Monday, 16 March 2015

The Giant Vulnerability Purge.

At the end of this month, I will turn 22.

Me in a blanket decorated with penises.
There is no longer a milestone birthday until I am 40. I’m about as prepared to be a grown up as I’m ever going to be. I have a first class degree and can hold down a steady job. Just because I’m surrounded by people who would swear I behave like a five-year-old 95% of the time I’m with them doesn’t make that any less true.

But I’ve still got a fair amount of sorting-out to do before I’m properly on track. I’m not too upset about this because I know a lot of people in about the same position as me who aren’t doing as well. People who don’t have the same prospects as I do, despite having done basically the same amount of work. I also know I’ve got a great group of people around me who will help me and support me in everything I do.

But I also have a problem I should probably work on if I ever want this to go anywhere.

The thing I’ve wanted to do as a career forever has always been writing. 


But I’m hugely self-conscious about it. I don’t know why I am. I remember a time when I wasn’t. I remember shoving my stuff in everyone's faces. If there was a particular instance which made me change my attitude, I don’t recall it. But I don’t like showing people my work any more, unless I’ve written it specifically with the intention of giving it to them. I don’t know why that is. I know that my inner critic can be a bit harsh sometimes, but I also know that that can be a positive thing, if I can use it properly. And I know that that's not really the problem. I can be as happy with a piece as I think I'm going to get and still not want to show it to anyone. I can read back something I've written and think "Yeah, this one is good!" And still keep it to myself. Just because.

I’ve thought about this a fair amount now, because it’s an issue I’ve had for a while. And by ‘a while’ I mean years. Apart from the stuff I've had to share at uni, I don’t remember sharing very much of my own writing with anyone since I was about fifteen or sixteen.

And the conclusion I have come to is that the best way to get over this is to lay out everything I’ve done and see how people react. Truthfully, I don’t especially expect people to react much at all. 

But I think that the act of doing it will be nonetheless therapeutic. I might learn something about myself. I might actually get some responses from people. If anyone actually reads this. I probably won't. But at the very least I’ll feel productive while I’m doing it and proactive for a short time afterwards. And having it out there will, I hope, do something to reinforce what I'm supposed to be doing.

I’m going to try to put this as chronologically as I can. But I don’t know how well I’ll do.

I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t want to be a writer for a living. Like all kids, I occasionally decided I’d rather be astronaut, but writing was the rock to which I always clung when there was nothing else.

Books were always my thing. I don’t remember it personally, but my dad loves telling the story of how he took me to Toys R Us and said I could pick any toy I wanted. And I picked a book. He says he was so proud. (Cue daddy issues theory about why this stuck with me. I won’t argue that that isn’t a possibility. But I don't especially care either. If I love something, I'd like to be left in peace to love it, no matter what the root of it.)

Lots of people read stories to me. I got a bedtime story every night. There were stacks of books at my house and both grandparents' houses that I read during the day.

I learned to read by myself at a really young age. My mum was a child carer when I was young, so we had loads of proactive learning toys in the house for when other children came round. Things in my house were labelled so I could read what they were. My mum practiced teaching on me with educational toys and games. Words came easily to me.

When I was a really little kid, I’d carry around a notebook with me and write stories in it. I still do. Except, now, it’s more likely to have To Do lists and article ideas in than actual stories. Sometimes that's because I type them up directly on my laptop. But often it's not. I remember being very young – in the Four Plus, or Year One, at a really early stage of my education – and writing a story about Tom and Jerry in my brand new notebook while the other kids in my class had playtime. It was what I enjoyed doing.

Back then, when my huge handwriting took up most of the page, the stories I wrote were awful rehashes of other stories I’d been told. Obviously. I was five. I’m not going to pretend I was some kind of original genius.

Whenever I slept at my nan’s house, she would always tell me a story about a group of little girls who all conveniently had the same names as me and my cousins. It was the same story every time. We – they – went wandering in the forest, came across a cottage, found some kittens and lived happily ever after with our new pet kittens. Not a great story arc, but I must have written it out a dozen times in various forms before I could come up with anything of my own.

