Why not being a writer is good for writers

I’ve follow Amie McNee for a while on Instagram and read her latest blog post dealing with that awful question for aspiring writers: “But what’s your real job?”

This got me thinking (and I never know where I fall on this debate so I thought for a long time!)

I find answering this question so awkward that I always say I’m a PR man who does creative writing as a hobby. So first of all: well done Amie and everyone else who proudly says “I am a writer!” It takes guts.

But there are things I don’t quite agree with – and I don’t think it’s just me being pedantic (though that has been known).

First off all a ‘job’ is whatever pays your bills, so if you ain’t getting at least some cashflow from writing, then writing ain’t your job. It can be your passion, your goal, hell even your life purpose (all of which are more meaningful than just a job) but it can’t be your job.

Secondly, just as we should be proud as writers, we shouldn’t be ashamed of our jobs. Loads of aspiring, and even successful, writers have jobs as teachers or PRs or freelancers or lawyers or whatever. If you’re in denial about the fact you’re not a full-time paid writer, then that’s not healthy.

Thirdly (and this is where my title makes sense) I think there’s a way of solving the writer-job conflict. I think we’ve got to embrace our shitty time-consuming jobs which take us away from our real passion. That’s right, cherish all of those frustrating emails and long meetings and 7-hours-a-day spent away from your novel.

I’m not just being facetious here. I genuinely think there’s merit in having a separate work life: it’s full of writerly material like characters and situations you don’t get elsewhere; it connects you to a different world in which your priorities don’t matter; its humbling; it forces you to analyse yourself and your environment.

For me, one of the worse sins that full-time writers commit is writing a novel about writers and writing. JK Rowling does it with Cormorant Strike investigating the publishing world. Richard Yates does it in Young Hearts Crying. Even Philip Roth is guilty.

These are the books in which you have a character or narrator who is a novelist or poet and they spend their time writing and thinking about writing. And it’s all because the real writer has nothing else to talk about. Professional writers have no material as compelling, no passion or drive as vital, as those of us who spend our time at some other job.

So I think we should use our jobs for our own purpose. To mine material, to make us more determined and focused. That’s what some great work-based novels do, like Heller’s Something Happened and Yates’ Revolutionary Road.

That’s why for me, not being a writer is one of the best things for my writing.

New things I like

I work in PR and marketing, so I always keep my eyes and ears open for cool new things.

I noticed two TV ads recently which I thought were really unexpected and impactful.

One is by Nationwide and is a series featuring spoken-word poets “talking about what’s important to them” – I particularly liked the delivery of Hollie McNish’s poem ‘Little Things’.

The other is by TalkTalk, and is essentially a mini fly-on-the-wall documentary of a regular family in their house, called ‘This Stuff Matters’.

I was wondering what stood out about these ads.

I guess one thing is personal preference: I like spoken-word poetry, and I like subtle and low-key advertising, so both of these naturally would appeal to me.

But I was also thinking that every type of media—TV, newspaper, radio, online, social, etc—has its own set of rules and expectations. It’s similar to films and novels, where each genre has its own tropes, like the happy ending in a rom-com or the obligatory action-film car chase.

If brands are aware of these expectations, they can cleverly subvert them and stand out.

The tropes that I expect from a TV ad are things like: sleek production quality, emotive music, professional voiceover, attractive product shots, maybe some story-telling with a character and plot.

So I like these two ads because they both subvert those expectations. They use the tropes of different media like documentary and poetry, and they draw on these different qualities, using them in a big broadcast channel.

I think this is better for the brand and the customer, to be honest. At least it prevents us from living in some homogenous environment where the media we consume all live up to our expectations.


A poem for the writers, on National Poetry Day

Here’s a poem I wrote a few months ago, just for the hell of it. I found it hiding in notebook just now.

Happy National Poetry Day!

The writer

The writer is an accomplished child-minder,
decorator, gardener, husband, father,
amateur footballer, barista, shopper,
cleaner, driver, office worker and cook.

The writer’s time is not his own,
but borrowed by family and friends.
The writer’s mind is not his alone,
but taken by chores, to-do lists and debts.
The writer is a busy island.

Then the writer creates another world for himself.
Takes a pen and carves time in his making.
The movement of his hands describes new lands.
When the house is quiet, when the streets are dark,
by the light of the desk lamp, the writer writes and writes.

Why I stopped blogging and started journalling . . . and why I’m now doing both

The problem with blogging

I’ve blogged on and off for a few years.

