Sunday, 20 January 2013

Lonesome Day

A strange thing happened to me last week.

I was sprawled across the couch in the sitting room, my laptop perched precariously on top of a cushion across my lap with the TV droning softly in the background (Yes, I know I'm not supposed to write in a setting like this but (1) I'm lazy, (2) our sitting room is the warmest room in the house, and (3) ER was on!). I was on a particularly good roll and my fingers were tapping with some speed at the keyboard. I had written over 1,000 words in one sitting and I proudly treated myself to Marks and Spencer cookie (my 3rd one that day. What? I was being good with my writing, I had to reward myself!).

I was in the moment and making the most of it. But unfortunately, like all good things it had to come to an end.

I came to end of a paragraph and instead of hitting return and continuing on, I stopped. I had noticed something; a familiar feeling had crept in unnoticed like an unwelcome visitor and washed over me as I hesitated and stared blankly at the flashing cursor. Self-doubt. It had returned with a vengeance.

Before I even had time to register what I was doing, my eyes were flicking back over the last paragraph, wondering if what I written was good enough and whether or not "it worked". Now this is not a new sensation for me; I habitually engage in my writing-reviewing-editing cycle on a regular basis but this time it was different. For the first time in all the years that I've been writing (see my "Blast from the Past" blog for further information) I felt alone.

It's somewhat surprising that it's taken me several years and a few (unfinished) novels to realise that writing is an extremely lonely outlet. In my work life, if I'm unsure about a piece of work, I can (and do) ask a colleague for advice or information. I double and triple check my work for fear of doing something wrong or making a mistake. I even have vivid memories of asking one of my friends to double check my Chemistry homework before class so that I wouldn't look silly if I was asked for an answer. In fairness I had good reason to for that particular one - I was absolutely hopeless at Chemistry and to this day I still haven't the foggiest idea how to balance an equation or monitor the results of a practical experiment. I still wake in cold sweats at night at the thoughts of those classes...

Essentially, what I know about myself is that I'm a reassurance seeker and a mild perfectionist. I'm okay-ish with this personality trait but when I'm writing there's no one that I can seek reassurance from and to be honest, this realisation last week was a pretty terrifying one. I don't know any published novelists. Hell, I don't know any unpublished novelists for that matter either. I converse with a lot of great writers on twitter but I don't know them personally. I can't ring them up or pop over for tea and ask for some casual advice on a sentence structure, a plot loophole or whether or not my character's name suits them. I don't have a sounding board or an advice-giver like I do in work. I have, well, me. Just me. Yikes.

You see, this is where the problem lies. When one looks for reassurance or advice about a problem, we naturally look to someone we trust. But when I don't have a novelist living in the house (sorry Andrew) or sitting at the desk next to me (sorry Scott) or on the other end of the phone (sorry Mam), I have to seek reassurance from myself. And here's the crux of the problem for the pathological self-doubter: I don't trust myself.

The German novelist Franz Kafka once said "Writing is utter solitude, the descent into the cold abyss of oneself". Now when I first read that, I thought it was one seriously depressing quote. But after I let it sit with me and sink in, I realised that there was something quite... inspiring about it. The image of the cold abyss reminds me of George Mallory or Edmund Hilary climbing Everest. A challenge. A journey. Possibly insurmountable but there's only one way of finding out. By putting one step in front of the other, forgetting about the elements and bravely going further than you ever thought possible.

I feel a definite pang of loneliness when I'm writing, because ultimately I am alone when I write and I can't pick up the phone and ask for help if I hit a wall. I have to make a decision about whether or not my dialogue is realistic or at what point should I end chapter 5. These are all decisions that can be reviewed and altered in the editing stage, but in the here and now, I have to make the call. And I have to keep writing.

On the other hand, I do feel proud when I look back on the sentences/paragraphs/pages that I've written and tell myself I wrote that. That can be the difference in spurring me on to write even more as opposed to moping about, making endless cups of tea and watching ER repeats because I'm too uncertain to make a decision.

So I've vowed to start treating myself with more respect when I write. I'm trying to accept the advice that I give myself when I begin to doubt or procrastinate. At the end of the day writing a bad paragraph is better than writing no paragraph at all. I have to accept that my writing, just like any area in my life (or indeed anyone's life) isn't perfect and that's not such a bad thing.

I've also made a pact with myself that only when I do a really good writing session, I allow myself a (chocolate) treat and an episode of ER. So it's pretty much an incentive now to listen to myself and get it written down. A life without chocolate and ER really isn't worth living!

Thanks for reading guys, hope you enjoyed it. I'm off to eat the last cookie and watch some ER - I think I deserve it!


  1. ha ha!!! here's hoping you'll be enjoying lots of cookies (wouldn't wish E.R. on anybody!!) keep it up!! as an avid reader, i'm really looking forward to having an author in the family!!!

    1. Thanks Chris! It'd be great to represent the mckenna's in the literary world! And i'm going to ignore the ER comment... for the sake of our bloodline... ;)

  2. thanks for mentioning me! loved your quote from Mr Kafka. Was just reading in the gospel of Luke (don't mean to be preachy!)where it says "Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed". It seems that all great men and women need to be able to embrace the lonely times too in whatever work they do but especially it seems for a writer. A fellow Social Worker, Brené Brown has some interesting things to say about accepting ourselves, google/youtube her if you want.

    Anyway see you work in a few minutes!

  3. While you might feel alone, there are lots of people metaphorically holding your hand and willing you on (and waiting for the invite to the book launch!). We're all with you in spirit. Take heart from the good wishes and keep on that road

  4. I know exactly what you mean about needing reassurance as a writer. I suffer a lot of insecurity about my writing, whether it's good enough, whether people will enjoy it or think it's rubbish! And by its nature writing is generally a solitary activity. We don't always have people around us or those who know what it's like to tell us that we're doing OK. That's why I find Twitter and blogs like this so helpful. We can talk to each other, albeit virtually, and commiserate or congratulate each other on our work. All I would say is keep trying! You'll get there in the end.