The empty well

The Empty Well, Joel Kass

I fear what comes next. I’ve been so far in an editing morass that I’ve not had much chance to work on anything new for a little while, and whilst it’s true that I have a few works in the bank – in various degrees of draftage, three stories are ready to be polished/rewritten – I don’t know where I’m going from here.

At some point I’m going to have to write something original and, for the first time in my life, I feel like I’m drawing from an empty well. I see other writers, some close to me, some a little further away, churning out novel after novel, and I look in the mirror and see only emptiness there.

I am a writer. But I can’t see what I’m going to write next. Worse than that, I feel like I’ve forgotten how to do it at all; all the disciple I built up, all the muscles I developed, they seem to have atrophied.

That’s the fear. That I’ve nothing left in me. That I’m a fraud, I guess, in calling myself something I no longer feel myself to be.

This is, I know, mostly bollocks. So I’m feeling a bit fallow – show me an author that doesn’t have the occasional period where the words don’t quite flow. It’s barely been two months since I finished my last first draft – that’s no time at all. Just because I don’t immediately have something to go on to doesn’t invalidate my whole existence.

Still, this is the way I feel right now. Like there is nothing left in me. It’s not a nice place to be.

There is hope. I had a dream the other day that I thought (within the dream, which is a trick) would make a good novel with a little tinkering. And I managed to write a dream synopsis before I forgot it all. Even if this is just a false blind it shows that my subconscious is still churning over the goods.

It’s a stupid thing, to put faith in dreams. This idea may well come to nothing. The positive I’m taking is that it shows there is still creativity in me somewhere.

But in the immediate future it is editing that is occupying my time. I’ve an Old Testament intergenerational epic to renovate. So if you’ll excuse me, it’s back to the Bronze Age with me.

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Insufficiently Woke

It’s not easy to be blindsided. That is, of course, a lie: it’s the easiest thing in the world. Dealing with it is another matter.

I took a piece of writing to my writing group on Sunday. I hadn’t really thought anything of it; it was simply the next chapter of the novel I’ve been gradually unrolling. And (I thought) I didn’t really care what people said – this work is getting beta-ed as we speak and I only really took it as I had short notice and wanted to read something.

I’d have been quite happy for a nice simple ‘Yeah, it’s great, no problems here.’

The piece I took was a hot section describing a slum clearance. Lots of nice descriptive language, a few deaths and a bit of emotional trauma. It’s been workshopped before, this piece, and, as I said, I wasn’t expecting much except for a little sharpening here and there.

I got taken to task.

The piece was described as a Westernised, colonialist’s view of the world; it was too nice, too polite; it was an insult to anyone who’s experienced a real, genuine slum clearance, where they run the bulldozers through people’s houses at night and deaths are uncounted, uncared for.

The passion, the anger in my interlocutor’s face was shocking. I was completely taken aback. I still don’t quite know what to feel. I was upset, to put it mildly; thinking back now I still feel the tremors and the anxiety.

I have written elsewhere on this blog about cultural appropriation. I believe in being sensitive to experiences beyond my ken. I’ve watched Twitter arguments play out about unconscious ‘white’ writing and perspectives that erase the experiences of the ‘native’. To be accused of doing the same thing myself? Painful.

So what do I do? I don’t think I can make the scene any nastier, crueller, as it would be out of place in this novel and would probably turn the scene into melodrama. To paraphrase another member of the group, doing ‘better’ would make the novel worse.

And do I believe this person is right anyway? No-one else (and the novel has been read by around a dozen people, though the vast majority are white-British) has commented or complained. Can I make big changes on the back of one person’s objections?

I don’t know that I can. I might add a sentence or two to ask if this slum clearance is typical, if it’s overly mannered, or if it could represent the tip of the iceberg. I will look at doing that. I will also make sure to ask my beta-readers what they think of the scene in question. I will ask them to check me, as I am checking myself.

In the meantime I am trying to get over the shock, and I am looking at myself in a different light, and I am worrying about what this episode says about me as a person. I am deeply flawed, insufficiently Woke; that is not news, but never has it been brought to my attention so baldly.

I suppose I should look upon this as an opportunity to grow.

Shutting down

closed

This is my second attempt at writing this post.

The first one… well, I fear it came off as whingy, or misplaced, or over-wrought – just generally tonally askew. So I’m having another go.

Thing is, I need to talk about the pandemic and explain a little about how it’s affecting me – because this blog is, at its heart, about me and my writing.

But it’s very difficult to moan about my small difficulties when people are dying. When there’s genuine suffering in the world, my small problems don’t amount to a hill of beans. But I’m immunocompromised so I’m at extreme risk of contracting the virus. I’m therefore in isolation for all of twelve weeks, dependent on my wife for all shopping and necessities – and also for all of my social contact.

That doesn’t matter half as much as the fact that my daughter is home from nursery all the time.

A few weeks ago I set out my typical writing week, which basically comes down to this: I write when the little one’s in the care of others. Now all that is worth so much hot air. She’s always here. And though I’m timesharing with my wife, she’s supposed to be working full time so I’ve lost my breathing space.

That’s before we get to the fact that I’m a really bad dad and don’t know how to properly stimulate or educate my child. That’s another issue entirely.

See? Whingy and over-wrought. This is a tough piece to write.

