NerdCon: Stories, and disassociating the dream of “being a writer” from the practice of actually writing
Sorry that Tobias had to cover for me on Sunday, but I had a good reason.
I am a Nerdfighter. If you don’t know what a Nerdfighter is then this video may, or indeed may not, help.
I’ve been a devout follower of Hank and John Green for over a year now. That means I’m very late to the game compared with other Nerdfighters, some of whom have been subscribed to the vlogbrothers YouTube channel since it’s creation in 2007. For those of you who aren’t familiar with them, Hank and John started out recording daily video blogs – some magnificently silly, others serious and thought-provoking – and have slowly expanded their online aegis into a vast array of web series, charity fundraising efforts, and educational shows about science and history. Hank Green also runs VidCon, a huge convention for online content creators. Their self-ascribed mission is to fight worldsuck wherever it may be, and make sure that nobody ever forgets to be awesome.
As well as a Nerdfighter I’m also a writer, and an aspiring author. So when Hank Green announced that he was going to use his famed convention-creating abilities to throw together an event that celebrated stories and the human capacity for narrative thought, I was beyond thrilled.
Initially it didn’t look like I was going to be able to go. NerdCon: Stories was being held in Minneapolis, from which I was separated by a not-insubstantial ocean.
Even if I could somehow cross the Atlantic, tickets to NerdCon were limited. And there was also the small problem of being in a job that didn’t pay very well and didn’t give me much time off to attend fun conventions. My prospects seemed bleak.
Fortunately, my former employer dealt with both of those problems in one fell swoop, by making me unemployed and paying me my last month’s wages without expecting me to come into work. With free time and money to spend, I decided that NerdCon would be worth the cost. I think I might have been the only British person who thought so, although I did run into someone from the Republic of Ireland. (At a vending machine. He wanted to know if $3.50 was too much to pay for a bottle of soda, and out of all of the attendees in the Minneapolis Convention Centre he managed by sheer chance to ask the only other non-American. I had to tell him that I didn’t know.)
As well as the vlogbrothers, NerdCon had a heap of featured guests whose names might be more familiar to you. I spent the weekend soaking up the imparted wisdom of heavyweight sci-fi and fantasy authors such as Patrick Rothfuss, John Scalzi, Lev Grossman, and Holly Black, and being entertained by humorists, musicians, and creators like Paul & Storm and Darin Ross (the genius behind Superfight).
Despite the theme of the conference, I don’t want to just tell you the story of what happened at NerdCon. I could write a 10,000 word post about all of the technical writing advice that I got from just one of the panels, or a long thought-piece dwelling on all of the ramifications of the discussion into the ethics of writing that Patrick Rothfuss led on the last day of the conference. (How many deaths from lung cancer can be causally attributed to the romanticised depiction of tobacco-smoking in the early chapters of The Hobbit?) The morning and evening shows in the main auditorium were enrapturing, full of poetry and theatre and comedy and messages every day about why stories matter. I was moved to tears by the power of John Green’s address on how we should never look down upon fiction that allows us to escape ourselves when our own bodies start to feel like our own private prisons. As someone who’s had my own bitter struggles with depression and anxiety, I knew exactly what he meant.
I can talk about all of that stuff in later posts, if that’s what people want. What I’d like to write about now is the changes that I started to notice in my own attitudes to writing, over the course of the conference. I took a lot away from NerdCon that wasn’t in the program (including a lot of happy memories and a nasty case of con flu), but I think that Hank Green was kind of hoping that everyone would leave NerdCon feeling like they attended a slightly different convention, and that they’d all draw their own narrative conclusions from it. Here are mine.
NerdCon was an excellent resource for any aspiring author, with the featured guests offering a huge amount of very practical advice that I can take away and apply directly to my own writing. For me, though, it also had the potential to be a bit of a trap. This was not NerdCon’s fault at all – it was mine – but the problem was only compounded by the warmth and personability of the featured guests. I felt like I’d made friends with all of them by Saturday night, even though part of my brain knew that it was a fundamentally unequal relationship. I didn’t go to any signings or smaller meetings where they might have learnt my name or formed an impression of me, and even if I had, I would still have just been one fan among 3,000. But being in a friendly environment with these successful writers for a whole weekend made me feel like I could bask a little in their fame and success. The mere act of being at NerdCon gave me a sense of authorial gratification that was perhaps undeserved. “Here I am, at a writer’s convention”, I could think, as I rocked up at the conference centre with my cup of coffee each morning. “With real successful writers, just like I’m going to be one day.” I watched them on stage, enjoying their well-earned limelight, and delusions of grandeur began to take root in my mind. I began to wonder how long it would be before I (inevitably) got invited to speak at writing conventions. I imagined myself on stage with the panellists when they played Superfight. Instead of listening to their advice in panels, I started to let myself think of the kind of advice that I would give if I was sitting in their place.
