Writer: a not so secret identity

A decade or so ago, I was indulging in the idea that I might want to be some sort of writer. The ambition was old but the thought it was something I could pursue was brand new. Someone close to me asked whether it felt as though I had a secret identity. He was thinking of that ambition, that goal, as a sort of superhero-esque mission – one that could be turned to when crappy jobs and endless chores made days seem long and fruitless.

penAt the time, writing was a fairly private thing for me and an ambition not many of my friends knew about. It meant I was free to try and fail, and fail again, in private. People didn’t know what I was up to so they didn’t ask how my writing was going/if I’d had anything published recently/whether I had any spoken word gigs coming up. I could lick my wounds and learn my lessons quietly.

But as time went on and I put myself up for more and more opportunities, as I submitted to magazines and journals and shared links when work was published, as I started to stand up in front of a mic and read to my pals, as I (ahem) started a blog, writing was no longer any sort of secret – it’d become part of my public identity.

I took a partial pen name – May is my middle name – to keep creative writing separate from copywriting. Despite that, the lines quickly blurred. A pen name might take the pressure off your personal life, it doesn’t protect you from reviews, questions, online comments etcetera.

Exposure was inevitable and it was necessary. As much as I can’t help thinking it’d be nicer and easier to have writing as something I could retreat to, a pastime with no expectations attached and which would only be revealed in the moment of glory, I know that’s not how it works.

Even superheroes find their secret identities cause them no end of bother and anyway, to succeed you have to put yourself out there and accept how vulnerable it makes you. It’s much easier to make mistakes when no one is looking but if you want to improve, the only way to do it is to let other people in and to pay attention to what they’re saying. Chances are, most of them are trying to help and support you. just don’t tell them they’re now officially the sidekicks on your writing mission.

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The freedom of freelancing and Cove Park adventures

The life of a freelancer is, by nature, a little on the precarious side. When I left the safety of my full time, management/digital content job, I worried I was going to find the whole process of finding and juggling work scared me witless.

Luckily, by and large, it hasn’t. Even when things have occasionally felt hairy, something has come up (often at the very last minute) to keep my bank account in the black and my nails from being chewed down to the quick.

A lot of the time I work from home, sometimes I pop into an office for a concentrated couple of weeks and occasionally I take on a longer contract and spend a few days a month working in-house. It can all feel a little haphazard and I’ve had to get a lot better at managing my calendar in recent years.

On the bright side, swapping projects, clients and even locations means that I rarely get that deep, ingrained boredom that dampens down my desire to be creative. Precariousness has its benefits!

exterior21-500x234Holding your nerve until the right bit of work comes up isn’t always fun, but occasionally a nice reward for your unpredictable existence comes your way – and I’m lucky enough to have just had one of those show up. This summer I’ll be spending a month at Cove Park, thanks to their 2016 Emerging Scottish Writer Residency.

And, thanks to the fact the only boss I’ve got to beg for time off is myself, tootling off to the countryside for some serious writing time should be a doddle.

Winter survival for the freelance writer

Frozen, demoralised and contemplating ‘leaving the house’? Try these instead.

coffee2Achieve hot drink harmony

Carefully weigh up the cosy-finger benefits of a cup of coffee or tea against the frigidity of your bathroom. Constant, cold pee breaks will quickly undermine the warming factor of frequent hot drinks. What coffee giveth with one hand, it taketh away with the other.

Waste no available sources

Got an old laptop that struggles to stay cool under pressure? Watch a few videos and wait for the base to heat up. Be sure to lie down and place laptop on trunk for maximum efficiency. If printing large documents on an ink jet printer, hold the collated pages to chest for residual warmth.

cape
Buy a cape/blanket/poncho

Normal clothes are not enough for workers as stationary and sedentary as you. Layers are your friend. Also useful for concealing pyjamas, three day old stains etc. Running around pretending that you are Dracula is optional, but useful for generating body heat which can then be trapped be aforementioned layers.

