Writing takes a measure of sacrifice. In August I said I would document the process of writing - the ups and the downs - and this is, if not one of the downs, then a more reflective post, to see the new year in.
I've been with family for a month or so, haven't written, let the novel breathe. I did dabble a little in other forms - a piece of flash fiction (not my forte) and a poem (slightly better) - but as a rule I've taken time out. I went on some walks, saw a rainbow on one which in whimsy I hoped denoted luck. On these walks I contemplated my decision to do this, to continually try for something that may never take off, praying that it would. I started officially planning the novel in January 2014. So as of this month, it will be four years. Four. Years. I feel sick when I think about it. When I think of all the times over those four years I have been asked "How's the novel going" and I've had to force a smile and say "it's going", then watch the amusement/pity creep in. I know what they're thinking. They doubt me. It's child's play. One day she'll give up and actually do something meaningful with her life.
Not all of them think that of course. At least I like to believe so. But very few of them know me, really know me, and as such it's easy for them to judge. Here's an example. I was at a conference last year. A conference I go to every year since its commencement. And because I've been there since it began, anything I can do to help, I will - big or small. I was asked if I would help out with the afternoon teas and coffees because the person who usually did them had to be elsewhere. Of course, I said yes. What I hadn't anticipated however was the way I would be treated. Many people who came to the table were nice as they knew me, but some were new attendees who had no idea I was a familiar face and barely acknowledged me at all. One particular woman came to the table, and without so much as a word or a look, simply held her cup out to me at arms length. I was taken aback, but politely asked if she wanted tea or coffee, milk, sugar, etc. She ignored me. Actually ignored me. I had to ask twice more before she turned her head, swept a derogatory glance up and down, and told me in a snooty voice "black coffee is fine." No please. No thank you. I think I actually hated her a moment. Who, I thought, do you think you are? You think because you're a scholar but I'm 'the tea lady' that I'm nothing? That I'm somehow less than you? You don't know me. You don't know me at all. You have no idea what I've been through, what I've done, and what it takes for me to attend this conference every year knowing I'm still unagented, still unpublished, and try to keep my head high anyway, to justify even to myself my presence there. And this is the thing, isn't it? This whole process is a form of justification, not just for yourself, but your writing too.
I am terrible when it comes to keeping in contact with people. I always have been. I am very protective of my free time, mostly because my free time isn't really free. This can make me appear selfish and neglectful. I am painfully aware of this. BUT THAT DOES NOT MEAN I DON'T CARE. My reclusive behaviour is also not a reflection on any specific person. I'm exactly the same with ex-work colleagues, good friends, oldest friends and even my own mother. Most of them have come to accept this. Others have not. And those that have not, I have lost (thankfully my mum has stuck around) or I'm on the verge of losing.
Unless you're amazing at balancing your work and social life perfectly, this happens to everyone in varying degrees. It can happen no matter what you do for a living. It's a busy time for us: we're building careers, going into further education, dating, getting married, having kids. The old friendships that once made the world go round have shifted and changed to accommodate our commitments. It is just the way life is. On understanding this, if my friends and I don't speak for a while I don't take it personally or believe that our friendship is going down the crapper. I just assume they are as busy as I am. We'll contact each other eventually and we'll just carry on where we left off ... Right?
For most people once the day job is done, the rest of their day is freed up for family, friends, or general down-time. However, this is typically not the case for writers; balancing our work and social lives is especially hard. For the most part this is because we're often already balancing two careers. One is the day job, the one that pays the bills. The other is the writing career, the one you do because you're passionate about maybe, one day, turning it into the day job that pays the bills. Unfortunately three quarters of us will never achieve this. So we must continue balancing the day job and the writing, and then everything else in between. For me, my free time is not my free time. My free time is spent focusing on my second career. This is an even harder feat when trying to write a début novel and get an agent. It's HARD. BLOODY HARD. It takes dedication and determination and a very stiff spine. If, like me, you're focusing all your 'free' time on achieving this dream it is inevitable some things fall on the wayside. It's not right, it's not what you mean to happen, but it does. It's slightly easier if you have a family, or a live-in partner, or live with friends. You are forced to be sociable. Your schedule has to be strict and work around the people you're sharing space with. But when you live on your own it's a completely different kettle of fish.
