Some time ago, I promised myself I wouldn’t do another post on writing until I was in a position where I had received enough external approval/been sanctioned in some way that magically gave me permission to speak on the subject. On editing, I’m on firmer ground. I feel allowed to waffle on about that because people pay me to do it. But people don’t yet pay me to write.
My biggest epiphany recently has been to stop caring so much whether they ever will. This might seem counterintuitive, especially when I’m piling up yet more debt to put myself through an MA in Creative Writing. I’m enjoying it so far, and who knows? Perhaps I’ll get the bug and carry on studying, finances permitting. It seems to fit quite well around paid work, which is essential.
I’ve been writing properly, systematically if you like, for three years now. In that time there’s been a great outpouring of stories, circling around common themes. It’s been hugely enjoyable to do, and all this time I’ve been gamely throwing stuff out there and amassing rejections; I have the bruises. My second novel (a ‘psychological thriller’ that was psychologically batshit plus not very thrilling) started well but was so bad in its entirety that two different agents simply melted away and stopped talking to me after receiving the full manuscript. I’m blushing just thinking about this, though it really doesn’t matter now. I’ve moved on. My husband thinks I’ve got better. Some of the rejections I get these days are more encouraging, even making mildly pleasant reading. I’ve also discovered the joys of online zines, plus the supportive writers of Twitter, and had some short fiction published that way.
Here’s the thing, though. For me, the not-caring so much is really important. Of course I hope that ultimately I’ll have readers of my stories, and if anyone ever pays to read my work I will crack open the elderflower bubbly! But I’m realistic enough to understand that even if I did get published, I would still need other sources of income, and I’m fortunate to already have good work that I enjoy, in a related field. Coming to terms with this concept has freed me up to focus on what I actually want to write about (the fucked-up, rotten, sometimes darkly funny and often haunted English countryside), not what I think I should be trying to write about. The words are coming more easily, more coherently, and I’m learning. I’ve been reading as much as I can manage (on top of work reading in apparently unrelated areas such as architecture, vocational education, technical copywriting, building standards and art exhibition catalogues). I’m making breakthroughs. Short stories are now actually stories, not just melancholy moods. Novels are accumulating slowly in the back of my mind like a community of woodlice under a stone.
And so it’s finally hit me, because I can be slow on the uptake, that all this writing (hundreds of thousands of words!) is not a means to an end. It is the end. It’s not self-indulgence either – I want in the end to bring pleasure to readers (or at least, a strong sense of unease). But first I need to bring pleasure to myself. And if I feel like writing about writing, that’s fine. I don’t need anyone’s permission.
Liz Jones has worked as an editor in the publishing industry since 1998. She loves her laptop so much that she also writes novels and short stories so as never to be parted from it.