And eventually, after I’d wasted a lot of time doing this, I remembered how many other attendees there were in the room. They were all writers too, some of them far further down the road to publication and financial success than I was, and I realised that I was being an idiot. Daydreaming about success was very gratifying, but it was ultimately completely useless.
The latest page of Wondermark, a webcomic that I adore, sums this up nicely.
Unlike the aspirant novelist in the comic, I did actually manage to write something at NerdCon, which I was hoping to read out at one of the open mic events (alas, they were fully booked before I had the chance to sign up). But that doesn’t vindicate me at all if I still go away from NerdCon and spend the next week daydreaming about how amazing it will be when I’m a famous author on stage at a writing convention. I should be striking while the iron is hot, writing as much as I can while the advice and inspiration from all of the speakers is still fresh in my mind.
Perhaps this conclusion might seem totally self-evident to the writers who were speaking at NerdCon, and many of the other attendees, if they were to read it. Perhaps the panellists never had this problem themselves, because they didn’t have any delusions of grandeur to start with. Perhaps when fame came to them it was as a genuine surprise, rather than the achievement of something that they’d aspired towards since they’d first decided that they wanted to write books. Perhaps they just set out with realistic expectations, pressed their noses to the grindstone, and worked tirelessly over the course of years and decades to produce some truly excellent books. And that’s exactly what I need to do. Statistically speaking, not everyone who attended the conference and heard the panellists speak is going to end up as a financially successful author, even if they are naturally talented writers. I think the ones who do succeed are probably going to be the ones who sit down at their writing desks and banish any thought of fame and glory from their minds. At least until after they’ve published something.
I suppose it’s possible that all of the other attendees were already fully intending to do that, and I was the only one narcissistic enough to get wrapped up in wondering how I’d answer when attendees at future conventions asked me about my writing process. But I’ll post this anyway, just in case there’s anyone else like me, who needs a cold shower to get the thoughts of fame out of their head, and a motivational boot up the arse to get them back to their writing.
NerdCon itself was wonderful, and I could go on for weeks about it. If you have any questions, or you’d like me to post some of the notes I made during the panels, then please let me know in the comments!
Well, I finished the rough draft of my second major paper to write this month. Now I’ve just got the two papers to edit, the GRE and MAT to study for, classes to teach, church to help with, etc, etc, etc. At least I’m making some progress though… a little… right? Anyway, enough of my complaints. I have a story challenge, and it’s time for my favorite story challenge. I’m going to give you a series of criteria including genre, theme, some character archetypes, etc. Your job is to write a story that includes all of the features required in the challenge. If you intend to post it here, please keep it short. However, the complexity of this challenge often requires a longer story.
Genre: Historical, Fantasy, Modern
Setting: Your setting can be whatever you want, but it has to have something to do with work. You could write about a turn of the century factory, an ancient grain mill, a fantastical mine the churns out magical ore, or a modern office. You could even write about working from home.
1) The Self important Co-Worker
2) The Knowitall
3) The Boss
4) The Hard Worker
1) A product (whatever it might be)
2) A commonly used tool (this could be anything from a pick-axe to a stapler)
3) A code of conduct
Well, Tom would normally be posting today, but he’s traveling right now, and unfortunately the person who was supposed to be covering his spot had to bow out as well. Have you ever had one of those days when you just wanted to beat the living shit out of someone? I have. Actually, I used to have a lot of them (like… every day… I used to be a very angry person). Or one of those days when you just wanted to hide under the covers until the whole world went away? I’ve had a lot of those as well (amazingly enough, very angry people are often very frightened people as well). Let me tell you how to deal with them. It’s simple… …not easy, but simple (I’ve often found that those two don’t go together as often as you’d think).
