Do you suffer from what Roman satirist, Juvenal, called ‘the incurable disease of writing,’? If so, your suffering might have scaled new heights during the past six extraordinary months, where headlines about Covid, the environment and the Black Lives Matter movement have been shaking our sensibilities. In a recent survey I conducted amongst a group of emerging writers, I found that, because of these worrying times, exacerbated by lockdown, many have fallen prey to writer’s block. Distracted by the fridge, politics or Sims, some have confessed to spiralling into self-doubt and tubs of ice-cream, caught in a freeze-frame of life. A lack of confidence, imposter syndrome and sleep-depriving worries about identifying as a writer seem to be common by-products of the ongoing cataclysmic events. One writer has even considered a complete career change, swapping their trade from writer to Amazon driver (though doing both might be a sound option). If this sounds familiar - if you are currently wondering whether it’s worth plugging away at a blank screen - then please, read on.
Illustration by Prith Paramsothy
Know that you are not alone. Successful authors, who write for a living, are feeling the same things. James McConnachie, editor of the Author Society, gives voice to common concerns in a recent editorial, asking, ‘How will we begin to think again about conceptualising futures, let alone fictional realities, in a world that seems suddenly liable to catastrophic change?’. As the Covid crisis drags on and the maxim, ‘back to normal’ drifts further into the distance, it feels like the right time to consider just what the literary landscape looks like for emerging writers. What advice is out here for those who are finding their voice? Just how can these writers move forward with confidence? Is there any good news at all?
Crime writer and novelist, Ruth Dugdall, says there is. ‘There’s never been a more exciting time to be an emerging writer. Just think of all the material you can be collecting’, she says, ‘...follow your passions and make notes of it all. You will mine these notebooks later, perhaps years later.’
To writers caught in the maelstrom of Covid, she says, ‘Make time to write every day by keeping a journal or diary. It keeps the writerly muscles toned and shifts focus away from the eternal worry about being published. Just focus on the work itself. A benefit of being young is that it’s the perfect time to experiment, to take the knocks and to build resilience: all things that will come in handy later on as a writer.’
Literary agent Kevin Conroy Scott of Tibor Jones says, ‘It is the same as it ever was’ for young writers. ‘It’s tough…making a living on writing is a rare thing.’ Sobering words indeed, though not really breaking news. Creatives have always struggled with eeking out a living solely from their work. But, perhaps if we look at things differently, it is not as depressing as it first seems.
Let’s face it, 2020 is NOT like any other year. 2020 is a crisis point, a catalytic moment for the environment, for equality, for humanity. And so, perhaps, this is a good time for writers to challenge the status quo. Perhaps, reducing the ‘worth’ of writing to its monetary value is where we are going wrong. After all, is a piece of work brilliant or ‘worth the effort’ simply because it has been signed by an agent? (you know, like the ‘does a tree make a sound if it falls in the woods and no one is listening’ thing). Or what about all those manuscripts that are languishing in bottom drawers? In other words, is writing only of ‘value’ once it has been absorbed into the market economy?
‘Of course not!’, I hear you shout.
If we shift our focus inward and look at what the creative process offers both writers and readers too, there is lots of happy news. Notably, during lockdown more children and young people expressed themselves through creative writing. According to the National Literacy Trust, nearly 40% wrote more short stories, fiction and letters; 1 in 4 wrote more in a diary or journal; 1 in 5 wrote more poetry. One of the main reasons cited was having more time and space to think and generate ideas. Importantly, though, the writing process itself positively impacted their wellbeing: 41.3% children said writing made them feel better; 1 in 4 children said writing helped when they felt sad that they couldn’t see friends and family. So, the process of writing itself has a value, one that directly impacts how we feel. Surely that alone makes writing worthwhile?
Similarly, reading appears to be helpful in reducing stress induced by the pandemic. Public advice from the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention on how to cope with the ongoing stress of Covid includes a suggestion to relax by reading. When times get tough, we read: industry analyst Kristen McLean recently noted that book sales grew almost every year during the Great Recession. Reading, like writing, might just be essential in helping us cope with our changing circumstances.