Have a shower

When core temperature drops significantly and the mouse-clicking fingers start to feel like bunch of frozen baby carrots taped to a stone, have a hot shower. Also useful for avoiding emails and providing a legitimate excuse for not writing. Should be used sparingly due to high electricity costs.

Burn your failures

Bills, rejected copy, that novel you’ve been writing for most of your adult life – all can be valuable resources when the winter chill hits. An open fireplace or wood burning stove is preferable. Not only can you enjoy sitting in front of a cracking flame, the burning of failures provides that all important inner glow.

RLS Fellowship: A retreat is a better than rest

DSC01698As far as I can tell, writers are pretty bad at taking holidays. You’re either working or you’re writing and often those two things are one and the same, but it’s not the kind of work it’s easy to shut the office door on. Wherever you are, there’s a little voice in the back of your said squeaking ‘this is all very nice, but shouldn’t you be writing?’ And maybe you should. On the other hand, sometimes you have to have some actual real world experiences, if only to generate new things to write about.

For the last year and a half, all my self-organised trips were short writing breaks. I went for a day or two at a time and each was great but not the same as an actual rest, so when I found out I’d been awarded a Robert Louis Stevenson Fellowship through Scottish Book Trust and was off to spend the whole of June in Grez-sur-Loing, France, I was both incredibly stoked and a little bit nervous. Would I produce enough work while I was there? Would I find that a long-dreamed-for month of writing time was better in my imagination than in reality? Would I go crazy?

DSC01960Happily, I stayed pretty sane (no thanks to the mosquitos who all thought I was the best thing since sliced bread – a loaf of Mother’s Pride, no doubt – and thanks in part to the other artists at the hotel) and managed to write a bunch, even though the first few days were largely taken up with feeling weird and wondering what I was mean to be doing. In the end, I decided I was meant to be eating lots of poire amades, exploring the area in a very low key way and just thinking about things.

It was very inspiring to stay in a hotel so beloved by generations of artists and writers and the building and its grounds are so charming I felt like I’d stepped into another life. One of the best parts was the fact that I was away for so long, which meant that even though I was researching and thinking and writing, it actually did feel a little bit like a holiday too. I’m getting the feeling I prefer the working kind anyway.

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Writing Without a Goal

Most days, I sit down and I write copy for one client or another. Sometimes it’s interesting, sometimes it’s incredibly dry and other times it’s frustratingly vague, but all client work has something in common – a very clear objective and a defined finish line to cross. The work is done when it meets the criteria agreed in the brief and the client is happy with it. So far, so satisfying.

And then, later on in the day, I’m likely to be sitting down for a second time and writing something that just doesn’t have the same kind of clear cut boundaries. I’ll be switching to the fiction part of the day and unless it’s a commissioned story or I’m writing for a themed event, THERE ARE NO RULES. The only objectives are the ones I made myself and the client is, well, anyone I can persuade to read the results. So far, so woolly!

There’s something very freeing about knowing you can write about absolutely anything you want, but it can also be kind of unnerving. Especially if you get stuck thinking that every piece of writing should have a specific end point and a worth measured by a client or reader’s satisfaction.

Once you start putting on that kind of pressure, you can end up feeling as though writing your own stuff is the very opposite of freeing.

If I'm really stuck, I might actually sketch instead!

If I’m really stuck, I might actually sketch instead!

In fact, it’s almost paralysing, because to be honest, not everything you write should be seen be someone else. Sometimes, you should be writing just to try something out, to get a random idea out your head or even to fail so that you can get it right next time.

Think of that writing you do that might not end up in a novel or as its own, perfectly formed short story as just another page in your artist’s sketchbook. Just like painters, everything you do has merit, even if the result is nothing you’d want to hang on the wall. Let yourself write without a goal and just when you’re doodling and scribbling away at something just for the fun of it, there’s a good chance you’ll hit on an idea you want to take forward after all.

Between too busy and just busy enough to write

Lynsey May at NYC LibraryThe great writing dream is surely a completely clear schedule. Day after day, week after week of time to yourself, to think and dream and immerse yourself in a consciousness not entirely your own. I dream about it often enough, especially when I’m juggling a bunch of different and quite disparate projects. In reality though, I know it probably wouldn’t suit me.