- Acknowledge how you feel. Give it a name. The more you try to deny your anger, fear, envy, hate, etc the more control you give it. As long as it is something that you hide, cover up, or try to ignore the less you actually do to control it and the more it does to control you. At this point it can help to think of the feeling as a blackmailer trying to hold you hostage. You can pay up, repeatedly, or you can just come clean and take away the blackmailer’s power.
- Accept that this is who you are. Again, the more you deny it, the less you can actually do that will help it. You are an angry person, a cowardly person, a jealous person, a hateful person, etc. It’s a part of your character, and until you acknowledge that as well, your just going to keep being that angry, cowardly, jealous, hateful person because you can’t admit to yourself that something is wrong.
- Recognize that who you are is not who you should be. There’s a difference between being authentic and being good. I can be a very authentic douchebag and still be a douchebag. My authenticity doesn’t change that at all, though some people might think it will for a short time. So, while authenticity is important, you also need to recognize the need for change. I am not who I should be, nor am I who I want to be, and until I’m willing to recognize both who I am, and who I should/want to be, and see the difference between the two, I’m still stuck.
- Face your emotions and think about how you should feel in those situations. If you’re dealing with fear, think about a time that you’ve felt confident in a difficult situation, and then imagine that confidence bleeding over into the situation that you are afraid of. Something that also helps here is taking steps to alleviate actual reasons to feel a certain way. If you’re afraid of being mugged, start taking self-defense clashes. This isn’t going to simply solve the problem, but it will help you deal with the legitimate fear, and to recognize the difference between legitimate fear and illegitimate fear.
- Meditate on the way that you should feel. Take the time to not only reflect and identify how you should feel, but to repeatedly build in yourself a mental habit of feeling that way in the situations that would normally trigger your anger, fear, envy, etc. This is not a one time step. This is something to do on a regular basis, perhaps even a daily basis, and to spend time on (i.e. give this 20 or 30 minutes a day, not 2 or 3).
- Expose yourself to small, controlled aspects of the events that would normally trigger the emotions that you want to deal with. For instance, have someone you trust start a personal debate with you, or put you in a situation that would normally cause you to panic. Go slowly, separate your mind from the situation, try to look at yourself in the third person, and identify when the feeling begins. In that moment, practice the extension that you’ve been training at. Stop yourself, focus on a time when you did feel the way you should be feeling, and let that feeling bleed over into the current situation. Again, this is something that takes time and effort. It is not a one time or one day event.
This isn’t easy, but it can help overtime. Of course, other things can help as well. Consistent spiritual practices, a relationship with God, and close friends who are willing to point out areas in which you need to work are all huge benefits when dealing with these kinds of overwhelming emotions. That being said, don’t give up! There is hope.
We always want what’s important to us. There’s actually a theory based on this called Psychological Egoism that argues that we always must do what we perceive to be in our own best interests. Now, it’s worth noting here that ‘our own best interests’ can be widely interpreted. For instance, I might argue that I volunteer at a homeless shelter because it makes me feel good, or that I give to the church because its my duty as a Christian and my duty is important to me. Ultimately, the key term here is ‘perceive.’ What I perceive to be in my best interests may not actually be in my best interests, or it may be in my interest only because it supports a common interest, but according to this theory I am only capable of acting in ways that I perceive to be in my own best interest. However, how does this account for self-sacrifice–this is an obvious question, and thus one that comes up very often. However, consider: let us assume that I give my life in order to save the lives of my wife and child. Surely, this couldn’t be in my own best interest, could it? I wind up dead, and there’s no interest in being dead, is there? However, perhaps I perceived this (even if subconsciously so) to be in my own best interest because I can’t bear the thought of surviving my wife and child. Perhaps my martialed courage serves largely to free me from the bleakest future I can imagine. Or perhaps I see my own interest in the lives of my wife and child. Perhaps it is not that I fear surviving them, but that I look forward to surviving in and through their legacy, and thus I perceive my own interest to be uniquely tied to theirs in such a way that if their interest is destroyed, then mine is as well. Thus, sacrificing my life to preserve their lives, and thus my own interest through their lives, is completely rational and I perceive it to be in my own best interest.
Obviously, there are many who oppose psychological egoism, but it always raises good and interesting arguments. So, here is your challenge for today. I want you to come up with the strongest possible challenge that you can think of for psychological egoism. Do your very best to create a situation in which your action couldn’t possibly be perceived to be in your own best interests. Then write me a 1000 word story trying to show that can be. Maybe you’ll prove yourself wrong, maybe you won’t. Either way, you’ll come up with some interesting ideas and hopefully a good story.