After school, there were always tons of other kids in my house because of my childminder mum. I remember very vividly that we’d make picture books. We’d have a piece of coloured card for the front cover which we could draw a picture on and we’d make up the pages ourselves. A big picture on each one and a story or a description or something underneath. Then they’d all get stapled together and then we had a book by us. I remember enjoying that.

I was about three when my dad went to university. I used to try to help him. Another story he tells that I have no recollection of is the time when I stole one of his Business Studies course books. I read it cover to cover in front of him. I wanted to prove that I could help him to convince him to stop kicking me out of the study. Even though my contributions were basically just to sit on his lap and mash the keyboard.

Eventually, the only way he could get me to leave him alone was to get me my own computer. Well, to start with, it was a keyboard with a floppy disc drive plugged into a TV and a joystick. But it was fine. It had a Noddy game on it and a keyboard I could mash.

When he got a new computer for himself, I got his old one. I had his hand-me-down computers practically until I left for uni. By that point, I had grown out of Noddy, but this one had a new game.

Microsoft Word.

Yeah, I was that kid.

I no longer needed the endless supply of notebooks. I had unlimited paper now. And I wrote my stories on my computer. Every day. I’d come home from school and I’d read or write for most of the evening. Even when I played video games, I had my notebook and my reading book right next to me and I’d grab them at every save point and cut scene that took longer than five seconds.

I remember having friends round to my house and not wanting to show them any of my actual toys because Word was better. For me. Sometimes, they agreed. I remember spending afternoons with the kids I got on with best just writing stories together.

I’d write all the time. I’d write stories and print them off and give them to people for their birthdays. I'd write stories and show them to my parents and grandparents and friends and cousins just for the hell of it. I’d write stories and forget about them. I don’t remember much of what I wrote because so much of it has blurred into the white noise of generic memory since I’ve grown up. I was young and immature enough that it probably doesn’t really matter.

Every weekend, I'd go to my paternal grandparents' house and play with my cousins. And for a long time, we'd spend that day writing a play. By which I mean, I'd spend that day writing a play and then in the evening my cousins and I would perform it for our Nan and parents. I remember that being a lot of fun. For me. I don't think my cousins enjoyed it as much, especially not as they got older. That stopped altogether when they became teenagers and started having their own lives. My younger cousins never put up with my bossing them around like that.

When I was twelve, my nan collected coupons from the Daily Mail (forgive her, she bakes great cakes) and when she had enough, they would publish my book.

So I had to write a book.

I hadn’t ever committed to anything that big before. I’d always wanted to write books, but I’d never finished anything of that length. If anything ever got longer than a few pages, I tended to let it trail out to nothing. I had so much that was unfinished. I had never really planned anything properly.

I still didn’t plan anything properly. I had very little concept of sitting down and planning each point and knowing what was going to happen next. I didn't even know how long a story was going to be when I started writing it. I had no idea how many words made up a book or how many pages on a Word document made up a decent amount of book-sized pages. I sort of assumed that once something was done, I'd just know and it'd probably be long enough that it mattered. I hadn't ever been exposed to any writers who had gone through the writing process, so I made a lot of childish assumptions. I might have thought to Google it, back when it was the only real interest I had, but I wasn't allowed the Internet for a stupidly long time. (Which I maintain is silly because, even now, in total control of my own Internet and with no restrictions on it whatsoever, I still very rarely come across perverts or porn.)

Then, I liked to go on an adventure with what I was writing. I wanted writing to feel like reading.

For anyone who doesn’t know, this is literally the worst attitude to have if you want to be a half way decent writer. I became aware of this not long after that first abysmal book attempt and I understand it a hell of a lot better now. But as a writer you have to know every single tiny detail of your story world, even if it's completely irrelevant to the story you're telling, even if the reader will never know.

Obviously, my writing was hollow and had no idea what it was doing. For a twelve year old, it wasn’t bad, I suppose. If I looked at any twelve year old now and someone told me they’d written a seventy thousand word manuscript, no matter how much it sucked, I’d be impressed

But because it was me, clearly I was a terrible child and should have put more effort in. That’s just how internal critics work.

