“When you can’t create, then you can work.”
That’s one of Henry Miller’s eleven rules for the writer which I keep on my desk. I’d always interpreted it as ‘if you can’t write new stuff, then edit old stuff, finish off something’. Essentially, still writing. But since reading David Whyte’s Crossing the Unknown Sea I’ve also interpreted it as taking non-writing actions to progress a life of writing.
In his book about finding one’s purpose/identity in one’s work, Whyte talks about his own journey from young biology graduate, Galapagos island guide, through non-profit organizer, to a poet, writer and poet-philosopher of purpose. One of the things he decided to do, when he knew he could not longer not make writing his central activity, was to do one thing a day for a year to make that happen.
So I thought: what a good idea.
On my whiteboard for this academic year is to make the transition I’ve been talking about for some time: that of full-time academic and part-time writer to the other way round. I’ve invested the last four years of this practice in writing my novel. And as of last week, the full manuscript is out with an agent. Fingers crossed.
The completion of that novel manuscript taught me a number of things. One, that my life was not going to change overnight (perhaps when published… but most probably not then, either). Two, that the writing part is the most significant, but there are so many other areas of being a professional writer that need investment. For the novel, it’s the covering letter and proofing and identification of the correct agents, and the submissions. For the all-round writing life, there are so many other areas, many of which will be covered in the Profession of Writing Module at Newcastle University I am convening this Autumn.
I had hoped to be further along than this; that by now, in life, I should/could/would have been further along this path. But acceptance of where you’re at is important. There’s nothing else you can do anyway, is there? And a refusal to accept simply keeps one stuck within a fantasy that might include, for example, mental conversations with the self along the lines of ‘Well, I bet David Mitchell / Vladimir Nabokov / Ursula Le Guin never had to do all this stuff, they just wrote books’ – and some people do – but 90% of writers have to make their living some other way, not through their writing.
So suck it up, and get on with it.