Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Long Route: A Manifesto for the Late-Blooming Writer

This piece first appeared in The Emerging Writer, a collection of essays on writing published in conjunction with The Emerging Writers’ Festival.

Patience, they say, is a virtue. For writers it’s a way of life. Ideas, inspiration and the right words can’t be forced, just facilitated. Sometimes the same goes for your writing career.

Some of us take a little longer than we’d like, going through our 20s, maybe 30s and beyond, unsure just what it is we want to do with our love of words, including whether or not to actually turn it from  a hobby into a money-earner.

Some of us take the long route, with inevitable detours; maybe doing a couple of degrees and hopping around the many jobs that involve words before figuring it out. That’s ok – indeed, it’s necessary.

The beauty of writing is that it can be informed by any and all experiences. Along the way you’ll also pick up a range of skills you missed or weren’t taught at university. I also believe we all benefit from having writers entering the fray at different points of their lives.

Just as we want a diverse group of members of parliament (pardon the comparison) so too should writers – the people who create, translate and explore thoughts and ideas – be a diverse group, with a wide range of experiences and perspectives.

After a decade or more of figuring out what I want to be when I grow up and how – or, indeed, if – I can earn a living from my lifelong love of words, I’ve only in the last year or so properly thrown myself back into writing. It hasn’t been a lost decade of aimless wandering along streets with no names, but of learning and discovery.

There’s nothing wrong with taking this road to establishing what it is you want to do with your writing. It’s precisely how some develop their voice and identity as writers.

Of course, I don’t expect you to take my word for it, so I got the thoughts of a few Melbourne-based writers who have had a similar journey, on how they feel it has shaped their writing, whether they have regrets and their feelings on the topical issue of writing for free.

John Weldon was 32 when he first thought seriously about being a writer. He says he “woke up one morning and knew that if I was ever going to be a writer I had to start that day, or it would never happen … so I quit my job and started.”Now he is a freelance writer, author, coordinator of <i>Meanland</i> and teacher of Professional and Creative Writing at Victoria University.

Musician, novelist and blogger, Benjamin Grant Mitchell has spent his whole adult life in the arts in some form, whether playing in bands or acting, but it was not until after seven years of playing gigs and promoting music in London that he getting stuck into his first novel, and in 2012 released his second.

Melanie Joosten published her first book in 2012 after spending her 20s travelling, studying both creative arts and editing, and working in marketing and communications at a publishing firm and in the arts industry. Despite being a published author, with an Australian Council New Work grant to draft her second novel, she doesn’t consider herself a professional writer. Interestingly, Melanie’s most recent course was social work, and she has started working three days a week working at the National Ageing Research Institute with older people who are experiencing depression.

All three always have had a lifelong passion for writing but agreed that their writing capability has been enhanced by the experience of not promptly answering their calling. Ah, vindication!

John says that at 32 he felt far more comfortable cold calling people, “which you’ve got to do as a freelancer. I couldn’t have done that when I was young, but I was able to do it at 32 and it led me to scoring some great jobs very early in my writing career.”

Benjamin sometimes wishes he’d had “the self-confidence to commit to writing earlier … but I also accept that was not my path. I do feel the life-experience, including knowing what it is like to not feel ‘entitled’ to a certain career or even job-title, is invaluable. Gotta live, man.”

Melanie was the only one who expressed any real regret, but not in the way you might assume.

“I don’t wish I’d pursued writing earlier,” she admits, “if anything, I wish I pursued social work earlier. I like having a completely different occupation to balance out my writing. Otherwise I risk becoming too inward looking and not engaging in the world.”

This fascinating insight is probably most pertinent for fiction writers, but undoubtedly relevant to all of us who engage in this often lonely endeavour.

Each felt that establishing themselves later gave them a greater appreciation of the great privilege it is to be a writer.

Personally, I relate somewhat to each of these sentiments.

I enjoyed writing more than anything else at school but was somewhat directionless when it came time to choose my own path so, naturally, I did an Arts Degree. I was well aware of how few people make money as creative writers in their 20s, and how depressingly competitive the graduate journalism job market is. I’m trying hard not to use the word ‘regret’, but I do look back and realise I should have engaged with like-minded people and in activities outside of class much more than I did (i.e. at all), but I was horribly introverted and insecure.

Communications seemed like a sensible compromise in study and early career, allowing me to build valuable skills as well as maintaining just enough of a professional relationship with my words. In my first real job, working with the website for a major accounting organisation, I learnt far more in ten months about online communication than I had in four years of university. The next position, a communications role in local government, exposed me to issues from town planning and urban design to conservation and sustainability. I had the opportunities to write and edit a variety of content, but just enough avoid rust. Yet I had no connection with the outside writing world. Other than entering a couple of short story competitions, writing for enjoyment and expression was limited to irregularly journal entries and regular Facebook updates.

I wish I could say, like John, I woke up one day and threw everything I had at my dream. Sadly, I was too caught up in self-doubt and uncertainty. Coming to the end of my 20s, I was seriously considering my direction, but the catalyst came in the most clich├ęd form – romantic interest. Indeed, a young lady saw the enthusiasm for writing that I’d subconsciously hidden away, believed in my ability more than I did and inspired me to take a few important steps. Before she sauntered out of my life she insisted I do two things – blog and tweet. Despite doubting my ability to write interesting blog posts and my general derision for Twitter, I got stuck into both.

It is unlikely I need extol the virtues of either of platform to most readers of this book, but if you’re not doing either and you’re somewhere along that path trying to find your way, get online now. Blogging allowed me to rediscover my creativity, expression and enthusiasm for writing, and on Twitter I have discovered a whole new community of like-minded people, including many writers, to interact and network with on various levels.

Soon enough I had the opportunity to take on a role as a volunteer writer – and later, editor – with a human rights website, which, in turn gave me a reference point to secure some freelance online writing work. Both opportunities came via people I knew, but only because I’d started putting myself out there and showing people – by doing it – that I was enthusiastic about, and capable of, writing well.

All of this writing still takes place outside my day job, but I suppose I’m making up for some of those missed opportunities at university. Also, I feel better placed to tackle the challenges of making money out of writing than I was two, five or ten years ago.

All the standard advice for aspiring writers (including myself) of any age applies – write, read, write more, blog, tweet, engage with fellow writers and other interesting people, go to events and festivals, and so forth.

Benjamin Mitchell: “The more you write, the clearer your voice becomes … Along the way you will imitate, placate and churn through a seemingly never ending manifestation of externally applied, internally exorcised pretentious demons, and only if you write enough will you have any chance of getting to the truth of who you are as a writer and what you really have to say.”

Your voice may take a while to find. It is much more than learning about words and prose, sentence structure, form, style and rules. But what is this abstract notion of ‘voice’ people keep banging on about?

To my mind, writing is translation. English (for most of us) is a second language. Our natural, instinctive language is the one we’re born with: unstructured thoughts, feelings and senses – and every person on the planet has their own, unique internal dialect.

Finding your voice, to me, is about mastering that translation of neurons as they fire between synapses, somehow using words to make sense of them and hopefully communicating something close to the idea, feeling or picture in your head.

Finding your voice, exploring your interests, and deciding what kind of writer you want to be can take time.

The long route is neither a journey of procrastination nor merely a waiting game. It is a legitimate path for writers, but you still need to keep moving and keep building towards that dream. Keep writing, but also get out there and do things to stimulate those neurons.

Like any trip, it is as much about the journey as the destination. And writing is probably always going to be a journey – a story in itself – even once you feel like you’ve arrived.

See you on the road.