I blamed my parents. I blamed my mainstream education that taught me to conform and comply. Procrastination and poor excuses made me the unfulfilled writer.
‘I have a great idea for a story’, I would say. ‘But there is so much laundry to do…’
In 2019, finally, I decided to do it. Not the laundry, the writing. I just finished my first novel: The Here and There. But, instead of appreciating that accomplishment, stepping back and giving myself a little pat on the shoulder, I am lost somewhere between the wash and the rinse cycle.
I am a first time, life-long writer, taking a chance on an idea. What I am learning, slowly, is that I am afraid of myself. Afraid of my own shadow. I challenged this when I chose to write full time, with purpose and without judgement. Impossible: writing without judgement. I have put my entire self on my sleeve in double spaced, twelve font and sent it out to the world. And what if – what if – no one likes it, what then? Well, that’s where I am. I am waiting in limbo for that one in a million, that one voice in the dark that says – hey, I like your story, let’s publish it.
My first obstacle to writing was always me. It all started two years ago. I picked up Julia Cameron’s The Artists Way and, with plunger in hand, I got elbow deep in unblocking my blocked inner artist. You see, I was miserable in a way that was easy to swallow, and I had no idea how else to be. I had wanted to be a writer from a young age and thought I was pretty nifty at it too. But, at age eighteen, there was a fork in the road, and instead of going right, I studied law. Unwittingly, the life that followed was a revolving door of paid roles that shunted my creativity and stifled my voice. My eighteen-year-old self was not to blame: what the hell did she know? But twenty years on, I knew better.
Peak hour on a city bound train to Melbourne is always an excellent time to evaluate your life decisions. Would my teenage-self approve of this life? She’d likely judge my grandma shoes if nothing else.
‘I thought we would set the world on fire and be…like…awesome,’ she’d probably say. ‘And what’s with all the sensible flats?’
On a dreary Melbourne morning, if you managed to look away from your smartphone, you may have seen me. I was the woman clinging to the train pole and to the strands of my sanity, chatting away to the memory of my teenage self; for I was about to walk into work.
I resented that my employer got the best of me: my most productive, alert self. I flexed my writing prowess all day with meaningless reports, and pointless emails. In all of them, I referred to myself, the author of these works, as we: for I was just a cog in the machine, man. But I wrote fast and I wrote well. Through wage-earning repetition, I built a mastery in business writing. It was empty and infuriating. At days’ end, I simply had nothing left for me. Sure, I wrote in dribs and drabs but nothing that ever went anywhere. Soon, my creative muscle became a noodle.
I self-soothed my existence with shopping, at one point owning over two hundred summer dresses. My wardrobe bulged with my low sense of self-worth. You see, pretty dresses made my workday tolerable. Pleated vintage eased me into Monday. A frilly orange number was the highlight of my Tuesday. My creativity needed an outlet and my face and limbs were it.
When you scour eBay and op-shops for second-hand delights it’s easy to convince yourself that it’s hardly an expense. How easy it is to lie to oneself. As beautiful as all these dresses were, most were ill-fitting. Each purchase made me happy until I spent a day in a dress that was too tight across the shoulders. I would use my whole body to lean forward just to pick up a pen or answer the phone. God help me if I had to drive. More than one meeting was punctuated by the sounds of my dress lining ripping as I stretched for a glass of water. Oh well. There would always be more dresses. And dresses made me happy…right? Dresses would be strewn across the bedroom floor each day as I changed countless times before work.
‘What was wrong with what you were just wearing?’ my husband, Hank, would say on repeat. But it was wrong. Everything was wrong.
I should be clear; work was not a sweatshop. Back in my call centre days, a colleague of mine had that very mantra stuck on a post note on her computer screen, just in case she needed a second-by-second reminder. I knew there were worse places to be.
‘Be grateful for what you have,’ I would say to myself. And that’s true. Gratitude is important to perspective. I am free to choose what I wear and how I live. Most importantly: I am free. But does gratitude have to substitute needing change and seeking it?
My post-World War II European born parents said no. ‘Be grateful for the job you have; do you want a life washing dishes? ‘This is a quote from my mother, who I guess in her mind, considered my options as limited to her own. Julia Cameron gave me permission to dream. Bless her, because I certainly wasn’t giving it to myself. Dreaming is for kids, right? Was it o.k to want more? To discard those things that didn’t make me happy – those ill-fitting things that I couldn’t wait to rip off at the end of each day. Over the head and onto the floor.