Some days are just better than others. Yesterday wasn’t one of those. Combine lack of sleep with frustrations with work, blocks in my writing, and a general apathy to do anything and you have the makings of a pretty underwhelming day. I did get to experiment a little with making hot massage oil. I’m using olive oil as a base (because it’s cheaper than almond oil and better than canola oil) and a mix of different hot peppers. I’ve got two different styles, one in which I just chopped the peppers and poured the oil over them, and the other in which I ground the peppers into a paste in a spice grinder and then poured the olive oil into the paste (though, getting the pepper paste into the mason jar left my fingers covered in pepper oil that apparently does not wash off easily… as I found out later when I went to rub my eye…). Anyway, for today’s exercise I’m going to give you a picture and I want you to use it as inspiration to design one part of the world you’ve started. This could be fleshing out one of the nations that you’ve already come up with or it could be creating an all new nation or continent for your world:
I really hate spoilers.
As my roommate can attest to, if I get so much of a whiff of something that’s going to happen in one of my television shows, there’s a pretty good chance my entire week will be ruined. This happened with Once Upon A Time back when the show was in its prime: (Spoiler Alert) I was forced into watching an episode that referenced Rumpelstiltskin as Henry’s grandfather, and I seriously considered abstaining from the show altogether.
Although the spoiler I just mentioned was a significant one, my enjoyment level significantly goes down if I know even the smallest detail of a story. Even if I’d normally be moved to tears by a particularly poignant scene, if I know it’s coming I just shrug and say, “Okay, what’s next?”
I think the main reason that I hate spoilers is because is I want to be surprised.
Despite this need to have stories surprise me, though, I often wonder how much the stories I write actually surprise my readers. The key to crafting works that surprise your readers, according to several books about fiction writing, is that you first surprise yourself—a statement that I’ve always found difficult to put into practice.
I’m not a crazy person (okay, that’s debatable). I haven’t quite gotten the hang of breathing life into the characters of my stories in such a way that allows them to run rampant in my mind. They don’t live inside my head, and they stubbornly refuse to tell me what happens next in their stories. So, how exactly am I supposed to “surprise” myself if I’m the only one writing the story?
The only answer I’ve been able to find lies in the creation of lifelike, fully developed characters who have distinct wants and desires. According to the authors of Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, one of the keys to writing good fiction is to have protagonists who “want, and want intensely” (Burroway and Stuckey-French 251). If your characters aren’t striving for something, there’s nothing propelling them to action—and characters are the source of action, of plot.
Once you’ve managed to create characters who act (and react) realistically based on their wants and desires, the plot in a sense makes itself.
I hates the maths! I hates them! Hates them I do! Sorry, I’ve been studying math for the last five days straight for the GRE and I would swear that every problem is different. I finally figure out how to solve one problem correctly, and as soon as I do the next one is completely different. Honestly, tomorrow I start into my paper comparing Mengzian moral development with the philosophy of C. S. Lewis, and I’m really looking forward to it. Joy does not equal math. It does not even show equivalence to math. It is not less than or equal to math, nor is it greater than or equal to math. Honestly, it’s more similar to comparing base 2 math and base 10 math. The comparison just doesn’t make any sense. Anyway, I hope that you are all having a better week than I am (math wise at least)! I know that you’re here for a scene challenge. If you can’t remember the rules, I’ll provide them: I provide you with specific rules for how to write a particular scene. Try to keep your scene under five hundred words, and try to keep it in the same tone as the introduction. If I give a line that is very dark and depressing, then I don’t want to see a scene about a drunken monkey in a tutu…it just doesn’t fit. If I do give you a line about a drunken monkey in a tutu, then you should probably try for a funny scene.
Your rules: You task this week is to write a scene of at least 300 words in sentences of no more than six words. If you’ve been following the blog then you’ve seen this challenge before. Remember to make sure that the scene is grammatically correct, and that it flows well. Again, you might want to give it to a grammar nazi after you finish to make sure that your grammar is solid. Your cue: “”Oy!’ Simon moaned, ‘Not this again…'”
I moved into my new flat this past weekend, Sunday was taken up with watching the new episode of Doctor Who, and Monday necessitated a great deal of unpacking in addition to job prep for my last day of teacher training (for today), so when I suddenly realized at about 1930 on Monday night that I had to write a post, I was somewhat flummoxed. I had no ideas whatsoever for a topic, and I was contemplating the writer’s version of ritual seppuku (making and sharpening your own quill pen before disemboweling yourself with it as you chant the names of all your literary ancestors in hopes that they will forgive you), when Tom stepped in with an alternative.
