A couple of days ago, in preparation for a counselling session, I read a poem I wrote when I was 19 years old. It’s not like a “proper” poem or anything; it doesn’t have a metre, it doesn’t rhyme, so on and so forth. It’s stream-of-consciousness thematic rambling. And it’s one of my proudest achievements, because it’s the product of a time in my life when I was not just uncertain of who I was and where I was going, but doing something about it. I was trying things out, feeling out my limits, and it was the first time I got a really solid foothold against the suction of depression and anxiety. It’s a testament to the fact that I’m actually capable of taking the initiative and actively seeking ways out of my problems rather than passively wallowing in them and waiting for some external impetus to drive me to make a change.
Reading it reminded me that there was that other side to my teen years; along with all the horrible mental, emotional and social turmoil I was generally failing to cope with, on a daily basis, there was also this serious, powerful drive to get somewhere – and it didn’t matter where, really, just that I was going. I was very clear about my need to journey, and committed to following through, and it was fine that I was unclear about the destination. I was growing.
It’s a feeling I most definitely lost during my study. I briefly got something like it back when I finished my bachelors and took a year off, and felt overwhelmed by the feeling of not being able to remember what my future was, the end of schedules and plans and a confirmed layout. And then I went back to study, because security is a thing people need.
It’s not like I don’t enjoy study, and I could possibly pursue a career in academia. Which is kind of what I’m here to talk about. I’ve been writing off that possibility ever since I came back to study because it would take away from my writing; I’ve never lived up to my expectations when it comes to balancing study with Writing, even though every time I try I do get better at it, how shocking. I’ve just assumed that I can’t do both with the passion and dedicated time and effort that they each require to be done well. And while I’ve resolved before to always be a writer, even if not for a living, it still doesn’t answer the question of what else I might be doing.
I remember asking myself what I wanted to do with my life a couple of years ago. I think a friend prompted me, but I’m not sure. The point is that I took this more seriously than usual, and after the first response – Writer, obviously – I started coming up with some very interesting other options:
- Take over from David Attenborough
- Pursue professional acting
- Learn computer science and make video games
- Be a YouTuber
- Make movies
- Become a musician singer thing
- Settle down and have a family
That last one came to me in the first couple of months after Wickham and I parted ways; I was washing the dishes and glanced over to the cupboard where we had a wicker picnic basket, and this image of me in ten years’ time, in the kitchen making sandwiches to take on a picnic with my family, just spontaneously formed in my mind, and it just felt … right. They all felt right, in different ways. And the one thing that they all had in common was that, in some way or another, they took me out of myself and put me in contact with other people.
And I’d always be writing. After that picnic, or before, I’d be in my study sitting at the window, gazing pensively into the distance as rain poured down the glass and bathed the rich green grass of the rolling meadows of my cosy red-brick cottage while stewing ideas in the cauldron of my mind. As the heir to the Attenborough legacy, I’d be writing scripts, planning destinations and researching the places and animals I was going to educate the world about. As a game designer I’d be writing scripts, creating characters and lore as well as designing levels and combat systems. And so on and so forth. Writing was just there, unconsciously included in every possible scenario I could think of for a fulfilling life. But it was never the be-all and end-all.
And I’ve realised that, actually, I’m not a writer at all.
It’s not because I haven’t been Writing lately – I write every day, but I don’t Write every day, which also means I decide that only certain writing “counts”, which is sometimes helpful but mostly just unnecessarily harsh.
It’s not because I’ve lost some of the passion and enthusiasm for the writing projects I’ve laid out for myself to work on, even though that is most certainly true. There are hills and valleys in the writing process; there will always be low points, and at some point high points will always follow them. That’s just how it is; this is nothing I haven’t gone through before or won’t go through again.
It’s because I realise that I don’t want to be a writer. And I never did.
When I first decided that I was going to Be A Writer, I was thirteen fucking years old and infatuated with Harry Potter. This creative, inclusive world of magical aptitude, clever friends and people who could be my peers fighting the ultimate forces of darkness was something I felt compelled to re-created in my own image, and so I decided: Let There Be Writing! And it was good. It really was. I soared on creativity, cherry-picking and shoplifting my way through alleys of ideas to reach my own conclusions with reckless, gleeful abandon. That was what I thought writing was, and it fucking worked.
