I love this time of year. I grew up in Ireland, where summer was three hours on a July afternoon where you could just about get the barbecue lit beneath the driving wind, and you’d hurry to stretch out and burn to a crisp as much of your body as you could. So part of me secretly loves the cinnamon smell of fallen leaves, digging out woolly hats from drawers, and sticking on the heating. I also like the back-to-school new-stationery feel of Autumn, the chance to set new resolutions and draw up a study schedule. Why limit the opportunities for failure and self-recrimination to just once a year, that’s what I say. So I often find myself at this time of year cleaning out cupboards, tidying out old boxes, and generally swearing to improve my life in various intangible ways.
The summer for me has been characterised by two things: the Olympics and Paralympics, which sucked non-sport loving me in with a ferocity I hadn’t imagined; and also, Not Writing. Oh, I’ve been editing and fiddling and proofing and so on, and my second book is pretty much finished, but as for new writing, I haven’t done a single word since I went on holiday back in April. During those two weeks I wrote over 30,000 words. And I wasn’t even really trying. Since then, nothing. Not so much as a split infinitive. I’m not sure I even remember how. I look at the notebook I filled with words – many of them sharp, and funny, and touching (IMHO) –and I find it hard to realise I wrote them. This shows the odd ebb and flow of creativity. It’s easy to do nothing for months and months, without even noticing. It’s also easy to ride a surge of inspiration and bang out thousands of words per day. If only we could control those tides, our jobs would be a lot easier.
Last weekend I also went to the York Festival of Writing, full to bursting with aspiring writers. These were a serious bunch. They had completed novels, proposals, synopses. They had nice neat folders. They knew what they wanted. I’ve always felt that knowing what it is you want – ie to be published – is a huge step towards making it happen. I spoke to people who had given up work to write, or were carving out time between family and jobs and everything else that takes up our lives. Who get up early every day to write, or work late into the night. Who’ve decided this is their dream and are prepared to make it happen. I’m sure some of those people will be well on their way to being published this time next year. It also made me think about my own creative slump. I hadn’t even realised I was in one, because after all I have been working on the book. I just haven’t written anything new. And that’s a bit sad considering I wrote two books last year. I let everyday life, and emails, and walking the dog, and making appointments with the dentist, get in the way of what matters. So I’ve decided to pull my wooly winter socks up and write myself a manifesto for being a happier and more productive writer
A Writer’s Manifesto
Make time for writing above all else: Everyday life is a constant avalanche outside our door. There will always be more chores, more emails, more other jobs to do. What I need to figure out is a way to decide what’s important and make it my priority. It’s writing. It has to be writing. Because what else is there?
Keep trying to get better: those Olympians didn’t run one race and then slack off for the following four years. They ran or swam or jumped every day, because there’s no such thing to them as good enough. I need to inject some of this hard-core dedication to my own work. Just because you happen to sell one book, it doesn’t mean you’re set for life. You have to come at writing afresh every day. Luckily for me, it’s something you can go at hardcore while still staying in bed. Result!
Don’t be frightened: it must be bloody terrifying to have a whole stadium of people waiting for you, hanging on your every movement, the slip of your foot or hand all that swings 80,000 breaths from a cheer to a groan. In comparison, waiting for people to read your book is nothing. So what if they hate it. It’s not being beamed around the world to millions of people (I wish). So I shouldn’t be scared to try new types of writing, or break out of my ‘brand’. There’s nothing to be scared of. Except papercuts.
Try to be grateful: I’ve written before about how easily I can get sucked in to anxiety, moping, and even jealousy at how other people are doing. But as I’m sure Olympic athletes would say, the race is long, and in the end, it’s only with yourself. (Wait, that’s from a song or something, isn’t it?) In her brilliant book Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg says other people will always be winning prizes and getting reviews and being successful. She recommends telling yourself that ‘They are good and I am good.’ I think that’s powerful advice (and I recommend the book generally for getting out of a creative slump and remembering why we actually write).
Write for the love of it: once it becomes your job, it’s easy to forget that you started writing because you couldn’t imagine anything more fun. Writing can become like a PG film – featuring scenes of extended peril and some mild swearing. Because if you don’t get this book right, you can’t just shove it in a drawer and shrug with insouciance. Your whole career depends on it. But really, it’s a privilege to be in this position, so I should just get over it and carry on.
In fact that would be a good general motto for my life, so here it is again:
JUST GET OVER IT AND CARRY ON.
I might get it carved onto my desk so I can see wisdom every time I bang my head off it. What are your tips for starting afresh with writing?