What it comes down to is this: writing has suddenly sunk down my list of priorities. This feels like a bunker situation; we just have to hunker down and get through. Previously I managed to balance paying editing work with my own creative writing. Now I don’t know if I’ll have the opportunity to write at all.

in the bunker

For the next few months my WIP is on hold. This blog may be on hold as I don’t know if I’ll have anything to write about. All that was solid has melted into air.

I am absolutely certain that I’m not alone in this. I don’t doubt that there are hundreds of artists who are suddenly having to down tools and focus on the immediacies of life.

Hopefully in a week or two I’ll have found a new routine but for now it feels like shutting down. I’m sure I will adjust but there must be many more out there who can’t. To all you creatives out there who are struggling let me just say that I see you, that you’re not alone.

Shakespeare may have written King Lear whilst he was in quarantine but he had servants, financial security and no children to look after. It ain’t the same for us, folks.

But we will get through this. There will be another side. Them pesky kids will go back to school at some point.

Until then we just get through as best we can. Anything we manage to get done is a bonus.

A balancing act

balancingact

I can’t find an attribution for this picture, culled randomly from the internet. I suspect Photoshop may be involved somewhere

There is a problem. The problem’s name is work. And me having some.

All I want to do is to write. It doesn’t have to be fresh creation – I even enjoy a spot of editing every now and again. But writing don’t pay the bills, so I have Paid Employment. And now, in a vague attempt to find something more sustainable in a barren future time, I’ve got myself a second job. I have my first piece of professional proofreading.

This is a good thing. I’m shortly going to be taking parental leave and will be bringing in less money. I need to keep the Lyrapillar in nappies (whores will, after all, have their trinkets). I chose proofreading as a revenue stream as it’s probably the only thing I’m qualified to do, and that’s using the word ‘qualified’ somewhat loosely. It’s something I can do from home and can fit around the rest of my life.

The rest of my life aside from real writing, that is. That’s my problem. I’m trying to devise a new novel, but my mind is full of another person’s work. I have set myself the impossible deadline of doing this proofreading in a month – because I never learn – and that leaves no time for self-promotion, for sending out submissions and all the other things that I should be doing in order to develop my career, let alone actually creating new worlds and words.

This is a self-created problem. I don’t expect sympathy. I say this because it’s something all aspiring authors will encounter through the nebulous days of their writing careers. The trick of balancing all aspects of their lives. To be successful you have to write, and write many pieces, be they short stories, poems, or novels. I have given myself a task that I have to complete and that’s to the exclusion of artistry.

Ultimately it will be good for me. Of course it will be good for me. It’ll hopefully help me as a writer as well as bringing me in a little cash. But I chafe: I want to create.

And now I must away. I have proofs to read.

Adult hard

overworked-woman

I have a normal life. By this I mean that, just like you, I try balance the many different calls upon my time without fear or favour; that I try to be productive and creative and all-round fabulous whilst getting the jobs done, keeping the house in a reasonable state and food on the metaphorical table. This isn’t always easy.

Things came to a head last week when I was forced to spend two whole mornings away from my manuscript. It’s quite amazing how this affected me; I was depressed and anxious, feeling like I was betraying myself and my dreams. Of course there were good reasons for my slackery – there always are – but it’s clear that writing is a dangerous, powerful habit.

At the moment I spend an hour a day in front of my computer or in the Editorium before the evil that is Paid Employment comes to take me away. This really isn’t enough. It’s far, far less than enough when this hour is split between writing and doing Jobs: sending emails, learning to drive (legally) – even writing-related things like sending out submissions are a distraction, a drain, and a stress.

I’m trying to Adult: trying to establish a platform from which to leap forwards into a bold new sunset filled with joy and sunsets and puppies. But it’s also getting me down, making me ratty and weepy; life is a fight sometimes (with due respect to people who don’t have the many wonderful privileges I enjoy, such as a wife who pays the rent, a home that’s brick, not canvas and, indeed, that morning hour) and just now it’s a struggle.

Something’s got to change.

So I’m intending to take a second hour in the evening. As soon as I get through the working day, when the bus has dropped me and I’ve returned to that empty house, I must sit straight back down and do the Business of Life. Emails – detestable things – must be written and responded to. Lists must be made and acted upon. The house will be vacuumed, the spare room cleared.

It’s the only way I can see to grow, to get this Adulting business out of the way. Because my hour in the morning is sacrosanct. I am a writer. I can’t sacrifice this precious time because it’s the only opportunity I have, at the moment, to live a life where I can (theoretically) achieve something I consider worthwhile.

It may seem like this is a downgrading, a sacrifice to commerce, a gradual withdrawal into wage-slavery. But I’m not looking at it like that. Hopefully taking a second hour for work will free up my writing-brain. The guilt will be vanquished. I can get on with what I want to do without that nagging voice at the back of my mind telling me of all the jobs I’m failing on, all the holes in my Bucket of Happiness that need patching. For Reasons this is the busiest I’ve ever been in my life. Something’s got to give. This isn’t going to be writing.

But I also have to make sure I have time to refresh my well of inspiration. The odd pub-visit, or holiday, or hour in front of the television, is not only useful but vital. No-one can write in the midst of nervous exhaustion. You can’t see the page through a mask of tears.

Adulting isn’t just about getting jobs done, nor about money or status. It’s about maintaining yourself, about being a happy, healthy human being. Making Business Time will save not only my writing but my wellbeing. Because things can’t go on as they are right now.