“Write a short story!” he said, as I sharpened my quill, only half-paying attention. “About a time traveler,” he added, knowing exactly what would pique my interest. A few more interesting details were added to the prompt, and I arose, dramatically tossing my quill to the side, salvation in sight. “I will take it! I will take the Ring to Mordor!” I declared, apparently unaware of the irrelevance of the reference, and began to write. For your enjoyment today, I present “Overdue!” a short story by yours truly.
You’d think that being a time traveller would mean never having to deal with library fines. It’s a completely logical thought to have, what with the ability to jump around the time stream and all, but it’s also completely wrong. Studies have actually proven that owners of time machines are more than twelve times more likely to be chronically late about returning their books. The entire Warsaw library system is funded completely by fines from sheepish chrononauts who thought they were popping in right at closing on the due date to return their copies of Welles’s novels and other historical fiction, only to discover they were showing up at noon two years, six months, and four days later. “Sounds like the voice of experience,” you might say, and you’re quite right, kids. My name is Morstan, Elliott Morstan, and I’m a time traveller. And as of three days ago by linear time, I’m also a library criminal.
Until recently, I’d always been conscientious about taking care of my library books. They keep telling you the rules: never leave your library book in your time machine, don’t check out books from libraries in more than one time period at the same time, and above all, don’t ever try to return your book while using your machine. We all know libraries are bound by linear time in order to contain all the strange time irregularities that happen within, and strange things sometimes happen if you mess around with that. We’ve all heard about what happened when someone broke the rules in Alexandria.
But even though we know these stories, something deep down inside still whispers “but it could never happen to me. I’m so much more careful; I’d never cross my own time stream while returning a book” and so on and so forth. That’s what I thought, too, when I took my library copy of the best-selling theoretical manual Wibbley-Wobbley, Timey-Wimey, and Other Stuff for the Discerning Time Traveler by R.T. Davies, along to occupy me during the boring bits of the Battle of Hastings. This in and of itself isn’t a problem…but I became so engrossed in the battle that I left the book inside my machine. All on its own. With all of that peculiar book magic that wreaks havoc on the temporal mechanics of any time engine if left unsupervised.
Ugh. Keep in mind, this was a genuine moment of forgetfulness. Not a good thing to do, but not criminal.
So when I made the return journey home, I planned to arrive just 5 minutes after I left, which would give me two hours to finish my book before returning it. I opened the door, stepped out, yawned, and then my jaw dropped as I stared ahead, terrified. Where the library had once stood instead loomed a giant Starbucks. The 50-mile high green and white logo leered at me as it proudly pronounced in glowing neon letters, “Meeting your linear caffeine needs since 2367.”
The library was closed.
My book was at least 50 years overdue.
When the library branch police caught up with me, and we all know they always will find you if your book is overdue, the fines would be horrendous. I’d never be able to pay them off. And I’d never be able to live with the shame of having my name on the list of those “Banned for Reckless Endangerment of a Book,” the terrible fate of those who eat tomato sauce near a book or return it more than 5 years overdue. I had to go back. Surely just going back along my own time stream to the library just long enough to drop my book in the slot wouldn’t hurt anyone… Fortified by resolve and blinding fear, I jumped back into my ship and headed back for the original due date.
Upon landing (in the correct date this time), I opened the door and cautiously peered out. The fabric of reality seemed to be holding together pretty well thus far. Emboldened, I grabbed the book and stepped out, prepared to make a dash for the return slot just a few feet away. But the moment both feet touched the ground, I realized I’d made a huge mistake. Time seemed to constrict and expand all at the same time. Something started screaming in a high-pitched tone that threatened to shred my eardrums. The whole world began to shake and I felt as though I was about to turn inside out and explode. Terrified, I dropped to the ground, curled up in a ball, and began pleading with the universe to calm down.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” I sobbed. “Just please stop. It was stupid of me. Don’t unravel all of space and time. I’ll never do it again, I promise.”
“We know you won’t,” a cool voice said from behind me. I sat up, my eyes blurry, to find myself surrounded by severe-looking people in dark red uniforms.