At least, it’s how mine does.

Trying to think clearly, I believe I'm stuck somewhere between being way too harsh on myself and hugely underestimating the skills of many twelve-year-olds. I don't know much about twelve-year-olds now that I'm not one.

I cringe when I think of that book. I know it's irrational, but I don’t like the fact that it’s there, a testament to how clumsy and clunky and unorganised my writing used to be. When I was twelve. When I was literally a child. When I was barely into double figures and couldn't spell a lot of long words, despite desperately wanting to be able to use them.

My point is, I got it done. 

I didn’t plan it. I made the whole thing up as I went along. I hadn’t got out of the habit of including all my friends in the story. But at least this time, they were characters, not just plagiarised directly from real life. My editing was half-arsed at best. Most of it was completely unedited – I just scrolled through the pages not reading a single word, thinking “eh, it’s probably fine. All this bit is fine.”

But I spent all day every day on it. I filled my notebooks with it. I got home and locked myself away from everyone and typed up what was in the notebooks and wrote more and more and more until the sound of my keyboard was keeping my parents awake. It helped having a deadline to stick to – the submissions only lasted so long and then coupon offer closed. And I was determined to get my book published.

And I did. It was called The Black Dragon. There are four copies of it in the world. I think my mum has one. My nan has one, displayed in the same cabinet as my dad's dissertation. She hasn't read it all the way through. My dad has one framed above his fireplace in a circle of photos of me and my siblings and cousins. I sent the last one to my friend Heidi, who had a dragon named after her, who had moved to France just after I started it.

My dad was impressed with it. Sort of.

He pointed out the typos to everyone. But I also overheard him telling someone that he couldn't have done it and that he thought it was brilliant that I’d decided to write it from the perspective of the dragon. As if it had been a conscious decision that I'd put loads of thought into.

After that, I decided I would not write anything shorter than that. If I’d done it once, I could do it again. And I didn’t see the point in writing anything less. It didn’t get attention. People didn’t care about anything less.

(Despite having cleaned out three Bedfordshire libraries, in all of my obsessive personal reading, I’d never really come across anything that took short stories seriously as a literary genre. I didn’t properly until I reached university. Now, I think they’re cool. They’re fun, and Neil Gaiman’s Trigger Warning was all kinds of beautiful. But … deep down, it’s still books that does it for me. I think it probably always will be.)

So that’s what I did.

I continued to suck at writing long fiction. I got naturally better just because I was doing it more often. The same way you improve at anything. And because I read a lot. But generally, I still made all the mistakes you’d expect someone with no advanced technical training to make.

English teachers loved me. I got top marks in every English class I was ever in. I was dedicated and, when I was asked to write a story, I handed in twenty pages the next day. I got top marks the whole time.

And in my spare time, I was at home writing books. Vague, unplanned, weird books based on passing fancies and Adam Ant lyrics. But they were words on a page the length of your average book and that was what counted as far as I was concerned at the time.

Since that first one, I finished five more. I still have the manuscripts. Saved on the first computer I wrote them on, and every computer I've had since, and every memory stick I used to transfer them over. As clunky and hideous as they are.

They didn’t get published by the Daily Mail. Thankfully.

But my dad did decided to self-publish them on He wanted to get a real copy of them each for himself. At first, I let him. He has the stack of them at home. I think they’re still available online, if anyone really wants to see. Even if I would rather you didn't. I’ve wanted him to take them down for a while, but we haven’t spoken about them much. I updated them once with a re-edit. They got next to no attention, and I'm quite pleased with that.

I’ve flicked through the bound copies at my dad's house more recently and, objectively, they’re not that bad. For a child. I’ve seen published writers make some of the same technical mistakes and typos. And they’re not uninteresting. As far as children's ideas go.

But there’s just a giant part of me that thinks I can do better. And it won’t listen to the part of me that says it doesn’t matter because it happened so long ago. Because people will know I did it years ago and not consider it representative of what I do now. And yet I still judge.

While I never stopped writing, I became more critical of myself – more like I am now – I haven’t finished anything that length since I was about sixteen.