I used to write a blog called Really Practical Criticism, where I did “close readings of modern life” (that was 2011-12). And then more recently I just wrote updates on my minor successes as an aspiring writer, like when I got published in a magazine or something (around 2013-14).

Then I just stopped. To be honest, I didn’t really see the point in blogging: it takes a long time, a lot of effort to maintain, and not many people were reading what I was writing.

The fact is, in a blog you write for an audience, and not only do you edit and revise your work to interest or impress them, you also self-censor before you even start writing. Personally I ended up double-guessing and overthinking. Instead of using it as a way to exercise my creativity in a relaxed way, I would end up asking myself: what should I write about, what would interest people, how can I make this more interesting, etc, etc?

It wasn’t that I didn’t have any ideas; I had tonnes of thoughts and I also had the desire to say things honestly and clearly, but didn’t feel comfortable expressing them through this medium.

The benefits of journalling

So this time last year (Sunday 2nd August 2015 to be precise) I started writing a journal instead.

I didn’t set out to journal, it just started naturally. I happened to be travelling on a long train journey for work, and had a notebook and pen on me. I was annoyed about not being able to find enough time to write my novel, and so I basically scribbled down a long rant about it.

Then over the following weeks I wrote my thoughts about books and magazines I was reading, kind of like ‘literary criticism lite’. I also wrote about my novel: trying to articulate the plot and characters, or just venting the troubles I was having with it.

Within a year, I have filled five notebooks with thoughts on books, writing, relationships, work, life, basically whatever interests me at that time.

Writing a private journal solves all of the problems that I had with blogging: there’s no self-censorship, no audience, just my own small thoughts. I write whenever I want – sometimes with a fortnight gap, and then sometimes twice in one day. It’s inspiration-based.

If you haven’t tried it, I would seriously recommend it. Just pick up a pen and paper and write whatever comes into your head. You’ll be amazed what you end up writing, and the act of articulating your priorities and problems will help you understand them better too.

The problems with journalling

As you might have guessed, my decision to start journalling came out of a bigger desire to become more self-aware. At the same time, I was lucky enough to get onto a development course at work, which meant I had my own coach and mentor who were posing loads of intriguing questions to me. So most of my thinking during the past year was focused on how I could understand and improve myself. If you’d asked me at any point what the key to life was, I’d say self-awareness. And journalling was a key part of my self-awareness.

But then I started having my doubts. This summer I happened to be reading The Sportswriter by Richard Ford: it’s a great book, but the narrator is a frustrating guy. He is passive, non-committal, numb and cynical – everything that I was trying to avoid being.

But then I started to understand his philosophy. What he’s critical of is people who take a reductionist approach to life, especially writers and teachers. He talks a lot about when he was “seeing around”, by which he means being distanced from his own feelings and trying to analyse and objectify them. The better alternative is actually to be “fully in your emotions, when they are simple enough to be in” and to “relinquish and stop worrying”.

All of this got me thinking: is journalling actually the right thing to do? I had been labouring under the impression that my attempts were well-guided and noble, but what if they weren’t? What if in reality I was just feeding and fuelling my neurotic desire to be in control of situations, to analyse ‘objectively’, to create my own private forum in which I was always right—when in reality I would be better off trying to live authentically and “be in” my feelings rather than “seeing around” them?

What next?

This is all a long way of saying that writing in a journal is great, but it’s not everything. In many ways, being introspective means being isolated. Explaining means explaining away. And that thinking you’re self-aware shows a real lack of self-awareness.

And in many ways, I missed having that dialogue with the outside world. Maybe instead of marshalling my thoughts on private things, I could be blogging ideas about media and copywriting and design and other things that interest me. If form determines content, teh medium of blogging would make space for new ideas. (It might also make me a more light-hearted person, lol.)

So now that I am going back to agency life professionally, I want to be more extroverted and outgoing in my writing – and intend to start blogging more regularly, as well as journalling whenever the inspiration takes me.

Do you journal and/or blog? What do you think?

I finished my novel! (Well, the first draft)

I’m very happy and relieved to say that I finally finished the first draft of my novel today!

That’s right. After a false start in 2014 and then about year of concerted concentration, my novel English Interiors has now got a beginning, a middle and an end. So I decided to celebrate by printing it all out in this big wad of literary loveliness.

img_0016 Excellent news, I know. Thanks very much. You’re too kind.

