator operator, I talked differently – every second word was “fuck” or “cunt”; when I went to a uni environment, my lecturers said they couldn’t understand me when I spoke, and so again I learned to adapt, speaking as clearly and professionally as I could.
The point I’m making is that I have successively adapted from the expectations of one setting to another, over and over, modifying my behaviour and personality to some extent each time. To some degree, this is quite normal and is probably a form of “code-switching”; it has also probably been the vehicle of my ability to succeed in a range of different sectors and environments.
The downside is that I have worked so hard to ensure I am meeting, exceeding and pleasing the expectations of external environments and people that my ability to meet, exceed and please my own sense of identity has atrophied over time.
When Glennys asked me to think about how Holden Sheppard, the author, was different to me as a person, I couldn’t find an answer. I realise, now, that is because there isn’t really a distinguishable difference. The way I present myself as an author is reflective of how I present myself as a person who works for a university.
Professional. Inoffensive. Clean. Even – shudder – kind of wholesome at times.
But does any of this let me express who I actually feel I am inside? The version of me that expresses itself in my personal life, in my self-expression, in my written expression? Is it what I’m really like in person, or who I want to be? Is it in line with my “personal brand” – or even with my actual, authentic personality?
Not at all.
So, my task is clear, and it’s no small feat. I need to dig around for a while and work out exactly who I think I am. More importantly, who do I want to be? What do I value? What’s important to me? This is actually very liberating, because so far I have been operating on the assumption that to be liked means I need to be neutral, professional and inoffensive – but these terms are nothing like how I would actually describe myself.
I suppose you could say I’ve been putting on a particular front, or persona, to protect myself – and to avoid letting too much real stuff shine through.
That’s going to change.
I don’t have the answers just yet, but, as Cat Stevens once sang, I’m now on the road to find out.
The first time I finished writing a novel was 1999.
I was eleven, and as far as I was concerned, the handwritten story that filled a whopping 64 pages of my blue-lined exercise book was an actual novel. Looking back, it would have been about 12,000 words or so: around the length of the Honours thesis I would go on to write 13 years later, and just a little longer than THE SCROLL OF ISIDOR.
My “book” was a sci-fi story called CAPRION’S WARNING. The main character, Nick, was a twelve-year-old Italian boy with seventeen immediate family members. I may have been projecting a little of myself, plus identifying with and/or being enamoured by Nick Kontellis from Emily Rodda’s Teen Power Inc books. Nick’s friend Luigi (Mario Kart was big at the time) got kidnapped by some aliens after a school disco (which figured prominently in my life at the time) and so Nick and his friends had to get in a spaceship and rescue Luigi. The whole story was essentially a global warming parable from the aliens; it was fun, but it made absolutely no logical sense.
I was quietly chuffed with myself when I finished that story. Looking back, I don’t
remember telling a soul. When it came to my creative side, I was incredibly withdrawn and secretive. My family never read a word of my work, nor my friends. In fact, the one time two of my mates tried to open an exercise book I’d accidentally left on my desk, I went into primal neanderthal mode and screamed at them to give it back. It culminated in a wrestling match in which the book was torn in half; thankfully, my desperation (and, I’m sure, their perplexed terror) enabled me to win that one – they never read it. (Incidentally, they are still good mates, they are possibly reading this, and they totally know who they are.)
In hindsight, finishing that story was kind of a non-event. I just turned the page and started the next little nonsensical pre-teen story – one that would never be completed.
I wrote constantly in the intervening years, but the next time I completely finished a project was 2011. For a number of reasons, I’m not going to name this project at the moment, but it occupied my mind and heart for a longer time than any other project to date has. This story was a piece of Pokemon fanfiction I posted on an online forum, and it had quite a large readership, especially in the first few years, though I retained a smaller group of dedicated readers until the end. I wrote the first chapter of this in late 2001, when I was thirteen, and completed the entire series of four novels in late 2011, aged twenty-three.
Actually completing that fanfic was one of the most difficult and gargantuan tasks I’ve ever undertaken – and I was once coerced into waiting eight hours in line for a Delta Goodrem concert in the middle of summer.
The feeling when I completed that series of four novels? Devastation. I fell apart and sobbed like you wouldn’t believe. Everything conflated at once: the joy of finishing such a long-term endeavour; the satisfaction of persevering for so long; the sorrow of saying goodbye to all those characters, whom I loved, especially the core cast; and the utter devastation at the end of my youth.
