“No barrier of the senses shuts me out from the sweet, gracious discourses of my book friends. They talk to me without embarrassment or awkwardness.”
If I say the word “writer” to you, what do you see in your mind’s eye? Do you see a lone novelist, hunched over a laptop, curtains drawn? Do you see a poet, scaling the horizons with notebook in hand, pausing to observe a brief flush of starlings? Do you see a nervous playwright, muttering quietly with the door shut, trying to string together the right words to fit the dialogue?
Writers have long been perceived as self-confessed loners, toiling endlessly at their words in quiet, wood-panelled studies, perpetually lighting cigarettes and muttering sentences under their breath. Outsiders.
Geniuses, in some cases, but outsiders.
Yet, if you think about your work as it was at the start of your writing career compared to now, how much of your growth as a writer has been shaped solely by yourself – and how much of it has been influenced by others?
The People Who Shape Us
If you’re cringing at your first foray into writing, that’s okay. So am I. I cannot even bear to look at the first ‘serious’ poem I wrote aged 14, which was a clichéd piece involving a dark raven squatting on a bare branch, staring forebodingly at the silvered river. I’m not exaggerating when I say it made Jedward’s Lipstick look like the collected poems of Robert Burns.
It’s too easy, in general discourse about writers and writing, to overlook the importance of other people as essential to our development.
How much of the writing process is really a one-person show? As a writer, your sources of inspiration may include other writers whom you admire (shoutout to Sylvia Plath, Seamus Heaney, Toni Morrison and Dylan Thomas for blowing my teenage mind at the same time as Green Day, freeze-hold hairspray and Maltesers Teasers did). They may include the teachers who gave you feedback in swirls of red ink, or the comment sections of your blog or Tumblr account. Perhaps you heard something at a spoken word evening that inspired you to pluck up the courage share your own work for the first time. Perhaps it’s a friend who encouraged you, a parent whom you wanted to prove wrong, an editor who advised you, or a friend who gave honest advice.
At every stage, and with every change, there’s likely a person who made an impact on your work.
Strength in Numbers: The Writing Community
Writers, and creative people in general, frequently make themselves vulnerable to criticism and rejection. It’s part of the process, and unless you’re willing to thicken your skin, grit your teeth and keep on persevering, then you’ll find yourself putting down your pen faster than you can say “We had a very high number of submissions…and we regret to inform you…”
Getting published may be competitive, but don’t be fooled into thinking that writing is dog-eat-dog. Search the “#WritingCommunity” hashtag on social media and you’ll see posts by writers bemoaning rejections and word counts, celebrating their wins, and generally spurring each other on. Follow a few of those writers and you’ll see them promoting and recommending each other’s work, offering comfort in the face of knockbacks and, above all, lifting each other up.
Every writer is unique. Of course, we’re all inspired and influenced by others – this, after all, is how we find our voice in the first place. Like a child slowly and clumsily copying the words of a parent, we initially mimic the voices our favourite writers until we establish our own.
Imagine all bookshelves were only filled with writers who all had the voice of Stephen King, or Toni Morrison, or Virginia Woolf. Imagine Keats tried to be Dante, or Zadie Smith tried to be Ray Bradbury. We’d have lost those unique voices we so value and admire.
We’re all different enough that we can freely promote each other and not cause detriment to our own careers; on the contrary, by shouting about each other’s successes and building a network, there’ll always be someone who has your back. Opportunities are shared. Feedback is shared and valued. One person’s win is a shared cheer by the whole community.
Over the years, I’m lucky enough to have made lifelong writing friends through arts organisations, charities and competitions, as well as through the Swansea spoken word circuit, the learning and development (L&D) community, international residencies, and university courses. I’ve formed trusted groups where I know I am safe to seek feedback and return the favour. I’ve mentored young writers and found sheer, unadulterated joy in watching them flourish and grow.
Writing Not Flowing? Get Connecting
It’s all too easy to become disconnected from others when we become blinkered by our own work, goals, ambitions, and edits. And sometimes, it all gets a little…pressured, doesn’t it?
We pile criticism onto ourselves. We often have to snatch little moments to write in between full-time jobs, voluntary work, hobbies, family responsibilities and/or studies. The alarm is set an hour earlier, or we go to bed an hour later, trying to squeeze every last word out of the limited free time we have in our hectic schedules.
And the more stressed we get, the more the words become stunted. We painstakingly work and rework a sentence, go to make a cup of tea, then end up deleting the words altogether and then slam the laptop lid down. Hello again, Writer’s Block.
At the moment, I’m spread thinly across various projects and there are so many I still want to pursue. There are the edits for my second book, Small. There’s the L&D and HR content I write full-time. There’s my blog. There’s three different Twitter accounts to manage for work, charity and personal accounts. There’s the blog writing, the odd freelance article, another collaborative book, and three different ideas for new books all vying for attention.
Suddenly, I find myself too intimidated to write. So this morning, I lifted my head from my own work and instead immersed myself in editing the work of others.
As co-editor of the annual Cheval anthology, published by Parthian Books, I have the pleasure of helping young writers in Wales to develop their writing and set them on the path to publication. Reading through the entries is like mining little gems; every so often, there’s the thrill of discovering a diamond. How bright the future of Welsh writing is.
These writers are not my competition. They’re my future sources of inspiration when their names inevitably grace my bookshelves. There’s hours of joy to come in the pages of their debut novels or poetry collections – and a wonderful, warm feeling in knowing I’ll have watched them grow from these first published poems and stories.
So, by the time four and a half hours of editing Cheval had passed this morning, I was ready to step away from the desk and go for a 13-mile run, my head filled with ideas and inspiration. There’s bravery in laying yourself bare with your work and opening yourself to the rejection of competitions, yet every one of these young writers had done just that. Why can’t I do the same at the moment?
Two hours spent outside, feet smacking against tarmac and rain whipping around me in clear, wet ropes, found me filling with a renewed desire to write. With every twist of the cycle track, and every splash against my heel, I began getting ideas for fiction again (something I keep avoiding because I’ve lost confidence and don’t think my voice is good enough). By the end of those thirteen miles, my legs were burning, my head was clear, and my phone full of snatched lines and plot ideas.
Editing + running = pure magic.
Connect With Others: Reconnect With Yourself
Feeling the pressure too? Step away. Read someone else’s work. Offer feedback to someone else (if they want it and they’ve asked for it – don’t go giving unasked for lectures if you don’t want to be one of those writers). Go to a poetry evening just to listen rather than speak.
With the constant rejections, long hours, persistent submissions and potential isolation, it’s important to keep connecting as writers – with editors, with readers, with the world around us, and with each other.
After all, it’s their voices that will help you reconnect with your own.