Friday, March 16, 2012


**--Warning - this is a bit of a self-indulgent and introspective moan. These thoughts have been clogging up my brain space for too long, so hopefully putting them down here will get rid of them and make space for something more productive.--**

Nostalgia ain't what it used to be, as the vaguely amusing saying goes, and the past is always viewed through rose-tinted spectacles, but I can't help looking back over the last few years and wondering where did my enthusiasm go?

Perhaps I'm fooling myself. Perhaps I never really had any passion for anything and have simply persuaded myself into thinking that once I did. Whatever the truth of it, I seem to have difficulty igniting that spark any more.

I must have had something once. You can't sustain yourself through writing eleven novels, dozens of short stories and countless comic scripts without at least a dream behind the effort - or of course the sort of stubborn pig-headedness that I've already admitted to. I do recall a time when I was busy with creating new worlds in my head and on my screen, so wrapped up in what I was doing that I often neglected crucial things like eating and taking the dogs for walks. I refused to go to a Hogmanay party a few years back - sending the Horse Doctor out on her own. Partly because I had man-flu and didn't want to spread it around, but mostly because I'd set myself the goal of finishing the first draft of Natural Causes before the year was out. What year, you ask? Why, 2006. 

Something happened then that kicked the life out of my passion for writing. Or perhaps it was many things - the death wasn't sudden. I polished up Natural Causes and wrote The Book of Souls in 2007, after all. But from 2008 on, my output has been quite frankly pathetic. One finished novel of around 60k words that I think is utter rubbish, and one unfinished novel that I keep looking at in despair before putting aside for another month or two.

Excuses? Well, we bought a house in late 2007, the Horse Doctor and I. It was a wreck - barely habitable, and yet cost more than we could really afford. I took on the restoration work with the kind of naive innocence I attack most things: it never occurred to me that I wouldn't be able to do it, so I did it. The house is now lovely, but seems to be unsellable in the current market.

Then my cat died, killed in the road outside our new house. It seems strange to be so badly affected by this but I was. Perhaps it was one of those famous last straws, though many more were heaped upon my back not long afterwards. The dawning realisation that buying the house might have been just a bit of a mistake was horribly compounded by Buddug's sad demise. When my parents were killed in a car crash a few months later, I had to fight against the horrible feeling that I missed my cat more. It wasn't true, of course. I missed my cat differently - she was a constant companion. My parents were an intermittent part of my life. I missed them both and always will.

I was working at the time of all this. A dead-end temporary job that really did my head in. But we needed the money - stretched too far buying the house, you see. Evenings and weekends were spent on renovations and my writing had to take a back seat. This was perhaps the beginning of the slippery slope. Once you stop, it's very hard to get that momentum going again. 

I managed a rewrite of The Book of Souls, taking out the supernatural elements and trying to remove all the bits that made it obviously a sequel to Natural Causes. The first McLean book had not really reaped the reward I'd hoped for from being short-listed for the Debut Dagger, and indeed I'd parted company with my agent not long after it. The second one, however, had netted me interest from several new agents and more hopefully, an editor at a major publishing house. The changes were necessary, so I thought, to make the book more marketable.

Big mistake. What came out in the rewrite was a jumbled mess, with way too many plot threads left fraying in the wind. One reader even quoted Chekhov's gun at me, which for someone who has studied literature and written for as long as I have was particularly galling. True though.

The whole thing fell through, of course. The publishing house politely declined, and the agent who'd been interested suddenly found something else to do with his life. Me, I was busy trying to pick up the pieces left by my parents' deaths - a task made even less bearable by the incredibly unprofessional incompetence of the lawyers acting on behalf of my father's estate. There was no argument between my brothers, sister and I over how things should be split up, but it still took three years to accomplish. It's very difficult - at least I find it very difficult - to concentrate on anything when your future is in that kind of legal and financial limbo. You just about get your head down and into something and another email bombshell arrives, requiring immediate attention and altering all the plans you had carefully laid. Stressful? I'd say so.

But none of this should have mattered. None of it should have distracted me from something if that something was my passion. At least that's the romantic notion - the struggling writer in his garret, wearing fingerless mitts because he can't afford heating, toiling into the wee small hours, ruining his eyesight, his health, his relationships, all because he is driven by an unstoppable force to get those words out of his head and onto the page.

I'm not that guy, and apart from one New Year's Eve party many years ago, I don't think I've ever been that guy. I started writing because I enjoyed telling stories, but also because I couldn't think of anything better to do. Then I met a few writers who were doing OK, and foolishly thought I might be able to make a career out of it. That was twenty years ago, and I've still only earned a few hundred quid from my entire literary output. So should I stop trying to kid myself I'm a writer?

No. Of course not. Eleven novels, albeit of varying quality, are I think enough to justify the label. And I still have dreams of seeing my work for sale in bookshops, of maybe even signing my name in the front of one of my novels for someone I've never met before. Someone who has bought it because they've read my work and liked it enough to part with cash. But that's an aspiration - something over which I have no control. Time to start focussing on the goals again. 

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Blogger terlee said...

I think you might be too isolated out there on the farm by yourself. You're spending too much time in your head.

I can totally identify.

I never wanted to leave Edinburgh, but my husband wanted an adventure. We came to America, and within 8 months he had died, and I found myself isolated and alone on top of a mountain, in a small town where I knew nary a soul.

Writing has always sustained me, at least until last year. I'm still struggling to find that burning rush of creativity that floods my mind and overtakes all else. I got 50K into my second book but haven't been able to do anything more. It's a odd guilt thing, in a way, isn't it, not being able to carry on? The best I can do at the moment is blog. Some days even that's an effort.

I guess what I'm trying to say here is that being isolated isn't good for the soul. It's one thing to have the fantasy of living in that garrett, suffering for your craft, but quite another in real life when your imagination shrivels like an old apple from lack of stimulus.

Wish the Horse Doc could be around for you more often, or you could pop down to Wales now and again. Maybe that would help to focus the goals...

March 17, 2012 7:54 pm  
Blogger JamesO said...

It's a strange kind of solitude, as I am living right next door to my brother and his family. I probably get to see and talk to more people in an average day here than I ever did down in Wales. But the whole farming thing was supposed to be our project, and right now it's only me doing it.

Your situation sounds infinitely worse, Terlee. At least I can phone up the Horse Doctor, and she comes up for long weekends as often as she can.

I think what gets in the way of the writing is a sense of 'why bother?' that is draped over everything. It is, pure and simple, depression. Recognising that is, I hope, the first step to overcoming it. Now all I need to do is put together some strategies to lift myself out of it.

Of course, never having been the most organised of people doesn't really help.

March 21, 2012 10:18 am  

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