Things have been a bit quiet on the blog front recently. Work has been busy and exhausting, and slowly gnawed away at my evenings and weekends. Like all other teachers, I am crawling towards the Christmas holidays on my bare hands and knees, whilst Christmas songs are piped into my subconscious and my name is repeated on a monosyllabic loop hundreds of times per minute.
My commute to work, which I usually spend reading or making notes for my writing, has been spent drafting emails to parents or catching up on marking with a somewhat spidery scrawl on the bus. There have been busy non-work things too – travelling, family birthdays, friends over for the weekend, the anniversary of sad events – and they all consumed various amounts of physical or emotional energy, not leaving much left over for anything else.
For the last few weeks I’ve been itching to write something, but the longer time went on and it didn’t happen, the harder it felt to get started. I felt that I needed to come back with something particularly insightful or newsworthy and the pressure of what to say stopped me in my tracks.
Two weeks ago, I went to a writing workshop led by the super talented and very lovely Ross Raisin (side note: what an amazing name...!). It had been booked for ages, and I’d been really looking forward to it, but when the evening came and I left work feeling exhausted and hungry and soaked through from the rain, all I wanted to do was go home and binge watch Stranger Things. But I knew that it would be foolish to miss it, so I sandwiched myself onto a rush hour Central Line train, where I didn’t even need to hold onto the handrail because people were literally propping me up on all sides, and I headed over to Liverpool Street to the shared office space, WeWork.
I was expecting a seminar, but it was an intimate little group of only six other people and we sat around a table discussing the wonderful art of short stories, while drinking beer and red wine out of plastic glasses. We listened as he read us a short story of his own, drawn in by his gentle Yorkshire lilt and his magnificent words, and then analysed other examples of this beguiling craft.
The title of the workshop was ‘How to write short stories’, but having also written several novels, Ross opened the discussion up to talk about fiction-writing in general. I sat and listened with eager ears as he talked us through his novel-writing process. My pen was poised, ready to scribble down the secret formula that would instantly make me a prolific literary success.
But of course, it was never going to be that simple. He was coy and modest about the whole thing, admitting that it took him four years to write one of his books and the first draft was scribbled down by hand into a notebook. He reshaped the bare bones of it into something that resembled a story, and then he re-wrote it again several times. He set himself strict office working hours and would sit down for 7 hours a day to just write. Being an author was his full-time job, so he treated it that way.
A few of us united in asking, ‘But how can you fit it in when you’re working full time? Things always get in the way….It’s always bottom priority because nobody is making me do it….’ His answer was simple: If you care about it that much, you have to prioritise it.
I double underlined that in my notebook. That seemed very wise indeed.
It made me think about something my wise old owl of a driving instructor said to me on more than one occasion about ten years ago: Life gets in the way of life.
I specifically remember her saying it after I’d just told a family in Grenoble that I didn’t want to come and be their live-in au pair anymore and I was having a crisis of conscience. It was the main reason for me taking driving lessons in the first place, but the whole idea of moving to France terrified me and I backed out at the last minute. I went to Vietnam instead.
And Life gets in the way of life, is what Heather had said to me by way of consolation, which was perhaps in the wrong context at the time because I had essentially just changed my mind and left some poor family in the shit, but the expression comes back to me every now and again and it came back to me that evening after the writing course. I thought about all the things that get in the way of me doing what I really want to do: school work, cleaning, cooking, tedious house jobs, shopping… They always seem to overtake ‘doing some writing’ on the priority list, demoting it to last place.
And it’s easy to see why. For as much as I love it, as much as I want to see those words magically appear on my page, writing is hard, and it takes ages to craft anything that doesn’t completely repulse me. Sometimes, just the idea of it alone is complete agony, because I feel tired or I get in late or Stranger Things 2 comes onto Netflix and it presents itself as a far more relaxing way to spend a Tuesday night...
But of course I do do it, and in the end I’m elated, and feel this huge rush of exhilaration and achievement. I read it and re-read it and re-read it again and think, “this piece of work isn’t totally awful. I’ll share it!”
And the best bit comes when I hear nice words from you lovely people and I feel absolutely invincible, and say to myself “I should totally write a book.”
And for a few days, that’s what I do. I try to leave work early, go and sit in a coffee shop somewhere and nestle myself into a corner, throwing myself into the novel I’ve been dreaming of for years. I abandon all non-essential tasks and tell myself that this time, THIS TIME, this is the one. And in those glorious moments, I’m high on life. Living the dream. Cockahoop.
But then...life gets in the way of life, and I get stuck at work and come home late, or have to play catch up after a weekend of visiting. I get caught up in all those non-essential tasks that suddenly become very essential, and they sap all my energy and eat up my time.
But it’s the wrong way around isn’t it? Life shouldn’t be about drudgery and chores and resenting the preoccupations of daily living. Wise old Heather was on to something.
Surely life should be about pleasure and creativity and joy and achievement, whether that be writing or reading or running marathons or crocheting blankets or volunteering or drawing or fell-walking or salsa dancing. Surely those things should be prioritised because they’re the things that make you happy.
I’m not suggesting the solution is to recklessly quit your day job in order to throw yourself into your favourite hobby, but maybe it’s about making peace with the fact that certain things won’t get done because you want to finish knitting that scarf you’ve been working on, or because you want to learn Portuguese The sky won’t fall in if you don’t hoover the house one night or if you serve up beans on toast for tea….but hopefully you will feel happier for spending that time doing something you love.
It's worth remembering that whilst you can do anything, you can’t do everything. Sometimes you have to just put your happiness first. My house might be a mess right now, but I feel happier for writing this already.