This time last year I was all geared up for a new job that was going to include part time writing- HURRAH! Life goals securely on track! And then…. SPLAT. The company’s plans to set up a base in Edinburgh folded and I was in receipt of yet another email telling me my details would be kept on file, thanks, sorry and best of luck. Having spent the Christmas holidays mentally and domestically preparing for going out to work I found myself in a landscape with a job shaped hole in it which I knew I was going to fall into in no time at all.
The fear set in. The fear that comes from needing to write and yet not writing consistently is a large and thundering thing. You look fine on the outside but on the inside there’s a storm. Stories build up inside of you and crash against each other like furious waves. Endings wallop into beginnings, words are thrown in the air tumbling back down to land in the wrong places, with the wrong punctuation. You grapple to hold onto ideas and drop life-raft notebooks faster than you can repeat golden starter sentences in your head that you need to write down and preserve.
A friend and I have been discussing how to deal with being a writer when life will not give you time or opportunity to be a writer. The answer, I think, is that somehow you must and do find a way.
Had that email of January ’15 not arrived I mightn’t have found my way. In a fit of post-rejection frustration I googled writing courses in Edinburgh, found one that started that day and signed up for the last place on the spot. I hated that instead of earning money I was spending it but I knew my mental health needed the release rather than the analysis. Four hours later I walked into a classroom. We were each asked to introduce ourselves. I said, ‘Hi, I’m Heather. I used to write, I’ve lost my ideas about what to write unless someone instructs me and I need to be taught how to discipline and develop my ability’.
Happily, I got exactly what I asked for from the course. I went in there week after week and talked about what I found hard rather than showcasing what I found easy. I dropped my guard and didn’t question whether I knew more than the teacher. I ditched my ego. I learned. I worked like I should have worked at school. I listened and made sure I didn’t hear my own voice dominating conversations. I got my mojo to an extent I’ve never had it before. I signed up for the next course and committed myself to the cause again as if it were a third child to fit into the family. I was about to say I haven’t looked back since but the thing is I really have looked back on all of that. Every single rejection of 2015 lead to a decision to do something unexpected that worked out incredibly. I look back all the time at the writing class and remember how amazing it felt to ask for help and then to receive it wholeheartedly and, let’s be honest, with desperation as a motivation.
All that said, I’ve found it’s important for sanity to accept that there are times when it’s difficult or impossible to write too. It’s been really key for me to work out the circumstances in which I can’t write so I don’t waste any time indulging a method that doesn’t serve me. I can’t write much in the weekends or school holidays when the kids and husband are home – there’s so much distraction to fight that it begins to feel like tantrumming and martyrdom on my part. So what I do in the times when I can’t write is I take in other people’s stories. I do this by watching really well written films or TV programmes, reading books, visiting blogs, listening to podcasts, intelligent radio programmes or, if other people are about, by sticking on story telling music and letting it become part of me by osmosis while I ask folk for their stories.
Filling up with other people’s stories stops your own stories from escaping, you see.
I think it works by a largely passive process of knitting experiences, memories and thoughts into a garment you wear on the inside. I’ve found the garment can’t be removed until you pour it onto a page sometime in the future. Knowing this means my internal panic about losing stories is forever over; I am my own filing cabinet. Quite often I’ll send emails to myself if I’ve thought of a line I’ve really fallen for but mostly I just put my stories on pause and let other people’s creativity flow, knowing it’s enriching my own.
I think the bottom line is only you can tell your stories so it’s a matter of extreme importance that you keep them safely stored in engaging, colourful and expansive content at the times when they have to wait inside you.
There’s a dark side to be aware of though, I believe. What I absolutely don’t do if I can’t write is handover my brain to trashy magazines and shit storytelling of the tabloid kind. In my experience these types of stories are corrosive to a positive sense of self and pull thoughts away from the best self to a conscious coma in which I’m relieved of many of the useful and beautiful things I previously had to say. Since it can take quite a while (several weeks, usually but sometimes months) to rid myself of the negative effects of just ten minutes of exposure to shit-lit I reckon it’s better to have a completely zero tolerance approach to it. If I come across it in a waiting room I do myself (and the world) a favour by shoving it down the back of a chair or into the bin in the toilet. And yes, friends who are reading this who’ve noticed magazines go missing… It was me. I had to do it to stop internal bad weather.