On (not) being a writer by Rosalie Warren

Apropos of nothing really... just love the autumn leaves.

Alan Bennett on Radio 4 yesterday (31/10/16): ‘If you’re not writing, you’re not a writer.’ The interviewer asked him whether he was currently writing anything and Mr Bennett replied coyly, with (mock?) shame and in his lovely Leeds accent, ‘No-o...’

Hmm. Of course, it all hinges on how frequently you need to write in order to call yourself a writer. Small breaks are acceptable, I’m sure. I’m also sure that Alan Bennett will deserve to go on being called a writer, however long a break he chooses to take, but for us lesser mortals it’s a pertinent question. 

It’s a while since I wrote anything, other than editorial reports, emails, shopping lists and all those reminder scribbles that become more and more essential as the years go by. These days I make a list of ‘topics’ before speaking to my children on Skype. They think it’s funny. I used to think it was funny, too, when my mother made a list before speaking on the phone. I haven’t quite got to the stage of writing down my children’s names before I call them, but it may one day happen. 

But back to writing fiction, which is what I really mean by writing. This time last year I did NaNoWriMo for the first time and was delighted when I managed to achieve my target word count of 50,000 by the end of the month. Of course, the result was far from being a finished novel, and would need a good deal of rewriting, filling out and editing before being ready to show to anyone else. Sadly, it remains on my computer, dated 30/11/15, and I’ve not even looked at it since. What was supposed to be a three-month fallow period has somehow turned into a whole year. That wouldn’t be so bad if I’d been working on other books in the meantime, but apart from a few abortive attempts to start something new, I haven’t.

One reason is a health scare I had back in January. All turned out to be OK, or at least there was no major problem, thank goodness, but I’ve been left with a number of irritating symptoms and rather a lot of anxiety, which is taking a long time to go away. I have managed to keep going with my editing and proofreading, though I haven’t done a lot in the way of marketing so my workload has not been high. I’m only really now getting back to ‘normal’ in many aspects of everyday life. It’s easy to turn such things into excuses, but I think this is at least part of the reason for my lack of writing.

Am I missing it? Well, yes. When I don’t write, I feel only half alive. Reading helps, but it’s not enough. I read quickly and get through a lot of books. When I’m in the middle of an exceptional one I can almost forget I’m not writing*, but books that have this effect are few and far between, and because I read so quickly the experience is soon over. I really do need to write.

For years I had glib answers to the problem of writer’s block. Sit down at your desk every morning at 9 a.m. (or some other regular time) and the Muse will know where to find you, I used to say. Or: ‘Never mind the quality, just make sure you write your quota of words each day.’ ‘Turn off the internal editor while you write your first draft.’ All this is good advice for many writers, much of the time – but somehow it just doesn’t cut it anymore for me. I can sit down and produce the words, but I don’t have any faith in them. There’s no sense I’m going anywhere – no desire to find out what happens next. It feels as if I’m reading a bad book instead of a good one. I’ve truly lost my oomph.

I’ve also tried, on several people’s wise advice, to give myself permission not to write for a while. Maybe I need to give it a bit longer. Perhaps inspiration is waiting somewhere down the line. After all, if I don’t get back to writing, what will I do? True, I have my editing, which is very satisfying in its way. There are always things to do around the house (groan...) and I suppose I could do more in the garden. I could find some voluntary work to do, I could take more exercise, spend more time with family and friends, find a new hobby, go to more plays and concerts, travel more (expensive, though)… but I know full well that if I don’t write there’ll always be something missing. So I really hope the Muse will find me once again.

I’ve bought a hardback notebook and I’m going to write in it, one page a day. A kind of diary, not my own but that of an imaginary friend of a similar age to me but with a different personality and life. She is going to write her journal, a page a day. Perhaps not even a page. An entry every day, on a new page. For a whole year. I hope to get to know her in that time. What will happen after that, I do not know. It's the best I can do and I hope it's better than nothing. I’ll keep you posted.

Daisy, my granddaughter, happily being creative. No worries about writer's or artist's block for her! (Photo by Gemma Glasbey, Oct 2016)

Best wishes,

*I'm currently reading Etched On Me by Jenn Crowell, which is one of those exceptional books. If more books had this effect on me, I'm not sure I would need to write at all. Highly recommended.