Recently I have been throwing myself into my writing. I've upped the tempo, increased the amount of hours I've put into my dream of getting published. These past weeks have been especially busy. Contact with friends was done via messenger systems. One particular friend I messaged at least once a week, but I hadn't had time to make plans with her. As I didn't hear much from her either I assumed she was in the same boat. And because our friendship is long-standing - we have known each other since we were 11 - I honestly thought everything was fine. But when I cancelled an outdoorsy meeting with her because I was coming down with a cold, but then kept myself busy during that weekend at home (I hate to be idle), it opened up a whole box of upset I wasn't prepared for. What I didn't realise, was that while I was in my self-imposed exile, she had been stewing over my silence and been thinking me a bad friend, that we had been slowly drifting apart for years. Her reaction completely baffled me because not once had she been upfront about this until she reached boiling point. I had been quiet, too quiet, and it simply wasn't good enough. I was wracked with guilt of course, but then it did get me thinking.
Friendships are a two-way thing. You might be accused of being neglectful, but when it comes to writing I think you really do have to throw yourself into it 100% to achieve your goals, especially when deadlines are looming. As such it inevitably happens that you forget to communicate, even though you're thinking of that person most days. BUT. I also believe it goes both ways - it takes only a moment for someone to ask how the writing is going, how you're feeling about it. Sometimes when we're so immersed and feeling very overwhelmed with the whole thing, it's nice to know your friends are thinking about you supportively rather than resenting your silence. There is a reason for that silence. That reason is not because we've stopped caring. Many writers are naturally reclusive because they are working hard to reach that all important endgame, and sometimes we need a good talking to. We have to be reminded (sometimes literally forced to remember) there is a life outside of the hermit hut, and it's good. Because in the end, if any of us are successful who can we share that success with if not our friends?
I've found over the years there are some people who are supportive of writers. There are others that do not believe 'this writing thing' is serious. That it's a hobby, an unhealthy obsession, a phase you will grow out of. That you'll never get published because it's been going on now so long and they want their friend back. They may never outright say it, but it's what they're thinking, even just a little bit. Personally, aside from being hurtful, this makes me all the more determined to prove them wrong. It makes me work even harder. Which makes me invest more of my 'free time' into achieving my goals. Which means less friend time. It's a vicious cycle.
In this particular case, both of us are to blame - I didn't talk, she didn't ask. And I've been asking myself how can you reach an effective balance, a balance that keeps both your friendships and your ambitions on track? I think it depends on your honesty from the outset about what is involved in being a writer, the understanding of your friends, and effort from both sides to make it work. If, like me, you’re struggling with this, here’s some key points I'm going to try and put into place throughout 2018 that I think might help:
There is one final point, but this is a reminder more than anything, to work around all the above, and it's put into words perfectly by J.K. Rowling:
Balance is a tough thing to get right, and as someone who naturally struggles with this it's going to take time for me to master it. But I think if we can remember these simple five points then it will make us much better friends and much happier people, otherwise we’ll find that when we resurface from the writing mire the world looks a lot less welcoming. Writing is a lonely road - let’s not make it any lonelier.
On 23rd November, a documentary by author Kit de Waal was broadcast on BBC4. It was wonderful, a complete breath of fresh air, because Kit aired an issue that has been skulking around in the shadows of the publishing industry for years - Where are all the Working Class Writers?
It struck a chord with me. A number of years ago I wrote a blog post prompted by a job advertisement from a leading publishing house for an 'Entry Level Editorial Assistant' that would be 'perfect for those wanting to start a career in the publishing industry'. At the time, I was seriously considering moving back to my original career trajectory and so I clicked on the link with anticipation ... only to find that the so-called entry level perfect for new starts required three years work experience in the field. Sorely frustrated I delved a little deeper into publishing opportunities based off my own experience. I found some very interesting stats, an eye-opening report, and wrote a rather long blog about what was wrong with the system. But ... I was scared of what might happen if I posted it. I was worried my research wasn't solid, that people would object to what I'd written and counter with something that would make me look like a fool. And the more I read through it the more it sounded like I felt sorry for myself. So I never posted that blog. It stayed in my drafts for weeks, and eventually I deleted it. Now, after listening to Kit's documentary, I really wish I hadn't.
