Tuesday, 22 June 2010

A Story About Stories



If you've been blogging for any length of time, you probably have "blog friends" - people you've never met, but who you know you'd be able to talk with for hours, if you ever end up in the same city/continent/hemisphere. Bells is one of those people - she lives in Australia, so I have no idea whether I ever will meet her, but I hope so one day. Today, she's kindly provided me out with a very touching post about her development as an aspiring writer.

A Story About Stories
by Bells of Bellsknits

I think I have wanted to be a writer all my life. I know I took writing stories pretty seriously as a child and was often praised for the results by my teachers. I loved the praise as much as I loved the making up of stories, so I kept going. I'm not sure I ever finished a lot of stories, apart from those I had to write for school, but there were always words around me, in the books I read, in the stories I started, and in the dreams I had for myself. I said that when I grew up I wanted to be many things - a teacher, a nurse, all those things that little girls say, but really I wanted to be a writer. Who knows where these things come from? I can only really guess at the motivations of a seven year old, from the distance of my thirties.

plum tree leaves after the storm

I have no idea when I started saying the words out loud, 'I want to be a writer' but I'm sure it started before I hit my teens. By then I was passionate about great writers - the Bronte sisters in particular - and those books kept me from entirely losing the plot during the long, very lonely high school years. It was a case of me and the books against the world.

The bullied, frightened child will always need somewhere to hide. The further I retreated into books and dreams, the more certain I became that writing would save me somehow from a miserable and isolated existence that was my life at high school.

Part of the problem with this beginning, of course, was the certainty that fame and fortune was the way to freedom, as far away as possible from small town high school and crippling loneliness. Years later, I would start to see that the dream of fame of fortune was ultimately immature and destructive, obscuring the actual desire to write.

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Fast forward a decade - to the mid 90s - and I was writing.

University was over and I was living in a large group house, discovering, in a wide eyed way, the wonders of life outside of my family home, the church and all that that entailed. I told anyone who would listen that I was a writer. And more to the point, I was really writing. Lots of people I knew wanted to be writers but as far as I could see, they weren't actually writing. I was working in dull temp jobs, trying desperately to delay entry into permanent employment because attaining that dream, literary fame and fortune, was just around the corner. The book I was writing was going to make me a star!

I knew I was on the right track because I was short listed for a short story prize and the writer who ran my writing group said good things about my work. Things were going to happen.

At the time, grunge was all the rage and in Australia, there were loads of young, grungy writers making big names for themselves. I thought I could be like them, but I was writing a nice book, about a girl growing up in a small town and dreaming of the Brontes. I was never going to be like the young, grungy writers.

In 1995, I entered the Vogel award with my first book. The Vogel award is a lucrative, prestigious Australian contest for an unpublished novel by an author under the age of thirty-five. I didn't win and I remember being crushed, as if I had thought I really stood a chance. The novel was literally finished and printed out just days before entries closed. I think one or two friends did a quick edit and that was it. I really thought that was all there was to it. Looking back, I see what the real achievement was there. A finished book is a massive achievement. Never mind that I plan never to look at it again. That first hurdle, finishing something, was done.

daphne with water

By 1998, I was living in London, having escaped a disasterous, short-lived marriage. That was fine. Such things made good novelists, I was sure. A bit of tragedy, a dash of suffering, that's what writers need.

I remember saying to a friend around that time, 'What else are all these experiences for if not for writing about them?'

'For living?' he suggested. I've never forgotten it because it struck me as odd. I truly believed that everything I was doing, every experience I was having, was simply a way to get material for writing.

In London, where I lived for most of a year, I submitted a reworked version of the first novel to The Women's Press and then quickly left the country to come home, because I was homesick and lost.

My London aunt forwarded a letter from the Women's Press months later. They were interested in the chapters I'd sent them and could I send more? Of course! I quickly tidied up the book again and sent it off.

A rejection promptly followed. They rejected it and so did I. It was time to move on. First novels are notoriously self involved and poor and I decided I could do better.