Naturally, there were other elements at play; being thirteen years old I didn’t have a family to support or any other need to get a job, thus giving up over half of my day committing to labour I probably didn’t want to do for a necessary but unexciting reward. I was not yet the socially anxious, chronically depressed lump of self-hate and bitterness I would turn into over the next three years, and as such I had no shame in what my ideas were, where they came from or why I liked them. They were my ideas, and that was not just enough; there was nothing else that could possibly matter. And then as I grew older it was all too easy to apply my self-loathing and internal criticism to my creative ideas, and ideas I actually liked didn’t really come to me until I was 19, when I wrote that poem. I mean yeah, I was moved to write things, but I’d always sink under the weight of asking myself why I thought this was worth writing about, why I thought I was qualified to write about it. When I was 19 I was still having those thoughts, but there was something else there – I guess that external impetus finally arrived, only it was internal. And I don’t know where it came from exactly, other than that it was somewhere within myself.
I had more purpose and direction at 19 than I have at 27, and that disappoints me. But it shouldn’t. I’ve done my thing and adapted accordingly. What I’ve realised is that I need to change things so that I have to adapt in a new way. I’ve been trying to force myself to be only a writer for the past 14 years when I’ve always wanted to be everything. I can’t help but wonder if I hadn’t, if instead I’d allowed myself to explore and experiment and follow my gut – which I did sometimes do, and it always worked out well – would I have been happier, more fulfilled, confident, eager, ambitious? I guess it’s a moot point now.
But then I also wonder what will happen if I start that now. I can’t take back the last 14 years – but I’m only 27. I’ve been feeling how old that is ever since my birthday, but now I’m starting to finally understand that 27 is nothing. It’s fucking nothing. When I was 19 I was adjusting to the onset of adulthood; my transition gave me a purpose. Now that I’m in the transition I’ve felt aimless, and that’s because I feel like I should already be somewhere, someone. But I am. And it’s dawning on me that that’s what I haven’t adjusted to, the fact that I am already somewhere, and that I’m not leaving anytime soon. I’m an adult. It’s happened. This really is all there is to it.
I can’t just be a writer anymore, not because it’s the adult thing to do but because adults are just big kids with more social responsibilities and, hopefully, a more powerful and fully-formed cerebral cortex. 27 is nothing, and freaking out about how I haven’t done anything with my life yet suggests that it’s going to be over soon or something. And I mean, hey, the 27 club is a thing, but hopefully it won’t be that way for me. Statistically speaking it almost certainly won’t be. So no. I have a long fucking trip ahead of me, and I’d better find some in-flight entertainment stat.
And it can’t just be writing. It’s not enough. It’s so, so important to me, but it is not and never was enough. And even if I’m only realising that now, as opposed to 14 years ago …
Well, I think of it this way. Yes, it would be awesome to have something published sooner rather than later, because everything is a competition, right? And your successes all add up to your karmic social value or some shit; and focusing on one thing and getting good at that is how you get ahead in life. And you prove that by doing it, and honing that one thing you’ve decided you’re going to be good at until you can win prizes for it, like social status and achievement unlocks and people who also specialise in your one chosen skill chanting a rousing chorus of One Of Us.
But it is all just “some shit”. Why do something you can do just because you can? What are you proving, when there are other things that you’re keeping yourself from doing, sacrificing them to get over one finish line quicker than – who? For what prize? What recognition is worth that kind of concession, when what you’re conceding is everything?
I can’t just be a writer. I am always going to be a writer. But there are so many other things that I could be, that I need to be, that I haven’t made time for. I can’t keep doing that. And again, this isn’t one of those “if only I’d realised this sooner” sorts of things, really, because 27 is nothing. In fact 27 is pretty damn good, in the grand scheme of things, for a realisation like this.
But okay. What does that actually mean? Do I stop writing this post-Nano project, put Tallulah on indefinite hiatus and quit study? The advantage of having a thing you decided to pursue single-mindedly to the exclusion of all else is that at least it keeps up some kind of impetus to keep doing it; limits foster creativity after all. Options can be paralysing.
I think, though, that right now this realisation is not the kind that stops you from doing anything. And like I say, it’s not like I haven’t already basically stopped myself; I haven’t worked on my post-Nano project for a week now. It can’t fill the void. I need something, and that book ain’t it. So what is it?
I suppose I’ll have to try a bit of everything.