The cursor blinks.
The perfect horror of the blank screen stares back. An eel curls and bites my innards. The urge to run is strong.
I place my fingers on the keys. Hot sticky blood beneath the nails.
This isn’t supposed to be how it is. I’m supposed to be enjoying it. Chasing the dream.
Maybe if it came easy, like it seems to for everyone else. Like the first book. Ghost Bird. The one that only a short six months ago was thrown into the world carrying my hopes on its slim spine. I told myself, it’s only a debut, just the beginning of my journey as a writer. Tempered my expectations. The eternal pessimist, always hoping for the best, planning for the worst. I miss the characters. I want to find their voices again, throw them into hell and watch them overcome it. Then came the shortlisting, once, twice, three times! God, the excitement and the absolute terror. How am I ever going to top this?
Trapped inside my house, I exist in multiple worlds at once: the shocked writer with the shortlisted first book; the absent academic with the unfinished manuscript; the aunty who reads her latest manuscript to her nieces and nephews every night, and revels in their excitement. I feel trapped in a wave-tossed dinghy: Can I write? No, I can’t! Maybe I can? No wonder I feel nauseous.
I want to whack my head against the wall. The first book wasn’t easy. It took me a decade of hard work, feedback, rewriting. Somehow in the retelling I make it all sound so minimal. I take a breath. Tell myself I should be proud of my efforts.
But writing Ghost Bird can’t have been as hard as this?
I’m sure I didn’t come away from each writing session feeling like I’d damaged myself. And why? Is it too close? Too real? Second-bookitis? This time not witnessed from across the safe distance of my editor’s desk? I empathised so much with the writers I worked with, but it’s a whole new ballgame feeling this first hand. I can’t rationalise it away.
Does this new work just suck? The last three attempts at a second book sure did, each one tried and abandoned at different points. Fifteen thousand words of one work here, 45,000 words of another there, the half-chewed corpses litter my computer files. None of it good enough. This attempt will probably be the same.
I battle on. There are moments of flow, where I lose myself in the story, the characters – their voices take over. Joy racing my fingers across the board as they struggle and fail to keep up with my thoughts. So many missed words. Typos.
Urgh, you’re an editor dammit! If you can’t make it good, then at least make it clean.
And there she is. My dark passenger, so good at disguising herself as me. I lean back, reaching my hands behind my head and tip my face to the ceiling. Trying to stretch the tension from my neck and shoulders. I’d kill for a distraction, an excuse to run.
My mind grasps the email I received last night from a creative writing student. A student who appeared so confident in class, yet here they were asking me for help, outlining all their fears. All refrains I have seen or heard from myself and my students before. None of them are unique – but this is the first student I’ve had be so open and honest about their feelings. I admire that bravery, that vulnerabilty, and my heart aches for them. They say they can’t write, that their dream is pointless because their writing sucks, how their marks never match their hopes or expectations, confirming all of the above. They’re drowning too. God, can I relate. I didn’t know what to say. I mulled it over the whole night – how to help them when I can’t help myself? Admonished myself for opening work emails at 10pm.
This morning I’d sent off the longest email that I’ve ever written to a student. I told them straight, there are no easy answers. I’m struggling with all these feelings myself – imposter, fraud, bad writer, worse person. That these feelings are normal, and they are not alone. I never had high marks in my creative writing classes at university either, but we all have to start somewhere. They’re only in their first semesters: try to be patient and learn as much as possible. No one goes to a couple of art classes and expects to paint like Monet. I encouraged them to join a writers group, to seek out like-minded passionate people. Find interviews or pieces by their favourite creatives speaking about how they handle this. Try their strategies and see what happens. Because there is no ‘one way’. No magical recipe for how to address these feelings. Only the way or ways that will work for them.
I should keep up a mirror on my desk, take some of my own damn advice.
I told them to understand that writing is a practical task, one that often gets underestimated. No one can pick up a book and see the years and years of hard work and multiple people who worked on it – so we assume it came into the world looking like that. The only way through is never to stop writing or learning. I’d sat there staring at the screen for a long time before I forced myself to hit send. I only hope it helped.
I wish we could have had this conversation in class! Guaranteed all of my students are experiencing some version of these fears. It could’ve helped all of them. I miss their faces, their voices. The discussions and disagreements that technology just cannot compensate for. Seeing lightbulbs go on as things become heated or hilarious. Watching all of the interactions or exercises spark something creative and inspiring in a person. That human connection.
The last sentence of the email read: ‘I need to print this email out and hang it above my desk’.
And here I sit. No printing done. No writing done. Staring up at the ceiling looking for ways to run from my writing. Keeping my mind off my students, and my favourite line to them – Just write!
I yank myself away from my desk. There’s only so long I can take my own bullshit before I get annoyed.
I have two options. I can sit here and push through, or I can get into the shower. Ignore my work for one more hour. Then another. Maybe do some chores. The kitchen is disgusting.
Does it have to be either/or?
I step under the spray, draw the steam into my lungs. Heat slices my skin, warming my bones and loosening aching muscles. I take a seat. The country kid in me is horrified by the waste.
I close my eyes. Imagine that inner voice, sitting opposite me. The tough, mouthy teenager with defences too high for anyone to scale. She’s wary and angry with me for putting us in this position. I’ve always admired her will and speed with a comeback. She’s the protector. And tormentor. Because to be safe, we must never risk. Never be vulnerable.
I look beneath her, like the counsellor showed me. To the scared little girl buried inside. The one who’d been so out of place, bullied by teachers and children. For being black but not black enough, smart but not smart enough. The Teen grew up and protected the Kid. I can’t help but feel proud of her. But now we’re all scared.
Scared that we’re not good enough to have our dream.
Scared what we’ll show if we are.
Each publication has brought a fresh hell of inadequacy. Awkward realisations that I’ve revealed too much, buried in conversations with readers.
Failure was never a word we were allowed to own. Now we have no control of it. And to fail at this one thing, that means the most?
In her young face I see my nieces and nephews. I know this age. God, poor kid.
I extend my arms and pull the Kid in for a hug. Forcing the Teen to come too.
I’ve given this to everyone but myself. I don’t want to be the tortured writer who never finds their way. I want to write, and share. Embrace joy. And risk.
We vow to find the fun. Together.
Stepping out of the shower, I prop open the window. The steam rolls away from it. Feeling the chill, rain-soaked air on my skin, racing over me in a pleasurable way. Dressing, I try to keep the calm close. Hold it in like a breath I’m scared to release.
I pad over wood floors to the makeshift lounge in our renovator’s delight. Soon the walls and ceiling will collapse under the hammer. I find my nest. A single spot on the couch, filled with notepads, laptop, diary, knitting, throw (last year’s project), phone, charger, handbag, random things and cushions to sit on and support my back. The white and pink dog blanket laid out for the needy staffy who camps beside me, occasionally shoving her large square head in front of the keyboard, or pushing the laptop oh so slowly off to one side. Spoilt little goofball.
It is always a nest, but right now it’s a rat’s nest. As is my desk. My partner despairs, unclear why I can’t bring myself to work over at my desk. I’m not sure either. It’s better over there – no TV, no knitting, not as many distractions.
I sit and type and let it come.
The words flow now, not fast, but they’re moving. I want to clean up my couch-nest, clean off the desk, and find a rhythm, a pattern that serves me better. Distraction? No, stay here and write!
The Teen and the Kid wait. They’re still there, staring out through my eyes. A habit of a lifetime can’t be broken that easily. But they’ve always been there, and I wrote a whole book. And I’m still writing now.