I promised in my last post that I’d give a whole separate update about the utter mess that has been my status as a ‘creative’ person of late. Haha. Can’t help but laugh at that one, after 2021.
On paper, it was a decent year for my writing. But my actual creative headspace…
Yeah. Very different matter.
And I nearly packed the whole thing in.
So, bit of background. I’ve been attempting to write books for as long as I can remember. When I was about nine I got one of those kiddie ‘computers’; basically a keyboard you hooked up to a telly and could play games with. I never played said games – I found its simple little word-processing app, and set about writing a romantic epic about a woman at vet school falling in love with a man suspiciously similar to my favourite character from Casualty (please bear in mind I never make any claims of ever being cool). I filled the computer’s entire hard-drive (probably about 256KB, this was about 1998) and threw an epic tantrum when I realised I couldn’t keep going.
When I was about fifteen, I had a ‘Careers’ class every so often at school. All I can remember from this class was being instructed to write a timeline of my future life, as if I could manifest my future from a scrawled bit of paper in the school hall half an hour before home-time. I can still remember mine clearly, and it’s laughable. The things I wanted to do! I was never, ever going to stick to it (I mean, can you seriously picture me in the diplomatic corps – we’d have been in WWIII by 2011). I’ve never had a real plan of a career (I love the one I’ve fallen into but I did exactly that, fell into it by accident). But one thing from that timeline stuck in my head: I wanted to be a published author by the time I turned thirty.
Suddenly, after lots of Life getting in the way, my thirtieth birthday was hoving into view and despite a couple of false starts, I still hadn’t held a book in my hand that I had written myself. I’d been religiously doing NaNoWriMo every year, and had half-finished novels spilling out of my computer (no more filling hard-drives, thank you to modern technology). So I got down to business and just in time to make fifteen-year-old me proud, I self-published The Bean Jar.
Ever since, I’ve been buoyed by the feeling of being a published author, albeit self-published. I’ve spent the last couple of years throwing myself whole-heartedly into my old projects, writing and rewriting, getting mired in periods of writers’ block, and clawing myself back out of them. Feeling my own book in my hand and reading its reviews (not all from friends and family, which still amazes me) was like a proper spark: the feeling that if I wrote something better, something more refined, I’d be able to go down the traditional publishing route next time.
In 2021, after being burnt out through a lot of 2020 for obvious reasons, I had a sudden surge of writing energy. Within the space of a couple of months, I finished writing not one, but two novels. One, Heavy Metal Mama, is the project I started just before Covid hit, a semi-epistolary novel following an ex-groupie in her thirties (hmm, where could I have got that idea from?). The other, The Ten List, is a sprawling coming-of-age story following a metal fan in her early twenties on her Year Abroad (again, where could I possible source my inspiration?). I’d been writing The Ten List on and off since 2009, so finishing it in 2021 was like being hit with an emotional brick.
And after that? Nothing.
I’m pretty sure this was the worst period of writers’ block I’ve ever been through in my life. Both completed stories needed massive edits, and Heavy Metal Mama in particular needs a full rewrite after some of the characters have evolved and taken on a life of their own, for the better. All of a sudden, the weight of the work I’d given myself just seemed to crush me. I couldn’t read back anything I’d written without cringing; I couldn’t even think about it without mentally criticising every plot point, every character, every last piece of slightly dodgy sentence structure.
I came so close to just giving up. I hovered my mouse over the ‘Writing’ folder in my Dropbox and just wanted to press ‘delete’. I’d never amount to anything with it, I’d decided. What was the point in even keeping my half-baked, awful excuses for books?
Every couple of months, I take myself away from home for an overnight stay. Usually I go to Edinburgh or London, though lately with the terrible weather we’ve been having in the North East bringing the railway to a halt every other week, I’ve kept closer to home and done Newcastle and Durham more often too. The point is the same each time: lock myself in a hotel room overnight, preferably with a bottle of wine, and write until there’s steam coming out of my ears (there is footage somewhere on Instagram of me attempting to write a sex scene and swigging directly from the bottle in exasperation, it’s quite amusing).
Even in the worst of this writers’ block, I kept taking myself away in a vain attempt to spark some inspiration. Sometimes I’d manage to write a couple of hundred words, or at least pound out a train-of-thought in which I’d berate myself and curse everything I’d ever written. Sometimes, I’d just lie on the bed, drink my wine, watch Moulin Rouge for the 928th time and cry about how my brain must have shrivelled up into a dusty old husk. But eventually, something happened, when I was in an anonymously dull Travelodge in Newcastle not long before Christmas.
Inspiration didn’t quite hit me with the metaphorical brick. But in my locked-in, slightly wine-soaked solitude, my brain seemed to even itself out. No distractions, no pressure, no responsibilities. Without even thinking about it I could look at my writing folder again and I didn’t want to burn the whole thing to the ground. Almost at random, I clicked on a novel plan I’d started approximately three years ago. I didn’t connect enormously with the characters, back then, and I filed it away to be potentially written later.
And out of nowhere, I started to write it.
It was like when I have a period of insomnia: for weeks on end it seems like I’m never going to sleep well ever again, then all of a sudden I’m getting six hours sleep each night without doing anything much to induce it.
I’m writing again, and I’m writing properly. Ensconced in my favourite coffee shops (I have a great soft spot for Pink Lane Coffee in Newcastle and will regularly make the half-hour pilgrimage on the train just to sit in there with my laptop) I’m no longer just scribbling an angry train-of-thought in a notebook and whinging incoherently. I’m being disciplined. On each trip, I’ll spend my first flat white either editing The Ten List or wrestling with the Heavy Metal Mama rewrite, and then during flat white number two I’ll pound out a couple of thousand words of my new project.
Which brings me onto said new project. It was about three years ago when I had the urge to write something cheerful, maybe even a little whimsical. My other novels-in-progress all seem to come with a big side-helping of angst, usually in the form of the kind of unrequited or forbidden love that tries to pull your heart into pieces and leave you broken and sobbing on the floor. Despite in my personal life being about as romantically-inclined as a sledgehammer to the back of the head, I really fancied writing the kind of book that could conceivably grace supermarket shelves with a pastel-coloured cover. Maybe mint green. With some kind of flowery emblem and a definite happy ending. Glorious escapism.
That’s exactly the half-aborted project I came back to, in that Travelodge at the end of last year. I am writing a love story – probably terribly formulaic and cheesy beyond belief, but it’s so far proving fabulously therapeutic. Its working title is The Little Railway Playgroup, and it follows a single mum who has to move back to her childhood home in a quaint little village located somewhere towards the middle of nowhere. It’s got quirky village characters, grumpy railway staff, an elderly greyhound, hunky farmers, and enough sugary sweetness to make your teeth hurt – and it’s still only a few chapters long.
I am loving writing this story, can you tell?
So that’s where I am now with my writing. You might say I’ve had a breakthrough. And you’d be correct. My doubts and insecurities from last year are still there, bubbling up to the surface from time to time, but now I’m in a much better headspace to embrace them, let them peter themselves out, and get back on with things. Because the thing is, I am a writer. Insecurities or not, the urge to write, to twine words together into stories and give birth to ever-more weird characters, will always be in me. Maybe I won’t be the next Marian Keyes or Beth O’Leary; but I’ll always be writing. I’ll always be Jessica Leather, author, and that’s enough for me.