Back to basics: a writer’s guide to remembering you’re a writer

In a bizarre reversal of the sunk-cost fallacy, I’ve been nervous about updating this blog; the longer I left it, the more awkward it seemed to start writing again.

I was probably jump-started into action by going to Writers’ Circle last week (also for the first time in ages). Excuses: I’ve been away singing a lot; the novel has taken over; I’ve got a new part-time job as administrator for an Oxford-based orchestra – but I really needed to get back to the aspects of my writing life that gave me the confidence to do novel-related things in the first place. They’re still important. 

If you need a boost, or can’t quite use the word “writer” to introduce yourself at parties because you have another job too, try one or all of the following. In combination, they’ve slowly whittled away at my imposter syndrome. 

1. Start a blog

When people ask me what I write, or where my stuff appears, I always talk about my novel-in-progress, but I mention my blog too as a way of taking the pressure off the novel. I don’t set a particularly good example here (when exactly was the last post?), but having a public blog is a great way of introducing people to the idea of you as a writer. And it keeps your hand in; by maintaining a blog, you can desensitise yourself to the terror of actually showing people what you write. 

2. Start reviewing

I owe a lot to Eleanor over at Elle Thinks – she commissioned my first review for Quadrapheme, and encouraged me to start writing for Shiny New Books. I’m not a regular reviewer, but it’s another small aspect of my writing life that’s public and searchable, and of which I’m enormously proud, especially because reviewing led to feature writing. I’d like to do more. Reading with intention (and attention) the way you need to for reviewing makes you so much more aware of what you think, and makes you question your assessment of other people’s work. Invaluable.

3. Find a writer’s group near you, and join it 

This doesn’t need much explanation, but I want to say two things: first, Meetup is your friend in this scenario (that’s how I found the Oxford Writers’ Circle), and also, meeting up with other people who are on this weird, lonely quest is incredibly reassuring. Which leads me to…

4. Go to a festival for writers, a workshop, a retreat, or a class

Ok, disclaimer: I am about to get very effusive about a particular festival, so bear with me. They haven’t paid me to say these things; in fact, I paid them quite a lot to attend all three days (food and lodging included, which must have been a significant proportion of the cost). But by God, it was worth every penny. 

In September I went to the Festival of Writing in York. It’s hard to describe how surreal it was to arrive on campus at York University and walk up to the conference centre. I have never, ever felt that way except in dreams, just at the point where they become lucid and I realise nothing’s actually there. I was convinced it wasn’t real, even at the point where I was pinning my nametag to my sweater and going into the first seminar. But suddenly I was surrounded by four hundred other writers who wanted to figure out how to give themselves a better shot at publication, and it was all so warm and reassuring that I woke up for the next two mornings with a sense of profound happiness that I’ve rarely experienced before. It helped that I made friends – they say you will, and you don’t believe it, but then you do – and I came second in a best opening chapter competition in the second night, which brought about some good connections that now mean I’m working on my novel with a renewed sense of urgency. Above all, though, I can commend this sort of thing because it means surrounding yourself with people (agents and editors and book doctors) who not only empathise, but are actively interested in finding and fostering talent and helping you get ahead; and it makes the whole endeavour seem utterly real. Not imaginary. Real, and achievable.

5. Get a notebook you like, and drag it around (with a pen)

Now on to the greatest joy of all – stationery! Just kidding (except I’m not. At all). 

I may be alone in this, but I type too quickly to produce a useful first draft. The act of writing by hand forces me to slow down significantly; although I can still quite happily produce several A5 handwritten pages in a sitting, writing by hand means they’re invariably of higher quality than they’d be if I had bashed them out on my laptop. Also, as irritating as it may be for me to make this point, notebooks don’t need to be charged. They can be dropped without getting wrecked. They can even be dropped in a puddle without getting (completely) wrecked. They can be crammed into a bag quite successfully and live to fight another day. Admittedly, you can’t back them up or upload your content to the cloud without sitting down and typing everything up periodically, but the process of typing up is a brilliant way to self-edit a rough draft without too much effort; you automatically adjust and tweak and improve as you type stuff up. 

The other huge advantage of dragging that notebook around all the time is that it normalises the practice of writing down your thoughts in spare moments, and (crucially) in public. Someone once said writing should never be done in front of other people, likening it to a bodily function, but I disagree. By all means avoid writing in front of people you know (family members, principally), because that’s sort of weird and antisocial and distracting for everybody, but get used to writing in front of strangers and I guarantee you’ll be more productive over time. Ten minutes here, five minutes there. Half an hour on your commute. The more I write in public, the less self-conscious I become, and the more ingrained the daily writing habit. Human brains love habits. Why not develop one that will help you get your novel/screenplay/poetry collection done?

So that’s it (for now). Consider trying some of this stuff. Even if you just start with a notebook, it’ll help get you out of a non-writing rut. I’d advise against those really fancy ones with embossed covers (I’m looking at you, Paperblanks – who thought jewelled covers were a good idea?), because it’s easy to feel paralysed by a high-expectations exterior. But equally, maybe go for something mid-market rather than a flimsy perforated job; you’re in this for the long haul. Sturdy and plain is good.

Don’t just do these things once, either. Keep reminding yourself why you write, and once in a while, reassess your commitment to it. Does it bring you joy? It’s not homework or a chore – it should be a delicious, if somewhat exhausting, escape. 

Practise. You’ll never be perfect, but habits make things easier. Remember, if you don’t actually write, you’re not a writer. Everything else is window-dressing. 

What did I leave out? Let me know in comments what you do to keep yourself on track as a writer, through productive and unproductive periods alike.