Follow me on Twitter @Ros_Warren


Umberto Tosi said…
You go, Ros! This candid post certainly counts as writing too! Oh my, yes, I can relate to these experiences as a writer with roller-coaster productivity curves. Actually, being writers, everything we do tends to be a form of writing, telling ourselves stories whether or not we happen to be writing them down. Thank you for a resonant post. Keep at it, whatever you're doing. As the I Ching counsels, perseverance prospers!
madwippitt said…
Health issues, whether yours or those of your nearest and dearest can really make it hard to get back on track again ... hope your annoying ongoing symptom go away, and will be interesting to hear about how your journal-keeping alter-ego turns out - do keep us posted.
On a slightly different tack, I have been trying to contact you but nothing seems to be getting through and leaving a message here is now the last resort - please can you contact me on the AE private FB page please (I'm Karen in real life!)
Rosalie Warren said…
Thanks, Umberto, and thanks, Madwippitt, for the encouragement and good wishes. Madwippitt/Karen, I can't seem to get on to the private AE page at present - maybe I am not in the group anymore, since I left AE and rejoined a few months ago? Will have to investigate this. Anyway, sorry you've had trouble contacting me. I've sent you a friend request on FB, and you should be able to reach me at roscov100 @ yahoo. co. uk
Jenny Alexander said…
Hi Ros - thank you for this post. I'm still in my longest ever hiatus between writing projects - one whole year, since my mother's death. I'm doing exactly what you seem to be - focusing my energies on the aspects of my working life that I can do - teaching workshops, reissuing o/p books etc - until the muse comes back. I'm definitely on the side of be patient, don't panic, when it comes to these creative gaps - mostly because I'm quite a pragmatic person, and that seems a more efficient way of dealing with it than trying to force things. Some kind of deep adjustments are going on, which will enable fresh energy and purpose in the fulness of time. And of course we're writers when we aren't writing - it's our way of being in the world xx
Rosalie Warren said…
Jenny, thanks. That all sounds very organised and sensible - much more so than me! And I love your comment about the deep adjustments going on - that's a helpful way to think about it. Wishing you lots of luck xx
Enid Richemont said…
You did a splendid job of editing my adult novel "COUNTERPOINT", Ros,several months ago, and I think that does count as writing, or writing-related. I see that no one has mentioned the adrenalin associated with a publishing deal, especially if you've become accustomed to getting one, and then, slowly, nobody seems to care.That's been the killer for me until, recently, and totally unexpectedly,there was film interest in a very early book of mine, which meant developing a screenplay I'd written eight years ago, sent off a few days ago, so I'm now suffering from post-natal depression and complete lack of confidence too, having belatedly now read a couple of serious books on developing plot for film, and structure etc.

As to whether you're a writer, just try this test (I, unfortunately have). Put some apples, sultanas, cinnamon, sugar etc in a small pan on a low heat, then go into your back room to check on emails etc including Authors Electric. Respond at length to an interesting post (this one) then begin to detect a slight burning caramel odour...aaargh! Yes I think I must be a writer.
Enid Richemont said…
PS Oh that Daisy!!!
Rosalie Warren said…
Haha, Enid - love the apple/raisins/cinnamon test :-)

And yes, the adrenalin thing, definitely. In fact part of my problem is the rejection I had from my publishers, over four years ago now but still festering.

Hope you hear soon about your screenplay and that they love it. I bet you did a great job. Reading those structure books earlier would not necessarily have helped. Sometimes instinct is a better guide, and I know for starters that that particular book of yours will make a brilliant film, which I look forward to taking Daisy to see :-)
Unknown said…
Hi Ros,

You know I think you're an amazing editor, but I've recently had the pleasure of reading some of your published short stories, all of which are brilliantly observed, funny and wonderfully written. I hope you won't let previous rejection, or lack of progress hold you back, or stop you from starting anew. You're still a writer whether you're writing a novel, blogging, keeping a journal or dreaming up a new storyline in your head. All writers go through dry spells, periods of self-doubt or need some time-out to gain a fresh perspective. To be honest, I've been struggling a bit myself lately to find my creative muse. A combination of ill health, noisy building work, and the pressure of a self-imposed deadline have slowed my writing to a snail's pace. I try to stick to a regular writing routine as much as time allows. Sometimes life throws a spanner in the works, other times it's my demons holding me back, but I try to remind myself that every word, no matter how small is taking me that bit closer towards my goal (hopefully not posthumously, like Van Gogh). Whenever I feel like walking away from my WIP, there's a Bruce Lee quote that helps me to stay the course. "There are no limits. There are plateaus, but you must not stay there, you must go beyond them." I hope the issues you've had with your health will begin to improve soon, or at least become manageable for you. Best of luck with the journal. You never know, perhaps spending a year in the head of your imaginary character might just inspire a new story
Rosalie Warren said…
Wendy, thank you so much for those kind and encouraging words. I'm sorry you've been having writing struggles yourself recently. I like that Bruce Lee quote. Hope things get better for you - that the building noise will soon abate and your health improve. I love your work, as you know, and believe it deserves a much wider audience. Fingers tightly crossed for you, and thanks again x

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