Because, of course, that whole project enveloped my formative years. Inhabiting that world was something I did daily, whether at the laptop or not, for an entire decade, and I grew so much during that time. At the start, I was a pimply thirteen-year-old dealing with puppy fat and wet dreams and dial-up Internet (and I couldn’t say which was the most awkward to deal with). By the end, I was in my early twenties, doing an Honours degree and working for a university and a bank simultaneously. The story had evolved, too, from being a juvenile “trainer fic” to an exciting action-adventure with a decent level of maturity. Even writing this now inspires me all over again.
I said once in an interview on that forum that I was treating that story like a training ground for my “real” writing. It was an astute observation: I knew that story could never get published given the trademark/licensing issues around fanfiction, so I just enjoyed it as a project of love and used the practice (and the feedback from some excellent readers) to hone my skills.
After that project was done, I was ready for the real deal.
In February 2015, after ten months of planning and three months of writing, I completed my first full-length novel of original work (YA Fantasy). I didn’t cry, which in hindsight tells me a lot. From memory, I moodily crept onto the patio, played Desperado by The Eagles on low volume from my phone, and smoked a cigarette or three while watching the sun rise (it was about 5am and I’d pulled an all-nighter). I did feel the achievement of finally completing my first novel: it was very gratifying.
But despite that smoky, nebulous state of triumph, I didn’t have a visceral response. The manuscript had a lot of structural problems, and I knew it. Beta reader feedback, a series of edits, a mentorship, and a copy edit all followed. When I completed draft number seven in late 2016, I was exhausted and sick of it, but my initial feedback from agents tells me it’s still not quite there.
And the reason I now know that for sure is that, one week ago, I completed my second novel.
And what a stark contrast it bears to the first one.
I started writing my second novel – let’s call it DAMAGE CONTROL, even though that’s just a placeholder title – in July this year. From the beginning, I had the overwhelming feeling that this book – a straight-up YA story – was the novel that would find publication first. Peter Parker would say his Spidey sense was tingling; Dennis Denuto would say he had a vibe; Kath Day-Knight would say she had a feeling in her waters. Everything just seemed to mesh together.
Call it what you will, but that feeling gripped me for two months and didn’t let go until I finished the final chapter last week. DAMAGE CONTROL is the most close-to-the-bone, intensely personal piece of fiction I have ever written. It felt like it poured out of me fully-formed; like twenty-nine years of pain were slowly and gingerly extracted from my blood. It was almost a channelling experience: when I reread some of the lines, I can’t even remember writing them.
As American sportswriter Red Smith famously said, “Writing is easy. You just open a vein and bleed.”
Red was right.
Once you open the vein and allow yourself to bleed, writing is the easiest and most natural thing in the world.
But it was something I had never done before.
CAPRION’S WARNING was more or less pure juvenile nonsense writing.
My teenage fanfiction was adrenaline-fuelled escapism.
And my first novel was essentially people-pleasing in literary form: calculating my moves, crafting a product for an imagined readership, second-guessing what the readers and market and editors and agents might want. In short, everything except being authentic, and genuine, and unabashedly myself.
DAMAGE CONTROL is me without a single inhibition. I’ve hidden nothing. Every fear, every fragility, every insecurity, every obnoxious word and thought is on display here for the world. It is a fictional work, entirely, but the characters embody the best and, frequently, the worst parts of me as the author: the things I am ashamed of; the things I’ve been hurt by.
My blood is on every page.
And it makes all the difference – because it actually works.
My first beta reader was completely blown away. He cried twice during the novel, especially towards the end.
“This is the best thing you have ever written,” he declared at the end, without hesitation. “This is very brave …”
As for how I felt when I finished it?
First was the sorrow: I cried, like a little kid who fell off his bike.
Then came the euphoria: I went to the gym and sprinted on the treadmill, adrenaline crushed into my bloodstream and music pounding in my ears.
And finally, satisfaction: I went out for ice cream with my fiance.
The most exciting outcome of finishing this novel was that it enabled me to understand, and define, myself in a way I hadn’t been able to do before. And my hope is that, in my being honest and vulnerable and brave, my readers will be able to make the same discoveries about themselves.
