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The Most Important Thing I’ve Learned as a Writer
In July 2017 I achieved something I never thought I would do. I published a book. I’m 46. For me, it wasn’t a lifelong goal. I haven’t harboured aspirations to be an author since I was 12 years old. It literally happened because I believed I had some good ideas for a story, could write pretty well, and probably most importantly, live my life with a pretty solid armour of perseverance.
Writing a book, like all journeys, involves the stuff you know is going to happen, and the stuff you either know about but are not prepared for, or don’t know about at all. You know it’s going to involve time on your own, putting words to paper, typing it up, revising, editing, making it sound amazing.
What was hard to contemplate from the outset was the magnitude of solitude involved. And how solitude changes you.
When I started writing in 2015, solitude was not something that featured significantly in my life. I live in an urban environment and have access to technology and social media. Like everyone else, I can choose to be connected 24/7, every minute, every second, of every day if I want. This connectedness, so we are lead to believe, is the ultimate ‘cure’ for the loneliness often associated with solitude.
Anyone who has ever tried to spend significant periods alone knows how hard it is. It was something I had to work at. I was fidgety, restless, craved distraction. I was stuck with my own mind and it was an incredibly uncomfortable experience. Thoughts came into my head and possessed me. Thoughts like who-the-hell-do-you-think-you-are-writing-a-book and not-so-gentle reminders that I was nowhere near as good as all the authors I love and admire. I came to the rather sobering reality that being a writer means sitting with your own mind for long periods of time. It was not something I was warned about, but you REALLY get to know yourself when writing a book.
The ability to be alone is an essential condition to write a book. That’s pretty obvious, no surprises there. The same could be said of any undertaking that requires concentration and focus from crocheting a blanket, to tinkering on an old car, or painting a picture, or reading a book. What I’ve come to learn is that the ability to be alone is also an essential condition to love. That’s right, people, love. It’s only through time on your own you truly discover who you are, and it’s only once you truly know who you are that you can give love unconditionally to another. When you build solitude and stillness into your life, you notice things that may have otherwise gone unnoticed. All that matters is the activity you’re immersed in and giving your whole being to it. It really doesn’t matter what it is, all that matters is giving it your full attention. And such is the requirement of love.
Paradoxically, all this busyness, all this connectedness which is meant to make us feel less alone is often having the reverse effect. We’re feeling more alone than ever because we’re often not learning who we are and how best to tend to our needs. We’re running away from alone time, repudiating it. We’re hoping other people will just ‘get’ us when we often don’t even know ourselves.
All our gadgets and technology purporting connectedness are here to stay and they certainly have their place. It’s now about how we find a balance between alone time and worldly stimulation, how we quell our fears of aloneness and embrace what’s on offer from a bit of solitude: time to get to know yourself. It’s a practice. It’s not the solution to everything, but it’s likely to yield some beautiful surprises.
In Praise of Reassurance
I don’t know anyone who doesn’t crave reassurance. They may not be out there admitting it to the world, but the need is very real and bone-deep. We tend to think of reassurance as a quality required only by children. That the need for someone to come along and quieten those fears and insecurities when faced with challenges or uncertainty is the job of mothers and fathers. Surely as grown adults we just get on with things? Even after years together in a relationship, surely verbal or other acts of reassurance are no longer required? Isn’t simply being together in a relationship the greatest act of needing another person?
Truth is, we don’t ever outgrow our need to feel valued and protected. Regardless of gender, social status, marital status, faith, creed, culture. No one is immune. We’re hard-wired for it. Reassurance is not something only the perceived weak or overly sensitive need. It’s in all of us.
One of the toughest things about being an adult is that we’re tricked into believing we don’t need reassurance anymore. We live lives that are so incredibly “connected” in the cyber sense, but have never felt more isolated and lonely. And we’re often telling ourselves that our social media world is a “good enough” form of connection.
Except that it isn’t. And never will be. We simply do need genuine words of reassurance and we need to help each other navigate a world which is often restless, and at times, brutal. We don’t stop wanting to hear our partners say to us, “everything is going to be okay, you’re doing an incredible job” or for a friend to say “hang in there, things are tough right now but around the corner is something amazing for you.”
We’re not prepared to admit it though. Or ask. Asking feels at best humiliating, at worst downright terrifying. The dread of rejection can leave even the most titanesque among us feel as insubstantial as a beetle.
Life is always just going on. It doesn’t wait for any person. It moves so fast it’s easy to take what you have for granted.
Sometimes you’ve got to stop and pause, and notice what you have in your life. Maybe today, open up your mouth and reassure someone you care for that you need them, and accept them wholly and unconditionally for who they are.
Why I write what I write and other glorious anecdotes
I read some advice by author Joanna Walsh, “define carefully what makes you uncomfortable, and dwell in that difficulty. Find ways to enjoy it.” It’s hard for me to contemplate the notion of discomfort while I sit outside with the sun on my back on this beautiful spring day, but I know it all the same.
Something I secretly fear (but act like it’s no big deal) is that my book The River and the Ravages simply doesn’t fit easily in a genre. I didn’t follow the rules of outlining my plot and forming my characters based on what is normally done in any single genre. This was pointed out to me quite early into my writing but it felt too darn important to me to keep writing the book that was inside me and not follow the rules. I may pay for that decision one day, but I may, on the other hand, reap the rewards.
Too often we fear to take bold steps and instead follow the safe path. I’m not being critical by any means. I’ve done it plenty in my own life. There are often so many competing priorities in any given decision to be made, I wonder how any decision gets made in the first place. But for the big stuff, the stuff that defines who we are, who we choose to love, how we spend our days, our weeks, our lives, it often requires gutsy decisions and dwelling in some bone-deep difficulty for a while.
What it means to me as a writer, is than I’m going to continue to write what interests me. Sex. Love. Family. Money. Death. And I’m going to continue to write about people on the brink of change and growth. People who sometimes make some great decisions, and who sometimes stuff up quite spectacularly.
And I’m going to have so much fun along the way. What a time to be alive!
My thorny bed of roses
Someone once said to me “it always works out for you.”
I didn’t have a response at the time. I was kind of in a strange place between thinking was that a joke to realising this person was being utterly serious and finding myself quite confused.
So here’s the thing. It works out for me no more than it works out for others. Life also blows up in my face quite spectacularly at the same rate it does for others. The only thing I have, indeed anyone has, is their attitude and how they’re going to react to any given situation.
I remember thinking at the time what’s going on here? From her viewpoint, I was living a golden life free from despair, loss and pain. I have those things in spades.
I consider myself a fairly creative person. I wrote a novel, tried to find a publisher, was rejected…oh, like twenty times, decided I still really wanted to have a published book so learned InDesign (HELL in a word) and got it out into the world. Achievement! And although the sense of achievement and purpose is wonderful, writing a book also comes with a major caveat: My book isn’t going to be liked by everyone (I know right. CRAZY!) I have very little control over people and future events.
I don’t know how any of this is going to go. Everyday I wake up and take a wander in the great unknown. It’s a place I’ve come to accept as being my bed of roses.
It doesn’t always work out for me, not by any stretch. I’m no luckier than the next person. But no matter what comes my way, I’m going to be grateful.