The week before last I took part in #dearwritersautumn16 – a collective effort to write more and offer encouragement to other writers. It was organised by Éireann Lorsung, a writer and poet who runs MIEL publishing and Dickinson House in Belgium. This summer I had the pleasure of spending a lovely day at Dickinson House, writing and sewing and meeting its furry inhabitants.
For five days I, and 16 other writers, committed to check-in everyday on Twitter and/or Instagram and/or email and share our daily writing practice. I have to admit I only managed to keep up with checking-in for three days before other things got in the way. But I still kept up with my daily writing and I enjoyed seeing the other writer’s posts and reading their emails.
One #dearwriter, L’Abri, wrote us a letter at the end of the 5 days. In the letter she writes about spending a summer house sitting for a poet. These words have stayed with me:
Perhaps what was the most important for me was to wake up and go to sleep knowing it was ok to be a poet. The whole place said it was ok to be a poet and to live my life within that framework and to tend to that vocation.
I recognise that longing for a space where it is okay to be a writer. In many ways I think the process of becoming a writer has been about creating that space, that permission, for myself.
I have wanted to be a writer since I was seven years old. I remember realising that writing stories was a thing some people got to do as a job and deciding I’d like to do that too. I wrote my own stories, but I also copied out passages from books I liked (at that time mostly Jacqueline Wilson books). At nine I received my first diary as a Christmas present and a lifelong journaling habit began.
In high school I started writing poetry. I joined a band and started writing songs too (which were really poems). I wrote on a typewriter. I wanted to be like my heros: Tennessee Williams, Jack Kerouac and Albert Camus. I wanted to be a tortured genius. I expected writing to come pouring out of me. But all my brilliant ideas for novels sounded terrible after a few pages. I wondered if I was a writer after all. At night I scribbled in my diary. I wrote as though words were oxygen and I was drowning.
After four years of undergraduate study when I wrote very little and grew up quite a bit, I was searching around trying to decide what to study for a Master’s degree. I asked myself: what do I really want to do? What is it I have wanted to do since I was seven years old? Write, I want to write.
So I moved from one end of the country to the other (Scotland to Cornwall), from one small coastal town to another (St Andrews to Penryn). I studied nature and place writing with Andrew McNeillie and Sarah Moss and seven other writers and in that year I became a writer.
Each week we had to read a book and complete a short writing assignment based around the theme of the book. We would then share our work, read each other’s assignments and come together the following week for a feedback session. Some weeks inspiration failed to find me, but I had to submit something. I learnt not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Some weeks the bits people thought didn’t work were the ones I had liked the most. Kill your darlings. I learnt not to jump in and defend myself when people critiqued my work. I learnt to listen. I learnt that I might not be the best writer, but I’m probably not the worst. And in that space between genius and failure I sat down and wrote. I had a room of my own and all bets were off.
After I finished my MA I started writing this blog and found likeminded writers on Twitter. I found that there were people who liked my writing and this gave me encouragement to continue. I wrote essays. I even finished some of them. I had a handful of pieces published. I still had the feeling that I wasn’t writing enough, but at least I was writing more than I ever had before.
Two years ago I decided to launch into an ambitious project: to read my way through every book of urban nature writing ever written. The idea was to compile my list of books and blog about each book as I went along. But I hesitated. Isn’t this topic too obscure? It will never be commercially viable. And what authority do I have to go making pronouncements on urban nature writing? I’m not an expert. What if I write things that are so completely wrong I become a laughing stock? At least I thought highly of myself – as though anyone would care!
It took me many months to build up the courage to announce my plan to the world and many more months until I felt ready to publish my first blog post. The response was positive. People liked the project. I felt encouraged to continue.
I’m now a fifth of the way through. I still have moments of doubt. I still wonder whether I have the authority. I still wonder whether anyone will every care about this project. So I wake up at 6 am and I write for an hour. At 6 am the doubts haven’t had time to creep in. At 6 am everyone around me is sleeping, the streets are quiet and now, as autumn advances, I’m cacooned in darkness. This 6 am space says it is okay to be a writer.
In a recent article by George Saunders about his writing education and mentors he asks Why do we love our writing teachers so much? Why, years later, do we think of them with such gratitude? …
We say: I think I might be a writer.
They say: Good for you. Proceed.
#dearwriters, it’s okay to be a poet, it’s okay to be a writer. Let’s proceed.