Finishing this novel has been an intense and rejuvenating experience.
It’s no wonder people think writers are head cases. We make absolutely no sense as creatures, and least of all to ourselves. There are about 8263283 reasons why this is a true statement, but for today I’m focusing on our unique capacity to vacillate between Regina George-level attention whores and panicky, milquetoast, aw-shucks-m’am Clark Kent types.
Specifically, when it comes to promo.
So, in late July, and again in mid-August, a couple of opportunities cropped up for me to promote my work (and myself) on radio.
On one hand, as a writer, I crave attention. I want my work to be well-received and for it to reach as many people as possible. And I really enjoy speaking about my stories, too. So these opportunities were incredible, and I jumped at them both.
But despite being a fairly extroverted kind of guy, especially for a geeky artist, I was completely shitting myself both times.
My first instinct when it comes to promotion is panic. There is something incredibly vulnerable about actually putting yourself out there for people to listen to, or read about. It taps in to many old insecurities: what if I am not interesting? Unlikable? Sound foolish? Get tripped up by a popular culture reference I don’t understand? And then there’s all the more primal insecurities: what does my voice sound like on radio? Is it rich enough, compared to the seasoned broadcasters? Do I sound too much like a bogan? What if I have a sneezing fit at the exact moment I go on air?
The second response is “say yes, you dumb arse, before they change their mind and rescind the invite!”
I’ve been fostering my writing career for some time, so I’m savvy enough to say yes to every opportunity. Well, every good opportunity. There are a lot of dodgy offers out there, though mostly on the Internet as opposed to the traditional media. Nonetheless, once I do agree to some promo, it brings on nights of restless sleep and causes my stomach to churn even more frequently than Harry Potter’s did in The Order of the Phoenix. (Seriously, Rowling mentions his guts roughly once every ten pages. Especially when Cho Chang is around. Check if you don’t believe me.)
When I was featured on Thursdays with Robyn on Twin Cities 89.7 FM in July, I was
nervous as hell right up until we went on air. Once that switch was flicked on the console, I reverted back instantly to my days as a radio host (many moons ago, I did some community radio) and the confidence came back. Robyn was a fantastic host, highly accomplished and professional and we had some great banter. I was thrilled to read excerpts from THE SCROLL OF ISIDOR and THE BLACK FLOWER, as well as chatting about my writing, my background and writing in general. The full clip is on my YouTube channel here.
I really enjoyed the experience in and of itself – but I was also delighted when I had a huge sales spike that same day. That spike helped land THE SCROLL OF ISIDOR at #3 on the iTunes Epic Fantasy Chart and #19 on the Barnes & Noble Fantasy Short Stories Chart. I was stoked. Pushing through the nerves paid off.
More recently, I wrote a piece for the Huffington Post about Australia’s same-sex marriage postal vote, which is hugely contentious right now. The piece was unexpectedly very well received and went viral. I had messages from people across the country – everything from dissent and abuse to praise and thanks and support. I was very touched by the response to the article, and so glad that something I wrote (initially intended for this blog) ended up not only getting published in the mainstream press but seemed to make an impact on the discourse around this issue.
One of the people who read the piece was Tanya Wilks, co-host of the breakfast show on Newcastle’s top-rated brekky radio show, Tanya & Steve, on KOFM 102.9 FM Newcastle. Tanya’s producer reached out to me and the next morning, I was on air discussing not just the article, but the highly personal nature of it.
I was a giant bundle of nerves for the entire day and night before the interview. (Harry’s stomach tumbled like a washing machine as he spotted Cho drinking a butterbeer …) This one was more nerve-racking than the first. Instead of talking about my writing output and myself as an author, I was talking about a very hotly-debated topic and about myself as a human – and as a man who is affected directly by the marriage equality debate.
As it panned out, Tanya and Steve were fantastic hosts and asked some really insightful questions. I didn’t make a complete idiot of myself on air; I didn’t pass out from sharing stuff that was too close to the bone; and I didn’t drop a turd in my jocks. These are all my criteria for nailing it at life, so that was a win.
What I’ve really learned from these experienced is that I want to get more comfortable with doing promo. I absolutely love sharing and talking about my work, and I am a good public speaker and an engaging presenter and lecturer, but I want to get even better at this. So, as with anything worth doing, I’m going to start seeking out more opportunities to practice this whole promotion shebang. Like a runner training for a marathon, I want to start getting in shape and really stepping up my game in how I approach promo and how I handle the nerves. I want to be able to tackle these opportunities with aplomb.