So, why did the documentary strike such a chord? Well, I consider myself working class. Hear me speak and you might not think so. Looking at my name you might not think so either. Coming from Lichfield - a city typically considered middle or upper-middle class - you would be forgiven in thinking I fall into one of those categories. But what I don’t tell many people is that I grew up on an average street - one certainly not considered by my classmates as the ‘posh area’ - and my parents had very little money. The majority of my clothes and toys, even my books, were charity shop and jumble sale finds. My sister and I were bullied at school for not owning cool stuff, for being in their eyes, very obviously poor. Friends were difficult to find.
My father had been in the Fleet Air Arm, but personal circumstances forced him to leave that life behind. His time under service was the only time, I suspect, he had ever been truly happy. He spent many years after that flitting from job to job, trying to support a family of four and always struggling to pay the bills. I think it was during a fit of frustration at being treated so badly in one particular role that Dad changed his middle name of Stokes (passed down from his grandfather) into a double barrelled surname, hoping that by sounding more middle class it would improve his prospects. Sadly, it didn't. My mother - also a divorcee - had been a struggling theatre actress who had worked with Ken Dodd and Anthony Higgins, but had similarly been forced to quit her dream to take care of her ailing mother, uncle, and her physically and mentally handicapped sister. She became a typist, a secretary, then some years after that she became a dinner lady and worked in Poundstretcher. She spoke beautifully - Queen’s English - because her mother taught her to do so, and that way of speaking has been passed down to me. But both my parents were pure Brummies. And none of us, ever, had it easy.
I was a naturally quiet child. Being shunned by the other school kids meant that I spent a lot of time on my own day dreaming. As a result I became extremely shy and unsure of myself. I spent a lot of time immersed in books instead - the first I remember loving was Anne of Green Gables - or making up my own stories. Stories were a fantasy land, something that took me beyond the drear of school which, for reasons already stated, I never really enjoyed. I was intelligent enough but never excelled, partly due to my shyness and my feeling very alone and having no support, as I was often shunted to the back of the class. Despite all this, I was actually a happy child. I became very independent in my thoughts and generally preferred my own company - something I don’t think I’ve ever really grown out of. Unsurprisingly English Literature became my passion, books my companions. By the time I was 14 I knew I wanted to write. Or at the very least work with words. Or teach them.
My father died when I was 16. Money became even more of a problem after that because he was the main bread-winner. I got a job as a waitress and worked as many shifts as I could around school. It was never enough to support Mum, but it did pay for things for myself so she wouldn't have to pay for them. My sister also had a difficult time of it - she left school at 18 and went right into full time work that was ever-changing and difficult. She has struggled through some things that would have broken even the strongest of people. Our working class backgrounds became something we resented because money, in so many different ways, would have solved a lot of problems. But. Our working class backgrounds also made us strong, resourceful and determined.
I was the first of my family to ever go to university and I got in by the skin of my teeth. The student loan was given to me in full because of my family’s personal circumstances. I chose to do a Joint Honours in Education & English Literature, then an MA in Creative Writing (funded by a Barclays Career Development Loan) with the idea that I'd either become a teacher, or work in publishing. At that point, becoming a writer was a pipe dream because the need to make money overrode the inclination to put pen to paper. I had debts to settle. A 'real job' had to come first.
After university I moved to London, with the intention to get a position as an editorial assistant. I had two hard-earned degrees under my belt and a naive optimism that this would be enough. What I didn’t realise though that aside from the recession having hit (it was 2009), the publishing industry was damn difficult to get into anyway. My first three months were spent sending out CVs and emails to publishing houses asking for placements. Only one publishing house ever responded. I spent 18 months interning there on and off, unpaid. During this time I attempted to get more placements and began applying for jobs. No one else would give me a placement, and I only managed to get two interviews the whole time I was in London. I couldn't understand it - I hadn't realised it would be this hard - and I spent a lot of time in tears because my overdraft was expanding to accommodate my growing debts and I couldn't see a way out. I just wanted someone to hire me. I was desperate to prove myself. I was lucky in that my partner at the time supported me financially where he could, but it put a strain on our relationship and eventually the money ran out. We simply couldn't survive on one salary and occasional handouts. In 2010 we moved back to the Midlands where I was forced to get a job as an admin assistant at an accountancy college. I was neither teaching or working in publishing. I felt all the doors had been slammed in my face. And I do genuinely think that was partly down to class and the boundaries of money. You see, if I had come from a privileged background I could have kept working in London for free until I managed to get a job in publishing (which, according to that job advert, could have taken three years), because I'd have been supported financially by my parents. Or, there might have been connections that would have helped me get a foot in the door. If I had support on the outset I might have been an editor or even an agent by now. Instead, by then single, I spent seven and a half years in a job I disliked trying and often failing to pay the bills. One month things got so bad I spent a week in the dark (in winter) because I couldn’t top up my electricity metre until payday. I had no help in the end. I had no one. Debt begets debt and I continually struggled. Only in the past year or so have I managed to break the surface of the money pit and breathe.
