So, a confession, and one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to admit: for the past couple of years, I have lost all interest in writing. No biggie, right? There are worse things to admit, even to yourself. But when you’ve spent more than half of your life defining yourself as ‘writer’, what happens when you no longer feel that way? When a big part of what makes you ‘you’ vanishes, seemingly overnight, and with no sense of ever returning?
Admittedly, I hid my secret well, in part because I had to. Writing is a big part of my job – of all of my jobs – and like most people, I’m not in a position to wake up one morning and say, nah, don’t fancy it anymore. Many of my friends are in the creative industries, and we bond over our creative careers. What the hell would I talk to them about if that was gone? I developed coping strategies – masking strategies – facilitated in part by the pressure of needing to earn money, but also because I was scared if the mask slipped, if I was exposed for the fraud I was, I’d burn whatever bridges I had spent years building in an industry where weakness of any sort can be exploited or used against you. Everyone wants that hunger, right? That enthusiasm? Without it, why not move onto one of the million fresh young faces just ready to slip into your place, and usually at half the cost. Writing is one of the few jobs in the world where people are not just queuing up to do it cheaper, but often to do it free.
So, I kept going by funnelling my energy from elsewhere. I care about my clients and want to do a good job for them: there, that kept one strand of my writing going. I channelled my passion for theatre and my commitment to championing my local theatre scene into a passion for writing about theatre. And I was helped by the unforgiving turnaround that both theatre and my business writing require – as someone who started out in publishing and broadcasting and the punishing schedules those entail, I’ve always been invigorated by a deadline. But all the time, beneath it, there was a lethargy I couldn’t shake and the constant terror of that lethargy being exposed, and that if it was I’d be expelled from the writing community forever for my sins.
Moving to a new city, discovering a new theatre and arts scene, catching up with friends and family – all these provided the perfect excuse. If friends or readers queried when the next book was coming out, asked that always terrifying question, “working on anything right now?”, I always had ready-made, inarguable excuses handy. I’m so busy with the move. With my theatre stuff. With work that pays better. “Oh, life gets in the way, you know,” I would sigh wearily, pretending to be jealous of writer friends who were in a position to take time off to finish a book, to commit themselves to a big project. “If only I could take that kind of break!” I’d sigh, secretly relieved that I couldn’t.
Then, of course, COVID-19 stripped away that excuse. Suddenly I had nothing but time. Though, again, a ready package of excuses of why I couldn’t utilise it. You can’t expect to be productive in a pandemic! I was also pretty ill at the start of lockdown – a virus (though likely not THE virus – who knows?) that left me drained and fatigued long after it departed. I was navigating being perimenopausal, with all the health issues and inconvenience that unexpectedly brought about, as well as the paralysing insecurity felt by many freelancers, as I saw much of my work vanish. But I also was faced with admitting that, for the first time in my life, simply didn’t want to write.
Stripped of the pressure of delivering a theatre review four or five times a week, and with little other fee paying work to compel me to sit down at the laptop every day, my interest in doing anything creative or productive just evaporated, and I suddenly had nothing to disguise the fact. It wasn’t the same as being blocked – I had plenty of ideas. If I needed to – if a client required work, or I was invited to contribute to an article – I could quite easily produce something that was actually pretty decent. But without some external impetus, I would happily spend hours staring at the ceiling bored rather than pick up a pen. I found myself pondering, on a regular basis: is this it? Am I just no longer a writer? And if that’s the case – who the hell am I?
Rationally, I could justify my disillusionment. The creative industries are a hard place to make any kind of living, unless you have family money or spousal support or a network of industry connections. It can be dispiriting (and not just for your own sake) to see, time and again, privilege and the confidence it brings rewarded, while equally talented but less advantaged people are dismissed for ‘not wanting it enough’, ‘not working hard enough’, ‘not being able to take the hustle’.
As a middle-aged woman in an industry that too often favours men and fetishizes youth, I also felt like I was sliding into invisibility and irrelevance, replaced by younger, hungrier, sexier voices – was it worth even trying anymore? I’ve been doing this shit for over 30 years, without ever feeling like I’ve made much discernible progress (even if the standards by which I measure ‘progress’ have never been fully defined). Maybe I was just tired of it all and it was time to try something new. But that also terrified me. What would that be? It’s not like I had a wealth of other talents to fall back on.
It’s about now I would usually offer some helpful guidance on how to solve the problem I’m writing about. I’ve written a lot about the process of writing – including why sometimes it’s OK not to write– but faced with such an existential problem, there were no handy tips, no cheat sheet, no quick tricks to beat the block. I did find Wintering, the book by Katherine May, helpful, with its consoling thesis that some form of ‘winter’ is natural in any life: a period where there’s no progress, only stillness and survival. Indeed, that that can be a positive thing. Sometimes in the aftermath of loss (I definitely had a crisis of creativity – although to a lesser extent – after My Terrible Summer, when I lost my mum, a close friend and my home in a few short months), sometimes for no seemingly apparent reason. But as someone once said – with reassurance, though maybe not botanical accuracy (what do I know? Like I said: no other talents than writing) – nothing in nature flowers all year. Fields need to lie fallow to yield better crops. The trick to surviving winter isn’t to wish for its absence, it’s to recognise what it is and stock up on warm clothes.
So if I’m not offering advice, why write this at all? Why offer up my shameful secrets to strangers? In part, it’s because I see all around me creatives floundering in this new, harsher climate, and I want to offer reassurance that if you are struggling to create anything, you’re definitely not alone. It’s not shameful. It’s not because you don’t want it enough, you don’t work hard enough, you’re not good enough, you just can’t cope with the hustle. It just is, and you can weather it.
In part, though, I offer this in a spirit of optimism. Because for no reason I can fathom, this week I sat down and finished the book that has dragged behind me like rocks on a chain for nearly four years. Where only a few weeks ago, writing it felt like building a wall out of knives with my bare hands, and each word left me raw and bloody, they danced once more under my fingers. I finished it easily, and lightly, and enjoyed every moment, and what other people think of it be damned.
It’s taken longer – a lot longer – than I ever hoped it would, but maybe the sun has come out.
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Newcastle-based rom-com with a dash of Northern charm: The Bridesmaid Blues
Paranormal adventure with snark and sexiness: Dark Dates: Cassandra Bick Chronicles: Volume 1