My measures for success? No more Order of the Phoenix stomach-sloshing every time Cho Chang appears.
Last year I tried to do a thing, and I failed spectacularly.
The thing was NaNoWriMo – a wonderfully kooky-looking acronym that stands for National Novel Writing Month. Thousands of writers – from amateur to emerging to published and prolific – attempt to write a 50,000 word novel in the thirty days of November.
I tried my guts out last year, but it was just a hot mess.
Hell, I was a hot mess.
I’d just been told I was losing my job in a restructure; I had nothing concrete to fall back on; and I had something like eight or nine major projects or events to deliver in the space of six weeks.
And I thought this was a good time to burn the midnight oil and churn out that great Aussie novel.
I got just a little over half way, which is not too bad given the gauntlet I was facing at work. But I crashed and burned, and that manuscript – which was a YA Thriller, and which I actually really like – is collecting dust in a drawer. Or more accurately, succumbing to the early stages of data rot on my hard drive. In my head, it’s more like cake batter: I fully intend to bake a delicious sponge with it and the guests are going to love it, but the oven isn’t preheated yet.
In non-overly-extended metaphor terms: I have a few other writing projects taking priority.
One of which is my second novel.
So, July saw the latest outing for Camp NaNoWriMo, which is billed as a virtual summer camp for writers. We even had cabins, where I got to chat to my fellow writers and we could share our joys and frustrations.
Because I wanted to make some massive headway in July, I set my goal as the traditional 50,000 words and set off on Day 1, which is a good start as that doesn’t always happen in NaNoWriMo. Some writers – past me included – have a tendency to rock up late, like day 3 or 4, and then play what feels like a Sisyphean game of catch-up from there. You know you’re not off to a great start when you’re limping across the starting line.
Despite the demands of work and publishing THE BLACK FLOWER in mid-July and other life stuff, I managed to track ahead of my goal word count every day of November, which I am pretty pumped about.
And on Day 30, I finally passed 50,000 words and reached my goal.
I have said it before but I will say it again: the benefits of applying an artificial and entirely arbitrary deadline to your creative practice can never be undersold. I take off my hat to the people at the Office of Letters and Light who make NaNo happen. It is, for me, the most productive way to write. I thrive off both the stress and the sense of competition.
Maybe it’s masochistic, but I work best when I know I am suffering intensely for a real, tangible and nearby reward: a completed manuscript.
And suffer I did.
This manuscript is the most personal thing I have ever written, and I am including my Honours thesis story ‘Full-Forward’ which genuinely drove me to drink.
This manuscript required me to tap into so much of my past suffering: the very worst of what others have done to me, and the very worst of what I have done to myself.
This manuscript demanded brutal honesty. From the first chapter, there could be no sacred cows, and so I refused to let myself have any. Nobody and nothing is safe from the torch beam of this manuscript. I forced myself to see it all, sit with it all, and most importantly, to speak about it all.
And I found I had so much to say.
I’m still working on this novel. There are a few chapters left to go. I’ll hopefully complete them within the next few weeks, and then the joys of editing will kick in.
Meantime, I’m enjoying the honest introspection – and extrospection – this process has offered me as a creator and a storyteller. The dogged honesty this work requires is forcing me to spear-tackle some demons, identify hard truths from chimeras, and valiantly step into marching boots I have held in the cupboard for years but have always been too terrified to lace up.
I really can’t wait to share this book with the world. I’ll be posting here about it from time to time over the coming months, so make sure to follow my blog and keep an eye on my social media channels, too.
Man, it’s a hell of a lot of work to chase an artistic dream.
A lot of hard, tiring, unpaid work, to be precise.
And, to be really honest, as much as you’ll usually hear me beaming about how much the pursuit of my dream animates me – and it does – some days are better than others.
There are days where the chase is pure elation, and each microscopic win feels like running across the finish line of a marathon: you finish a chapter, you get an unexpected book review, a blog comment makes you smile, or a tweet goes mildly viral.
And then there are days where everything is a giant mess of shit.