The second and third novels never really got off the ground. There might have even been a fourth. I don't remember any more. Well into this decade, I was still plugging away. I'd had more success with short stories, being shortlisted for contests but never winning.

The novel writing had to happen around life by then. I was a Government employee, not a particularly happy one, and had met my husband and settled down. The more settled I became, the more tortured the writing process became. Like the biological clock, the more years passed, the more desperate I felt. Every time someone asked me how the book was going, I felt the blood rush to my head and my ears would ring ferociously. There was no book. Just an endless stream of rejected drafts and a growing sense of failure.

I took courses. I attended workshops. I read books on writing. I sought inspiration from the writers I loved most.

And yet it wasn't happening. I was miserable. I had to give it up. I'd completely lost the ability to enjoy writing. I hated it. I was doing it because I'd backed myself into a corner. It's what I felt had to happen or else my life would be meaningless.

In mid 2004, I collapsed under the weight of my own expectation and knew that writing had to stop. Suddenly, I felt like I could breathe again. My time was my own - or more than it had been for a long time - and I could do anything I wanted.

What did I do? I dug out some old knitting needles and began to relearn a craft I'd abandoned in my teen years.

And here I am. Knitting and blogging are two of my great loves now and I have trouble imagining life without the creative outlet they provide.

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I never said I'd give up writing for good. Blogging has been a wonderful way to keep up the act of writing in a way that's been so much fun for me. There's been no pressure, just the exploration of a craft, making friends and communicating.

I'll admit that I'm afraid of opening up the door to that pressure again. I fear the moment I sit down at the computer to "write," as opposed to just writing like I do here, the pressure will mount and I'll be back where I was in 2004. How would I fit it in? I work more now than I did back then. I have filled my life with so much.

I don't know what the answer is but I am starting to feel like there is another book in my future. Not today. And not tomorrow. But after that? Who knows? I just know that the dream has changed. It's less about winning major awards now and more about enjoying doing what, deep down, I've always suspected I'm best at.

If you made it this far, thanks for reading. It's been a pleasure to write and to remember. I'm here right now, writing these words, because people read them and that means so much.


I'm in Greenland! I promise to catch up on comments, and come round and visit you all, just as soon as I get home. I'll try to keep in touch via Twitter and my Facebook page.

9 comments:

yogurt said...

I'm glad you found this writing medium so that you haven't given up on writing entirely. I can well imagine that the pressure to write can be a creativity killer.

Kirsty said...

This post chronicles exactly where I am now. That feeling that where once I'd say "one day I'll write a great novel" I'm now saying "I don't know if I ever will". Your experience helps me to think I can decide to stop if that's what i want. Thank you for such an interesting and heartfelt post.

houndini said...

Also glad to see that you can continue writing in a non-pressured way - through blogging - where people can enjoy your beautiful words.

Jacqueline said...

I know what you mean about blog friends Rachel. It is one of the truly wonderful things about blogging. And Bell, I was totally engrossed in your story and wanted to read on. I forgot I was reading a blog post and just got involved. I am sure if you went back to it you would produce something pretty amazing.

Chef E said...

:)

Exactly why I began using it as a medium...my work began to fall with the economy, my clients daughter fell ill, I had issues with old wounds and here I am...

Love ya!

bellsknits.com said...

Thanks for the chance to guest post Rachel! It was really fun to try and come up with something I wanted to share. This is an old post but one I wanted to share again.

And yeah, I have a feeling we'd have lots to chat about over a cup of tea or a bottle of wine some time.

lakeviewer said...

Good to know that your blog friend found an outlet in blogging. She can't let anything stop her writing. She needs to do it for herself, for the truth she wants to explore. If we do that, write to tell our truth, we don't need any other validation.

Kazzy said...

Blogging is such a great venue for writers! I love it.

ps I recently have met many blogging friends in person. It was one of the coolest things ever!

smilla4blogs said...

Thank you for this honest chronicle of a personal journey about living with the desire to write. So many people ask me why I blog. I think you answered the question very nicely.

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