Damn…not the library police! Dear god, please no.
The speaker, a stern woman in a peaked cap glared down at me over the bridge of her spectacles. “You are lucky we were on hand to stabilize the fabric of reality before your reckless actions could cause any real damage to the universe,” she said, nostrils flaring. I shivered. “We cannot allow such actions to pass with just a warning. Your machine will be confiscated and you are hereby restricted to the index room for twenty years, with no chance of parole.” I stared at her in horror. The index room…where I would only ever be able to see the bibliographical information for books but never see the books themselves.
“Mercy,” I pleaded, kneeling as the tears streamed from my eyes. “Anything but the index room!”
It was clear that to her, the matter was now over. “Confiscate her library card and give her an index room pass,” she declared to the uniformed officers as she swept past me.
“Yes, Madame Librarian.”
I have been restricted to the index room for three days now, and I already feel my soul dying. Follow the rules, kids, no matter what time you’re in. Don’t be like me. Don’t be…a library criminal.
This segment of the Library Criminals PSA cycle is brought to you by Librarians Against Time-Space Book Negligence. Don’t read and time travel.
I don’t know how many of you read Tom’s post from yesterday, but he made some very good points. It’s easy for us to think that if only all of this other crap (whatever that other crap might be for you) would get out of the way, we would have time to write at leisure. However, generally speaking this isn’t true. Often, if and when all of that other crap does get out of the way, we spend our time laying around doing nothing, because we aren’t actually disciplined. Honestly, I’ve never met a ‘naturally disciplined’ person. I’ve met people who have trained themselves in discipline, people who have been trained in discipline by some government institution, and people who have been trained in discipline by some religious order, but I’ve never met a disciplined person who had just always been disciplined. There is a basic rule of martial arts that applies here: when you are in a fight (and I mean a real fight) do something. If you’re standing there, thinking about everything that you could do to your opponent, feeling good about yourself and how skilled your knowledge is, then chances are that you’re a dead man walking. People who make it through a real fight don’t do so by standing and staring at the world, they do so by acting. Those with sufficient training and experience do so by acting well, but acting well is not the same as doing nothing. This applies to writing as well. The first step to being a writer is to write. Don’t sit around planning out when you’ll get around to writing and feeling good about your detailed plan. Actually write something, even if its something bad… even if its something horrible. Put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard as the case may be) and write something. I think this is a perfect intro for a writing exercise. So, you’re here for a story challenge. So, in case you haven’t done this challenge before, I’m going to post a picture. Your job is to write a story about what is happening in said picture. Feel free to flesh it out some, to add things to the picture (you’ll probably have to with this one), but make sure that your story is actually about the picture that I post. For example, if I post a picture of a dart competition in a bar, don’t write a story about slavers selling mermaids. If I post a picture of a sorcerer casting a spell at the top of his tower, don’t write a story about a fist-fighter competing in the ring. So, no that you’ve got a good concept of what your doing, here’s your picture. Remember, if your going to post a story here, keep it under 500 words. If you want to post a longer story on your own blog, feel free to post a link to it here:
I have a slightly shorter post for you today, to atone for last week’s epic uberpost.
I’ve written before about whether it’s necessary or remotely useful for writers to make ourselves suffer for our art, and how important it is to persist through tough ruts in pursuit of our dreams. Today I want to talk about the best lifestyle for an aspiring author. I don’t have any definitive answers – if I did, I wouldn’t have to write blog posts trying to puzzle them out – but I can share a few observations.
I recently lost my job, when my company downsized their operations and cut half the staff. I wasn’t particularly upset about this, because I hadn’t really been enjoying the job. I spent the last few months working there daydreaming about my book, writing reliably most evenings, and thinking that if I didn’t have to go to my stupid job every day then I could increase my creative productivity by about 1000%. I even found myself writing snippets of my story in a scaled down window whenever my manager was out of the room. In retrospect, this might have been one of the reasons that I was on the list of employees made redundant. But I maintain that it was worth it.
Fortunately I have supportive parents who are letting me fall back on them while I regroup and look for other job opportunities. I have to admit that, in the first few days of unemployment, I had soaring hopes for my productivity. “Between now and finding another job,” I thought, “I’ll have half a book written.”
In the weeks since then I’ve learnt an important lesson, which I’ve expressed pictorially below.