When the publishing door closed on me, I wrote instead. But I didn’t write loads of different things, I didn’t write short stories or poems which I probably should have. I didn't write about my working class experiences, though working class themes play a key part in my writing. No, I stuck instead with this one idea that I’d had at university (anyone who knows me can attest to the fact I’m stubborn to the point of impracticality). But the writing too I did on my own. I hadn’t the time for writing groups, not with the hours I was working. I did it all bit by bit in stolen moments and with little sleep. When I got to the point I felt I needed help, I could only send the novel out to friends because editing services cost too much. I had some great feedback but I know for the most part it was biased and therefore not really helpful. The only thing I had to go on was my Creative Writing degree as it taught me to understand structure and form, but the support I needed at the time of writing the novel simply wasn’t there. It still isn't. And it really is down to the hefty price tag that comes with the opportunities available to writers in general. Three quarters of us simply can't afford it. In the past I've applied for a scholarship to an agent-led writing course, the WoMentoring project, with no success. I'm not vain enough to think my writing deserved the help as it is possible my writing simply isn't good enough; it's a competitive industry. But as someone who felt the doors were always shutting in my face, it was hard to accept that help was hard to come by. As both a writer and someone who had wanted to work in publishing, I've been left to find another way. The one route will never happen now - my career has gone down a different path - the other, we can only wait and see.
More help, more support for the working classes is desperately needed. I'm so thrilled to hear from Kit's documentary that moves are being made to overcome all this, but more is necessary if the barrier is to be breached and the road opened to people from more diverse backgrounds. If you’ve been keeping up with my blog posts you know I’ve been making progress, but I'm still not there yet and I won't be for a while. I'm working on what will be the final draft of the current novel but I have accepted now that if after this it gets nowhere, I shall work on something new. I shall write short stories, begin to dabble in poetry. And I'll do it all holding down the day job, not because writing is a hobby but because I consider it a career and my passion. For all of us, perseverance is key. It's just that for the working classes, the word 'perseverance' seems to take on a whole other meaning. And it really shouldn't have to.
CLICK THE IMAGE TO BE REDIRECTED TO BBC RADIO 4
NaNoWriMo. It's a craze that has been going since 1999. Many people have successfully written a novel in the time allocated and some have even gone on to publish them traditionally. My November writing month has been like a sandwich: started off great, went downhill, went even more downhill (it’s a thick sandwich), then improved. I was active on Twitter a little during this time and the following Tweets pretty much sum up how I felt during that filling layer:
Earlier this month I applied for a scholarship to an agent-led writing online course because a) I'm not in a financial position to pay out the full whack of the course fee and b) I've felt that during this draft I would really benefit from more streamlined and professional guidance in order to get the novel to where I know it needs to be. I wasn't surprised not to be successful (there would have been literally thousands of applicants worldwide and only one scholarship placement was available). The very nice response I received was that they were "really impressed" with my writing, but (etc, etc) and hoped I wouldn't be too disappointed. Well. As a struggling writer who must contend with failure every time they put their heart on the line and submit their work to the 'Gatekeepers', I couldn't help but be a little disappointed, which of course then set those pesky self-doubt demons going again. Were they really "really impressed" with my writing or is that just the generic response sent out to all rejected applicants? I will never know the answer to that, but it certainly makes me ask the question Am I wasting my time? Should I really be persevering with this? Still? I'm going to put on a brave face and say NO. I'm not wasting my time. YES. I should be persevering. Let's not be so hasty. It was simply the luck of the draw ... and the pitch. Which leads me on to ...
As I'm sure you've guessed by now, I've attempted a Twitter Pitch. On the most recent occasion I obviously only took an interest in the historical genre, trawled through the ones already posted, and at the end of the day searched for the ones that had been liked by the agents. The lucky chosen ranged from the Tudor court to WW2, but I've chosen three to take a look at which seemed to really shine (all Tweets posted are with the permission of their authors)...