I remember starting something when I was seventeen. And when the circle of friends who inspired it fell apart, I gave up on it. I started something the summer before I left for university when I was eighteen. And in the first few months of my Creative Writing course, I listened to everything they said about technical skills and planning and ambition and I think I panicked because I gave up on that one a few weeks into my first semester.

Even though it was the most planned thing I’d ever done.

I decided I’d go back to it later and started on a new project.

I never went back to it.

I told myself that, if I was going to take this seriously, I needed to be doing a lot more, with more structure behind it. I gave myself a personal target of 5000 words per week outside of my school work. And I hit it. Every week. They weren’t necessarily good words. But that’s what editing is for. I felt alright with that because we were told over and over again at uni that editing can perhaps be more important to the final product than the actual writing of it.

Sometimes, I’d knock the 5000 words out in a night. Sometimes, I wouldn’t. I'd struggle through those 5000 words a couple of sentences at a time. But I’d always be there by the end of the week.

And then I gave up on that project too. I lost faith in the plan. Probably with good reason. It was kind of rushed. Based on a vague idea. I could have finished it and gone through with it and edited the hell out of it and maybe got it some attention. But I don’t think it would be the kind of attention that would be ideal. Even if it was the kind of attention I might have wanted, for a bit.

It was about then that I decided I wouldn’t bother to write anything that didn’t have some kind of deeper meaning to it. I didn’t want to preach, or anything like that. I didn’t want to tell anyone how to live their lives or what to do.

But I still read so much that most of the books I consume blur away into a grey fuzz unless they really stand out. There are few that are still vivid to me despite not having read them for years. Some for a good reason, some for a bad reason. But at least they stood out.

I wanted to write the things that stood out. The things that make people feel something. I wanted to write the kind of books that you had to calm down after.

So I stopped churning out words. I had started making plans, but they weren’t great plans. They were still quite vague and I hadn’t put much thought into representation or overarching metaphor or even emotion very much. I just had a sort of cool story that I hoped would still be cool if I expanded on it.

And now that I was doing it properly, that wasn’t enough for me. I could’ve tossed out a Fifty Shades rip off if I wanted to. I know a hell of a lot more about BDSM than Erica James, I can promise that. But I didn’t want to.

I wanted to be so much better than that. I still do.

But I felt a bit out of depth with my planning.

So I focussed on other things. I wrote some short stories, some for uni, some for myself. I didn’t really do much about them. They were for me to practice. I think I did okay. I still like some of them, which is about the most I can hope for right now. I wrote and produced a bunch of short films. I’ve blogged about them before. Some of them went really well. Only one of them went really tits-up. And we’ve made our peace with that one. I tried poetry (I got really into Phil Kaye) but I don’t think I did it all that well. I don’t think I’ll go back to it too much. I wrote a comedy set for a module at university and that was brilliant. It was loads of fun. I have friends – friends who are comedians, in fact – who tell me I should do it again. But … I don’t know. Maybe it’s because it’s more effort going into something that wasn’t what I wanted to do long term. Maybe I’m just judging myself some more. I suspect it's more to do with being more comfortable doing it around other people who have only done it once. I don't really want to do it around people who are good enough at it that they're attempting a real career in it. I started this blog. For a while, I maintained it fairly solidly. Then it started overtaking my university work. And I relaxed for a bit. And then I got a bunch of part time jobs around university and this and I slacked a bit with it. But I’m hoping to get back to this more often now. I think I can manage that at least.

I wrote some articles in my first year of uni for a friend of a friend who was running a website. I stopped when it changed to vlog format. He started a new website shortly after I left uni, and now I get paid regularly to write seven articles a week for him. I enjoy that.

Writing for the site keeps me sharp, keeps me good at writing for deadlines, and gives me some sense of hope that I still might be a proper writer one day. One that doesn't need a day job. Theatrical sigh.

And it’s nice to be able to say that I get paid for my writing. Even if it’s not a lot. It feels nice. And hopefully it looks good on my CV. And James promises to be an excellent reference if I apply for any writing jobs.