I haven’t found another job yet, but I certainly haven’t written half a book, either. My old employers paid me for my notice period without making me work it, so I effectively got an extra month’s salary. They could have been paying me to write. Instead they ended up paying me to level up on Skyrim and conquer half of India on Empire: Total War.
(And attend a writing course, and go to a performance of the Royal Shakespeare Company. I wasn’t a complete layabout. But let’s pretend I was, because that makes for better narrative progression.)
I can’t explain exactly how this transpired, given my intentions. I spent a little time being hard on myself and accusing myself of barefaced laziness and weak-willed procrastination but that didn’t really achieve much either, and after a while I got to wondering whether having wall-to-wall free time is actually the best environment for an author to work in.
Perhaps this is only true for people of a certain persuasion who share my weaknesses for playing video games…and reading webcomics…and scrolling through Tumblr…and watching livestreams…but I think too much free time can be a bad thing. It allows you to put off your writing indefinitely, to after you’ve eaten, or after you’ve read a chapter of your book, or to tomorrow, or to next week. Unless you’re a naturally disciplined person, having more free time just encourages you to waste it. You end up becoming a vegetable. An unproductive vegetable.
Now that I lack the strict daily routine enforced by my job, I almost miss it. Having a set, limited number of free hours every evening where I could write encouraged me to use those hours as productively as possible, because I knew that if I didn’t write anything then, I wouldn’t end up writing anything at all. But a 9-5 routine can be counterproductive as well. Sometimes when you’ve had an exhausting day at work, you just want to come home and crash like a regular human being who isn’t trying to write a book. Successful superhuman writers seem to just learn how to soldier on through evenings like this, often with the help of alcohol or other stimulants, until they’ve finished writing their books. And that knowledge can be very daunting for aspiring authors who aren’t quite as battle-hardened. If we have a rough day at work and get home feeling dead on our feet, it’s natural to want to collapse in a heap and binge watch our favourite shows on Netflix. But we end up feeling guilty, because we know that if we do that every night, we’re never going to get around to writing anything. For me, it’s a double-edged sword. Even on the nights where I procrastinate, I don’t end up enjoying myself.
There must be some sort of midpoint – some way of having a good routine without completely surrendering our freedom to just collapse and vegetate every so often. The best way I can think of is probably academia. I didn’t write much myself while I was at university, but I mostly forgive myself for that. I spent most of my time stressing about my deadlines, or playing video games to flee from deadlines, and dealing with mental illness, compounded by a very unhealthy romantic relationship with an abusive partner. Obviously these weren’t the ideal circumstances for writing, let alone completing my degree. But if you can afford to stay in the academic bubble, without going through all of the extra drama that I did, I can imagine that it might be a good way of sustaining your writing. You have regular contact hours and plenty of other work to do to stop you from vegetating, but you also have enough free time to get a few hours of writing done every day, and still have some genuine free time at the end of it if you budget wisely.
I’m lucky to live in the UK where higher education is relatively cheap, and I’m lucky to have parents who will let me leech off them when I’m unemployed. All of my lucking out has reminded me of how much harder it must be for aspiring authors who don’t have the same opportunities. Small wonder that we see such a disproportionate number of white, straight, heterosexual, cisgender, college-educated men from wealthy backgrounds getting their books published and winning Hugo awards, when it’s so much easier for them to devote time to writing and editing. Authors who don’t fit that description are playing the game on a much harder difficulty setting, straight from the intro sequence all the way through to the final boss level. I know that a lot of readers might not have the luxury of staying in college or spending a few weeks leisurely unemployed. A gruelling 9-5 job, or worse, might be your only option. But if you’re in that camp then I hope you can take some solace from the fact that, in my experience, the daily grind actually encourages productivity.
As I said, I don’t know any answers. But I think the ideal lifestyle for writers is one that strikes a balance. You have to be jealous about protecting your free time and making sure that you have the headspace that you need to be creative every day, or at least to churn out a few hundred words. But you also need to make sure that you marshal your free time and use it effectively. From my own recent experience of unemployment, that process becomes a lot easier when you actually have less free time to work with. You know you have to use it wisely.
So if you’re going back to your day job tomorrow thinking “if only I was at home, I could be writing right now” – ask yourself, would you really be writing? Or are you going to write a lot more effectively when you get home at the end of the workday and only have five or six hours to write before you go to bed? I know which is true for me!