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When you are the Story

Writing, it is a fool’s game if you believe you can make money. I once heard Charlotte Wood say that she has hardly made any money from writing, and her older years will not be as comfortable as people assume it should be ‘for someone like her’. Someone with credibility as a writer, and success. But the numbers are in favour of the juggernaut that is the publishing industry. The agents and publishers and marketers and booksellers who all take their cut of your blood, sweat and tears.

When I first challenged myself to write a book – a manuscript as I began to call it after doing a short course that taught me the lingo, I fell into the romance of how the next step was publishing. Send it out to publishers, big ones, smaller indie ones...anyone?? Follow the submission guidelines: one wants the first three chapters, a 300-word synopsis and comp titles (for non-writers this means which already published books mine would fit into the same theme as); whilst another is asking for the entire manuscript, plus a 100-word synopsis and the genre it fits into. And, then there are the pitches – getting it word perfect as I tell a stranger that my book follows the ups and downs of character X, who wants/seeks Y, but is held back by Z, only to rise above and realise that what they were seeking was actually right in front of them the whole time...! OK, OK, I am taking the mickey out of this by overly simplifying the character arc of a best-seller but in a way, if you can’t tell someone that your deeply flawed character is trying to achieve something, and encounters difficulty before they do, then there is no personal story. And, if this is missing readers will likely not engage. Because, at the heart of all writing is the parallel story of growth, endurance and triumph. I think that’s what makes it so cathartic to write.

But now that I’ve put my manuscript into the bottom draw and I’ve accepted that it will only be published if I make a personal investment (a good edit is needed!), I’ve returned to reading non-fiction and memoir. I also read a lot of opinion pieces and essays. This returning to my ‘roots’ is essential to being me as it is driven by a need to understand the world I live in, and more importantly, how people manage themselves in this world. The Why we are who we are.

I fell into being a humanities teacher, due to having an undergraduate Business degree. It was a good thing I loved learning about social science, because my work as an accountant did little to prepare me for teaching about ecological footprint (quite the reverse!). So, reading essays and non-fiction books that align with my values helps me navigate to my true north. I’ve not stopped reading fiction, but I’ve slowed down my consumption. Reading fiction is wonderful for our imaginations and escaping the reality of life. I remember first reading The Hobbit when I was young and wanting so badly to be part of this mystical, magical world. Now, nearly forty-years later the actual world has thrown me into so many spins that I look at this period of reading innocence as perfect, in the purest sense of the word. I never got to live in a strange universe, or medieval times or experience supernatural powers. That is fiction.

Opinion writing is everywhere. Social media has opened us up to a world of content, written by people with experiences as varied as the natural world that surrounds us. We choose to consume these stories either in print, audio or visually and we use it to make judgements about ourselves. If we have a good sense of self-worth, it can be empowering to acknowledge our shortcomings and set goals of self-improvement. But, if the opposite is true, it can lead to feelings of shame and unworthiness. I worry about the messaging of many so-called experts in this space, as it reaches the hearts and minds of younger people, struggling to find themselves amid the noise of ‘advice’ or ‘survival-tips’.

I’ve been tinkering with another writing project – one where I am the story. I’ve gone in and out of this work a few times over the decades and I’ve only just come to the realization that if I write it, then I am THE story. By design it won’t be a guidebook for surviving an abusive childhood and fear I would be stuck in my dysfunctional family. Nor will it be a checklist of how not to emerge from a divorce from a controlling ex-husband and raise sons to be good young men: despite the predominant male in their life modelling how to treat their mother like dirt. I will be the story, not to teach others, but because I want to lay it out and show that we are all flawed. There is no hate for any of these ‘actors’ in my life (so-far) story. During the darkest times of torment, I thought I wanted to die. But I didn’t and my life is so fulfilled now that it seems almost trite to think ‘I am who I am because I endured hard stuff’.

So, writing is cathartic and I love it. Those words on the page are made by me. In fact, they are me: I am the story.

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Johann Hari beautifully describes reading fiction as ‘going to the empathy gym’ where you flex and finesse the muscle of understanding a perspective of the lives others may lead. That fitness comes in handy when first navigating the road to publishing!

I love your reflections on progress from the story ‘out there’ to realising value in your own tale to tell. You know I will be reading it!!!!

Dec 11, 2023
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And I love your reflections on my reflections! Ha!

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