3 Lessons from a Year of Not Writing

The gauzy illumination of fairy lights reveals the coloured spines stacked along every shelf and bedside drawer. There, a poetry book preordered the minute the writer announced it. Here, an anthology produced from a previous commission. And just there, a thoughtfully-selected collection gifted from a friend, with the tiny cursive note forever inked onto the title page.

All of them pristine and unread.

Why I stopped reading and writing poetry

Several times over the past 12 months, I’ve removed one of those beautiful books—books I would have devoured only last year—and tried to immerse myself in those worlds. The words, however, simply drifted around me, untouchable and otherworldly. I wanted to write, and to be inspired, but poetry simply wasn’t letting me in.

Without being able to read it, I quite simply wasn’t able to write it.

The strange thing about losing someone during a pandemic is that the grieving process somehow freezes. During lockdown, it’s as though the whole world is suspended in time. Grief’s great shadow only sagged above me, waiting to collapse as the world started turning again. Immediately after that loss, I wrote incessantly. I was simply writing about a bad dream, surely. At the end of last year, I wrote and wrote. I finished my third manuscript. I breathed a sigh. It wasn’t until some of those restrictions started lifting and we began to reemerge, blinking back into the world, that all of a sudden I was hit by the weight of what life now looked like without that person in it. 

Over the months, that shock thawed out to anger that could not be contained in language. Very few words could console me. Another sheet of paper crumpled in my fist, a poem that wouldn’t be born.

I began turning down workshops and mentoring sessions. Who was I really, if not a writer? What kind of writer doesn’t write? I stepped back from the writing world, away from the books, and threw myself back into real life.

The life outside of five-mile restrictions, hospital car parks and two-metre rules. Here’s what I learned.

1. You’re more than what you do

Ask yourself: “Who am I?”

People generally like neat little boxes and simple labels. Get introduced to anyone new next to the buffet table at a party and it’s likely you’ll be asked, “So, what do you do?” However, by allowing ourselves to be plonked inside the box marked ‘writer’ or any other vocation, our whole sense of self-worth at times might feel like it hangs in the balance.

If we’re not constantly scribbling in notebooks or tapping manuscripts into our laptops, then surely we are not real writers. If we are not seizing every opportunity to perform readings or run workshops, then we can’t be committed enough. A real writer wouldn’t close any door to publicising their work when it’s so hard as it is to get noticed. Saying ‘no’, no matter how many projects you’ve got on or how many other commitments you have, must mean you’re not dedicated to being a real writer.

But guess what?

You’re not just a writer. You likely have another career. You might also be a parent. You might also have other hobbies. None of these things define you.

Sometimes putting the pen down for a while and reconnecting with the world outside of your notebook allows you to reconnect with who you really are, too. Learning to show compassion and kindness to yourself is crucial in setting healthy boundaries. You need that energy to maintain that passion you have for writing. You can’t engage with the things that inspire you if you’re constantly burned out because you’re too guilty to step away from the idea that you should always be productive.

The beautiful thing about being human is that we’re unique, multi-faceted beings with multiple passions. Writing is only one tiny part of it.

Get out of that lonely little box marked ‘writer’. Don’t forget to make time for all the other parts that make you up to be the one-of-a-kind person that you are.

(I’m a runner, marketer, student, cyclist, charity patron, editor and fundraiser too.)

2. Stories need to end for the next one to begin

After finishing a big writing project, it’s often difficult to start something completely different. The intention may be there, but once you start writing you’ll notice images and narratives that simply beat out the themes from your last work until they start to dilute and become tired.

After finishing Small, I found many of the same images and voices resurfacing in new writing. Some of it is simply a mark of having a certain writing style; however, there comes a point when you realise you’re simply dragging out the same stories and experiences that should have ended after the final page. 

Eventually, I realised that I simply had nothing new to say. 

This is why living makes up so much more of the writing process than the writing itself. I once used a week off work purely to write for eight hours a day. I wanted to see just how much of a novel I could write if I showed up at nine every morning and pushed through with writing until five every day. It didn’t work. I became infuriated; I forced every word onto the page with the end result being a word document that has never reemerged from the archive folder. You could just tell I wasn’t connecting. The words were nothing but empty sounds. And if the writer isn’t connecting with the words, then your readers certainly won’t either.

2021 was about new experiences with old connections. I went to different places: the eerie, wind-whipped landscape of Dungeness in summer, powering up the sun-soaked cliffs to Rotherslade with my running group, and cycling to new places along the coast. Not once did I tap any writing notes into my phone or write a single line of poetry.

Living in these moments was the poetry I needed right then. These are the experiences that will inevitably make up my new story.

3. Once a writer, always a writer

Often, when you’re feeling uninspired and unmotivated to write, this can also make you resentful of reading anything that sits within your preferred writing genre. When I feel like I can’t write and that my writing muscle is weak, I can’t face reading any kind of poetry. I end up consumed by resentment that I cannot, and will not, ever write as exquisitely as the writer whose book I am reading. And so the enjoyment is gone and another book thuds against the wall. Writing, I assume, is gone. That’s it.

I’m a prematurely retired writer at 31.

However, a love for writing—like any genuine love—runs deep. Your muse may slink off to its bed for a while, largely ignoring your pleas, but rest assured it will burst back in when you least expect it and, of course, when it’s least convenient (you have no idea how many times I’ve considered writing notes on the tiles with a bottle of Original Source raspberry shower gel).

As a child, you knew how to just ‘be’. You knew how to draw for the joy of drawing, and not because you wanted to show the world you were the next Frida Kahlo. You played pretend games because they were fun, and not because you wanted the stories to become intricate plotlines for your next four bestselling blockbuster novels. 

Just ‘be’. And eventually, despite what you might believe about that writing muscle wasting away, you’ll once again just ‘write’.

Happy new year to you, writer.

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