Change isn’t easy. We humans, don’t like it. Each day I fought the life-long stories I knew by rote and repeated ad nauseum.
I wasn’t good enough: why is this one so easy to believe?
Writing is a dream and only that.
The sediment of childhood angst was kicked up, mudding my waters. I had to trust that unsettling what had settled would make the waters clearer, would make me clearer. Eventually, it did. I started with my wardrobe. Any outfit that poked, pulled or denied the draw of breath I culled. It was hard to say goodbye to those things I thought defined me. I did it slowly. I did it purposefully. My life and my wardrobe would only be filled with the things that I loved.
Next, I moved onto the house. Why was I keeping this ugly vase? Gone.
How have I walked past this hideous display cabinet countless times? Gone.
Why am I lethargic to the way things are? Woah. I had graduated from the school of Cameron and was clearing the clutter of my life.
Now, bureaucratic box-ticking lunacy was no longer tolerable as my Monday to Friday. After nine years in the same role, of collating urgent requests for information that no one used, of writing talents wasted on submissions unread, I had reached my limit. It was crazy, I told myself, but I had to try – because a house full of crap and an empty life was no longer an option. I was going on a self-imposed writing boot camp: eight weeks of leave to finish a novel I had started six months before. This novel was a seedling that only grew on weekends. The process was slow, and I wanted more. But what if I am a bad writer – a bad writer, who thinks she is a good writer? Ignore it, I finally had the courage to say. Write it anyway. Give yourself eight weeks to write your little heart out. So, I did.
Every day for eight weeks, I sat down and wrote. My position of choice was the unergonomic bed. With Ozzy as my sidekick and my coffee as fuel, I wrote. Every – single – word was a fight. A fight with me, a fight against the practical version of myself that told me it was nonsense. I wanted to push it aside in favour of the necessities: washing, gardening or [insert useless, repetitive task]. My story can never be bad if I never write it. Some days there was a flood of words, other days just a trickle. But every day, little by little I gave myself to my story. But not without tears, not without moments of stagnancy, fear and anxiety. Today, I wasn’t productive. To this, I learned to say: so, what? There is always tomorrow. And it was true; tomorrow was a fresh day. I fell in love with my characters. Wow, why can’t I be more like, Esther, my protagonist? Maybe I am. I guess, she is of me.
I learnt so much through this journey.
Lesson one for writing a novel:
Sit back and enjoy. You only ever write your first novel once. I recognised there was a process to my writing. On days that yielded little, I dug deep to find faith, trusting that with tomorrow, words would come.
Lesson two for same:
People are surprisingly supportive. I expected scoffs when I shared with friends and strangers that I was taking time off work to focus on writing. I guarded my secret and cherry picked who I told. I am just taking a break; I would say to most. But the more I wrote, the realer it felt. I may actually pull this off. What an exciting thought.
Gradually, with confidence I could say it: I am taking eight weeks off work to finish my novel. Boom. I waited with eyes closed for the ridicule that never came. Instead, people peppered me with encouragement: you are brave, said some. I wish I could do something like that, said others. It’s incredible how many other closet writers I have met. Why are there so many of us? Why do we choose to hide ourselves away, as though yearning to write can only ever be a dream for most. We all have a story to tell. I truly believe that. Our truths should be shared so that in darkness, when we feel our loneliness selves, we know we are not.
While I wait for any nibbles on my submission, I know I will have to find another job. Bills don’t pay themselves. But taking this time for me was the greatest gift I could have ever given myself. Not only in the reward of creating but freeing the space in my world for so much more.
Don’t get me wrong. Words don’t just arrive, and it isn’t easy. And, despite the finished product with my name on it, I still don’t call myself a writer. I am an imposter, posing as a writer. But this way of thinking achieves nothing, and I am done with self-sabotage. If I won’t call myself a writer, at least I can say it is my tool for achieving joy. Now that I have finished my story, I am prepared for that dreaded question, the one I have been avoiding up to now: so, what’s it about? How can I sum up my soul in a few short sentences?
Um, you will just have to wait for the hard copy. Fingers crossed.