You spend hours fiddling with formatting a table of contents, for instance. Or you are stuck copy-editing (or worse, proofreading) a short story before you submit it to prizes or journals. You tweet and nobody retweets it; you post on Facebook and nobody likes it; you blog and it is met with resounding indifference (you can only imagine the precipice my mood rests upon in writing this very post …).
Unlike a day job, you don’t get a paycheck at the end of a bad day as an artist. You just have a really shitty day. In fact, in economic terms, you theoretically lost money, because of the opportunity cost of spending two or three or ten hours working on your fledgling artistic career.
I’ve had a run of great writing days recently, as I plough through my second novel for Camp NaNoWriMo. My project is currently sitting at about 37,000 words (out of a goal of 50,000), so I’m closing in on my target.
But despite that success, there have also been a couple of really frustrating days in the past week where everything seemed to go wrong at once. Nothing catastrophic, just some medium-grade SNAFUs.
Today was one of them: a head-desk, “why me?” kind of day. I think I thought I was further ahead in my career than I really was, in some ways, and that crashed down all around me. I’m still torn between wanting to sweep everything off my desk in a melodramatic writery tantrum and wanting to curl up into the fetal position and rock myself to sleep.
I am also considering the sage counsel of the little girl from the Old El Paso ad: “Why not both?”
But, of all things, something that happened at work yesterday made me feel better about the whole mess.
Like a lot of writers/dreamers, I have a range of casual jobs to keep my head above water and my arse off the street corner, so to speak. Some of my jobs are more highly paid than others – and one of them, in particular, is now a couple of grades lower than I’m worth, so I pitched to my boss that I ought to have my position promoted.
My pitch was declined. I felt deflated and considerably undervalued, but I went about my day after that.
But when I thought about these crappy last couple of days, I realised something.
While I felt undervalued in my day job, where I am paid decently, I didn’t feel undervalued as a writer.
This is even though I am paid nothing.
If I look at the last month of preparing my new e-book, THE BLACK FLOWER, for publication, I was paid exactly $0.00 for every hour I spent writing, editing, proofing, formatting, blogging, marketing, submitting, designing, and so on. And there were many, many hours.
But even when everything seems to go wrong, not one second of this feels like a waste of my time, because every second of this journey makes me feel alive. Every moment spent wading through molasses towards my dream is a moment in which I am aligned with my personal quest in this life.
I am always energised by it, and never drained, despite the unpaid element to this journey. The bad days never deter me. They can’t.
Reflecting on this made me feel better, because I now realise a day of unpaid writing is more valuable than a paid day of work.
Tonight, I will make my choice between a raging tantrum or cocooning myself in a blanket.
And tomorrow, I will pick myself up, dust myself off, listen to some Alanis Morissette and get back on the horse.
In the last year or so I’ve encountered so many writers at different stages of their journeys. Some of them have been published novelists sharing their wisdom at events or in webinars (or, sometimes, in Tweets). Others, like me, are submitting short stories to journals or working on their first or second novels, and making their first foray into the sharkly world of agents and editors. Many authors I meet on Twitter and through Camp NaNoWriMo, are indie authors, or describe themselves as aspiring authors. And still others are bloggers or freelancers, sharing their life experience with the cybersphere.
On some level, we are all the same: artists and creators grappling with words and our own fears to craft something amazing, painful and beautiful and bring it into the world.
And yet, sometimes it feels like we are worlds apart from one another – especially, I think, those of us who haven’t yet had our first full-length work published (like me).
So, with so many stages and forms of this authory career, I’ve been thinking a lot about at what point we feel comfortable actually calling ourselves “writers” – and it’s quite a telling point to ponder.
Being a writer is a strange identity to occupy. We are not like a boy having a father figure or other male role model to look up to as he becomes a man. We are not like a Catholic going to church and learning the norms and customs from the other parishioners around us. We may share blood with our parents, but we are rarely cut from the same cultural fabric: very few of us would be descended from acclaimed writers (and those who are should count their blessings in terms of the networks that opens up for them!).
No: us weird little writers tend to incubate in obscurity and isolation through our childhood, until adolescence spits us out and we realise we can’t survive without writing.
But when are we allowed to actually become a writer? Imagine meeting someone for the first time (maybe at a conference or event or dinner party) and, when they ask you what you do, you respond with, “I am a writer.”
At what point in your writing career does that become kosher? Or believable?