It follows then, that hearing from emerging voices is vital to any recovery, to any sense of remaking the world in the wake of huge crises. It is these emerging voices that have the power to describe the world in new ways, unfettered by the old voices of the past. The urgency that the events of 2020 have brought to bear on the need for change can and must be a catalyst for emerging writers. Readers are desperate to feel more connected, to feel more in touch with the rest of humanity and to feel hope for the future. Writers are needed more than ever. Writers need to keep writing, no matter how hard it is.
Filmmaker and writer, Shirley Day of Passion Productions, suggests that the main reason writers give up writing is not that they don’t have talent, it’s that they don’t realise how long any kind of traditional success, however small, can take. Perhaps though, what new writers need most is to reframe success. Instead of seeing a book deal from a traditional publishing house as ‘making it’, remember that there are many ways to successfully reach readers and touch lives. By enlarging our own view of success, we also tackle, by default, some of the inherent flaws in the book industry. It might be more fruitful, therefore, to check out other publishing options and to learn how to promote your work yourself. Write for competitions, magazines, zines, blogs. The important thing is to put pen to paper, figuratively speaking.
The good news however, despite wildly varying predictions about the future, is that the literary universe does seem to be awash with chatter and opportunities previously unheard of. Publishers and agents too, it has to be said, are scrambling to catch up with the diversity issue, desperate to redress long-held imbalances. A quick trawl online finds Children’s Book North calling for more ‘writers of colour publishing books from a Scottish perspective.’ The Working Class Writers Festival in Bristol next year is looking for working class stories. Agents too, are widening their net. Responsible for launching the careers of Namina Forna, Kereen Getten and Poonam Mistry, the ASH Literary Agency is looking for fresh and vibrant writing. Anathema online magazine (http://www.anathemamag.com/about-anathema) seeks submissions specifically from queer people of colour. There has never been a stronger push for diversity in voice (let’s hope this is sincere and permanent). So, whether BAME, LGBTQ+ or someone who loves making dolls houses out of discarded litter, the important thing is to find your voice and use it. Do not think there is a certain story to tell, just write yourself onto the page.
Let’s face it, to be a ‘successful’ writer you need to enjoy the journey, not fixate on the destination. Know that the writing along the way is just as important. So, don’t stare at a blank screen worrying about how to write like Author A or B or Z. Instead, by turning up at the page every day and putting the hours in, you will find your voice, and so will others. And that, surely, is a huge part of why us writers write at all, isn’t it: to be heard?
Don’t get me wrong, you also need to keep training, keep pushing at your edges and stretching yourself. So, learn how to make a podcast, start blogging, write for zines you are passionate about; stand up and read your work aloud; volunteer at book festivals…there is an endless list of ways to fill your writer’s day. ‘The more you do, the more roads will open up ahead of you,’ says Day.
Something that can help motivate writers is getting involved in collaborations. Writing is a solitary business, so it’s great to throw around ideas collaboratively. ‘It’s very easy to let your idea become ‘set’ in cement,’ says Day. ‘You often need someone else to throw up a few obstacles so you can work out new ways of morning work forward. Working out what you need as a writer is also important. You might be the kind of person that needs to be answerable to other people. That might just motivate you to write. Motivation is always the biggest battle for long form writing, collaborations can help you get this.‘
Most of all it’s important to make the most of your own story, to do things your way. ‘The best thing an unpublished novelist can have apart from a social media platform is a personal history that is unique and uniquely related to their story’ says Conroy Scott. ‘It forms a peg to hang a bunch of PR off of’, might sound unsavoury, but it’s a way of helping readers get to know you as a writer. So, don’t think you need to conform to a stereotype of ‘author’. Be yourself in all your wild and wonderful ways.
Writing is hard. Keeping writing is harder. Getting published is harder still. But alongside the suffering, it’s important to remember that there is also joy. The joy of a great line. The joy of completion. The joy of hearing your work read aloud. The joy of knowing that your work has touched someone. Focus on the joy. Use the suffering to get the work done, but don’t let it overtake the joy. As Proust wrote, ‘We are healed of suffering only by experiencing it to the full.’
If there’s one thing we have all learnt from this year’s events is that nothing is certain. If there’s another thing we’ve seen, it’s that stories are what we turn to in times of crisis. People want stories. Being a writer, for many, is not really a choice. It is an incurable urge to express themselves with words. Perhaps the most important prescription for emerging writers now, is to forget about predictions, focus on feeding your creativity and write your truth.