Now I know there are tonnes of problems with it which I need to sort out, including the fact that characters’ names and personalities change throughout (or they just disappear entirely), and there are pages and pages of longueurs, and the pivotal middle section is an incoherent mess.

I also need to ask myself some pretty fundamental questions like: is this one novel or a trilogy? It weighs in at 240,000 words (which is about 800–1000 pages) so I either need to cut it in half somehow, or split it into three.

In fact, I know that the second draft is probably going to be longer and harder than this one – next I need to figure out what it’s actually about, how it all fits together, how to cut out extraneous scenes and how to make the language sing.

But for now I’m just going to breathe and relax and enjoy the fact that my first draft exists.

Anyway – regardless of what happens in the future, this is the most rewarding thing I have done. Ever. (Maybe.) It’s the only thing in my life that I am completely responsible for, and that I can take all the credit for. I’m massively proud of the fact that I had a goal and stuck with it.

I hate cheesy quotes, but a few months back when I wanted to ditch the whole thing, one of them spurred me on:

You only fail if you don’t try, not if you don’t succeed.


Sketch-tober: my 30 day challenge

Longbenton station

Hi. So last month I watched a TED talk about 30 day challenges and decided to do one during October. The thinking is that you can do most things once a day for thirty days, and it’s a chance to try something new and develop skills.

So I’ve been doing a sketch every day for the past month (apparently October has 31 days. Who knew?!) hence the name Sketch-tober.

You can see more highlights of the challenge below…

Longbenton station
Longbenton station

I’ve always liked drawing, but have never been particularly good at it. And for the past few years I haven’t felt it worth my while to draw in my free time. But I wanted to see what I would come up with if I made myself draw something every day.

Overall it’s been a massively enjoyable adventure, for only 5-20 minutes a day. Looking back at what I’ve sketched, I’m pretty happy with my detailed pen drawings of buildings – as I’ve managed to get the proportions and lighting right.

In terms of the ‘woah’ moments – I found the drawings that I connected with most were the ones drawn completely from imagination. These ended up like deeply symbolic and metaphorical sketches which have shown me that I’m currently really interested in topics like surface/depth, the subconscious and the subtexts of situations.

What do you think? Have you done any 30-day challenges?

Just click on any picture to see the slideshow…

The two times I got paid for my writing

That’s right, paid! After writing free articles for free student newspapers, and free short stories for free magazines, and doing free interviews and reviews for free – in the past year I’ve been paid twice for writing something.

So now you know that it’s not a vicious rumour that writers can get paid. Ah, but nor is it some cash-filled nirvana where you and J. K. Rowling and Stephen King just sit around writing words as money kerchings into your pockets.

This is the reality of getting paid, or at least for me it was:

1. The first time I got paid for my writing was when I self-published my first novel, Banes of Boys and Girls, on Kindle and Nook. It was the summer of 2013: they were the hottest months on record, Rolf Harris was still a national hero, and beards were still cool. And into the swell I plopped my little homegrown handmade coming-of-age novel (which had been turned down by agents the previous summer). I didn’t expect it to earn me thousands, but here are the (depressing) maths…

My debut novel

I sold 114 units at either £1 or for free through Amazon’s promotions tool. Then minus fees by Amazon and Barnes & Noble of up to 70% per unit. Then I was left with… 

Total = £22.80

2. The second time I got paid for my writing was when I submitted an article to The Writer magazine. I had kept in touch with Cathryn Summerhayes at WME, one of the agents who I contacted with my novel (see above if you’ve forgotten already or are reading from the bottom of the page upwards – weirdo). And by “kept in touch” I mean “pestered with intermittent emails”. I asked Cathryn if I could interview her about being an agent and what she looks for in submissions. Short story: the interview happened, I submitted it all over the shop, and The Writer magazine picked it up.

Now here’s the good bit… When The Writer accepted the interview they sent me a freelancer contract which said I was getting paid $400 (something like £233) for it. I figured it was some sort of bizarre practical joke, but the piece went in print and I got paid. Needless to say I submitted another piece to them again.

Total = £233

The moral of the story is that you can get paid for writing. The other morals of the story are that you might not get paid as much as you want or need. And that the amount you get paid probably won’t match the effort you put into it. (Unless you think writing an interview is harder than a novel. Again – weirdo)

Have you been paid for writing anything recently/ever? What do you think? (No need to divulge bank details.)