It’s a slippery concept, because success as a writer was traditionally – and still is – so inextricably (and agonisingly) tied to having a full-length book published by a traditional publishing house.
As a hangover from this – or, perhaps, as a mirror of our Western drive for achievement and validation – many writers do not publicly identify as such until they have a book published.
Many of us – especially the sensies among our ranks – experience the imposter syndrome. We really do fear that if we call ourselves writers, the logical next question from a well-meaning inquirer will do to us what a lawnmower does to a blade of grass:
“Oh, you’re a writer. So, what have you written?”
Our fledgling writer turns heel and foots it out of dodge, with Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone” blasting in his ears.
There is nothing more gut-wrenchingly, colon-emptyingly awkward and terrifying as calling yourself a writer and then mumbling a response to THAT QUESTION.
“Oh, nothing published yet,” you say, eyes down, desperate to get the heat off you.
All you want in that moment is for the person you’re talking to to go the hell back to the buffet table and freeload on some more spinach and feta quiches.
Many will find a way around this, and call themselves “aspiring writers”, but I actually feel quite passionately that this term is a misnomer. In fact, I actively encourage my students and writer friends not to call themselves this.
In my logic, an “aspiring writer” is someone who wants to write. You SHOULD call yourself an aspiring writer if you dream of one day writing an amazing novel, but you don’t know where to start, and you haven’t tried to write it yet, and it’s been seven years and all you have is a notebook with doodles of that cool stone S everyone used to draw in like Year 5.
you are trying to write your first novel and have notebooks and MS word documents and Scrivener files full of first pages and first chapters; OR
you are practising writing short stories, creative non-fiction, memoir, poetry, scripts, whatever …
Then I would recommend you call yourself the dreaded Writer with a capital W.
Because despite the earthquakes of self-doubt that fracture your little writer heart every few weeks, or days, or hours, you are physically writing.
You are trying.
You are on your way and you are putting in all the blood, sweat and tears your caffeine-dehydrated body can afford to spare.
You are a writer.
It does not matter one iota that nobody big and powerful and serious and acclaimed has yet recognised your genius, nor whether they have read your stuff, called it untalented tripe and kicked you twice in the kidney, leaving you in the gutter to die an artist’s death.
You are still a writer.
What defines us is our action and our spirit.
Our identity as writers is not tied to the quality of our work (how else would bad writers exist?) nor our publication status.
Personally, I thought of myself as a writer and was writing on and off from the age of seven, but I never dared to call myself one in public until my first short story was picked up and published in a literary journal when I was 20.
Until then, it seemed like Narcissus-level hubris to take on the moniker shared by King, Rowling, Tolkien and others.
But you know what? It still feels like that. Getting one short story published didn’t change that. Two didn’t. A bunch of journalistic stuff didn’t change it either.
And a lot of authors will testify that even getting one or two novels published still doesn’t change the sense that you’re not quite good enough yet.
Every time you introduce yourself as a writer, you’re waiting for Frau Farbissina to burst out from behind the bain maries at the networking dinner and scream, “LIES! ALL LIES!”
But really, I should have called myself a writer earlier, because (1) I have the spirit of whatever the fuck it is that makes us all creative and slightly cuckoo bubbling through my blood, and (2) I was writing actively, which satisfies my main criterion.
I should have called myself a writer when I penned my little short story homage to Anton Chekhov’s “Misery” in my first year of uni.
I should have called myself a writer when I started writing my Pokemon fanfiction in 2001.
I should have called myself a writer when I was seven and writing about co-ed twelve year olds falling off Cornwall cliffs.
I do call myself a writer nowadays. In fact, I’ve been trying to consciously make myself say “writer” instead of my day jobs when people ask me what I do. It’s still a challenge in resolve, but I’m starting to actually do it.
You should, too.
If you write, call yourself a writer and cast aside the “aspiring writer” exercise in nervous hedging. You do not have to have anything published, or even finished, to be a real writer. You can survive telling a stranger that you aren’t yet published.
Just start writing, and carry yourself with the confidence of knowing you are a writer, just like Rowling. Sure, we may be less famous and poorer and less masterful, but we are still undeniably part of the same club. It’s just that we don’t have seats at the table yet.
You have to take yourself seriously as a writer to become a serious writer. And nobody else will ever take you seriously as a writer if you don’t.