I have half a plan left over from my Novel Writing module in my third year of university. Sometimes, I decide I’m going to get back to that. I have some other ideas I’ve jotted down that I’d like to get on with. At some point.

I have a nine-to-five day job to pay the bills. That takes up a lot of my time. What with writing seven articles a week as well, I don’t find a lot of time for other writing, and I’m mentally drained more often than I’d like to be.

Or maybe I’m still just scared. And I just tell myself I’m exhausted and busy. Because the part of me that has judged me really harshly before is now more afraid than ever because I don’t have a tutor there to tell me specifically and objectively what I’m doing wrong.

As if any of my old teachers wouldn’t reply if I emailed them.

I know that I have a huge problem with the publishing industry in itself and I won't pretend that that isn't holding me back. I don't like how driven by money it is. I have the same problem with film and music and I go out of my way to back Kickstarter projects and listen to new stuff on Soundcloud because I don't believe that what makes the most money is what is definitely the best. And the writing industry is the same. It's why clickbait articles exist. Because writing that is all style and no substance appeals to the lowest common denominator makes money. And so it gets the most funding and marketing by the agencies that profit off it. Learning about the publishing industry in university, about how they market you and about how they decide what they can do with you and about the sacrifices you have to be willing to make if anyone is going to take you on, put me off getting involved in altogether.

I've looked into self publishing and I don't like it. It has too much of a negative reputation attached to it. Too many people self-publish truly shitty stories that it's not worth trawling through it all to find the stuff that might be good. And I am desperately sorry that I feel that way, but I do.

I've thought about generating an online presence - being active on Twitter and blogging a lot and maybe throwing some stories around and hoping that people will start recognising my name. From every angle, it seems that that's going to be the best way to go about this. To gather a bit of a following and then maybe get an Unbound book going and hope that I'm popular enough that people will fund it. And there isn't a reason I haven't put more effort into that. Into keeping up this blog and sharing stories in different places. Into actually telling people I still write sometimes.

Not unless it's just this self-critical sense of it all being so scary and impossible. I was in a big London Foyles recently and I wandered through five floors of books. And I love going to huge, flagship bookshops and seeing all the literature and getting excited by all the words I can have.

And now that everything is starting to feel all real, like I have to be a proper grown up now and that there's no more chance to put this off, it's daunting. Seeing bookshops with five storeys of literature and knowing that I have to compete with that after I've got the attention of a publisher. It's exhausting just thinking about it.

But there.

There is my purge. And it is going where people can see it.

I need people to. When I was started the Novel Writing module in my third year, the first thing we were asked as a group was if anyone had completed anything that was novel length, even if it sucked. By someone who I knew to be lovely and supportive and honest and who I knew at the time would've been impressed by that, but would be disappointed now knowing that I didn't say that.

No one else in the class raised their hands. So nor did I.

And I didn't even make an excuse to myself for why I didn't want to.

At that point, I’d been regularly posting to this blog for a year. I’d been sharing my fiction with my teachers and classmates more than I had in years and I was getting consistent Firsts and generally pleasant feedback on basically everything I wrote. And I still didn’t want to share the things that I used to do, even though they were things that I’d tell anyone else to be proud of.

So I needed this. So that you can tell me I’m judging myself too harshly and that I achieved more than most teenagers do and that all I have to do is stick with it. Because that is the obvious response to something like this

What I needed was to put this where everyone can see it. Because I have friends that already know this, and they tell me to be proud of it and to tell everyone. And even though I respect and value their opinion more than most other people, I still don't do it. If it's out there already for people to find and know and challenge me with, then I have no excuse. But I have to be the one to make that decision.
Whatever happens next, writing this has been nice. I feel alright about things. I am aware that in places, I seem terribly self-deprecating and miserable about it all. But I actually don’t feel bad at all. Surprisingly. I was sure I’d feel more trepidation about publishing this where I know people are going to see this. Maybe it's because I don't actually expect anyone to look at it. I definitely don't expect anyone to read to the end.

But I’ve got this strange feeling that it’s about time.

Failing all else, I just wrote more than 3500 words in less than three hours. And that’s got to count for something.

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