What does suit is a fine balance between being too busy to start getting my thoughts in any kind of order and having so little to do that my brain starts to hibernate and hunts for low-impact tasks to keep it ticking over (making soup, reorganising my desk and so on).

It’s not an easy balance to achieve – it’s far too easy to tip one way and then the other – but when it’s working well, everything is energised. Work achievements energise writing and getting something creative done fills me with wellbeing that spills into everything else. For me, this elusive balance is probably the real dream and it’s in its pursuit that I stopped helping out at the excellent Edinburgh Review.

I’ll miss that place but I have lots of other extracurricular activities to keep me going (I’m looking at you, Edinburgh City of Literature and Porty Book Fest!). Of course, there’s the regular day job too, but I’m lucky enough to be freelance.

There have also been a few little injections of writing faith in recent weeks, including a spot on the Bristol Prize Longlist, which sometimes throw you off balance but always in the best possible way. Is the desire to be busy, but just a little bit busy, pretty average for writing types or do you think that a window of completely free time is what you really need to get going?

Writing chat and camera shyness

A few weeks ago the lovely Lucy Ribchester and I headed along to SummerhallTV for a wee chat about the New Writer Awards and all things book and writing related. It was fun. I was nervous. It turns out I gesticulate a lot more than I thought I did. Interviewer Nicole Brandon was lovely and we nattered on for ages. Overall, a nice first-ever on screen interview experience.

Scottish Book Trust : New Writers Award from arts-news on Vimeo.

Leaving the phone home alone

Bad phone, naughty phone

Bad phone, naughty phone

I don’t do New Year resolutions (I don’t think I like giving myself an opportunity to fail) but this year I had to. This year, I realised I was overly attached to my phone and that this seductive little chunk of chips and shiny pixels was sapping my concentration levels. So, I made a promise to myself that at least once a day, I’d leave my phone at home.

Why did I have to make a rule for something so silly? Because that phone seems to sneak its way into my hand without even a second of conscious thought. One minute I’m daydreaming about something, the next I’m checking this and checking that and my head is filled with all kinds of minutia. Enough, I decided. So far this year, I’ve left the house sans mobile at least once a day. Something that’s not even an achievement, but that has brought about a definite improvement.

My phone-free time is normally just a walk round the Links, a trip to the shops or some uninterrupted writing time in a cafe. And, it’s been kind of brilliant. I am a bit worried by how often I seem to pat my pockets, even when I know my phone isn’t in them, but I’m hoping it’s a habit I can begin to break.

A word of warning, however. If you do decide to leave your phone at home, remember to pick up your house keys before you go. Yesterday, I managed to forget this vital piece of advice and spent several hours wandering around Leith with some heavy bags of shopping. Partly because the dawn of the mobile age erased my abilities to remember anyone’s phone number. Ah phone, you wee trickster.

When will there be good news?

Some weeks, the world seems to be conspiring against you. And when one of those weeks rolls around, I often find myself repeating the title of a book by one of my favourite authors like a mantra: When Will There be Good News? When? WHEN?

Then I have to remind myself that, really, I already have my share of good news. True, I could have done without cutting my finger on the recycling cans, chipping my tooth on Friday night’s dinner, losing my hat at the museum, getting a reminder for a smear test, receiving some disappointing writing news and finding out about hassley flat stuff all within the space of a few days. But overall, I am a lucky duck.

list logoI get to spend lots of time making up stories and earn my living by putting some words beside some other words, I know some very lovely people and I have tested all of the cafes in a two mile radius and rated them for coffee and treat excellence (in my head, anyway). Last week even had a few highlights of its own, including mother’s day fun, gossip with a pal and a flash fiction of mine in The List, thanks to lovely literary editor Kirsty Logan.

That’s enough to be going on for now and fingers crossed this week is going to be just a touch luckier when it comes to minor injuries and annoyances!