Earlier this year, we caught Alex Nye chatting to high school students about being an author at Yay!YA+, and with our events for writers and on lit mags, we thought it would be great to hear from her on some ins and outs of being a writer.
How do you survive as a writer?
When I visit schools to talk about being a writer I invariably show my audience the iceberg illusion – the tip of the iceberg is what you see, a successful author in front of an audience. Hiding beneath the surface is all the stuff you don’t see: the disappointments, the rejections, the persistence and determination to succeed. I then explain to them that when a young person decides that they want to become a doctor, a teacher, a nurse, a lawyer or an engineer (to name but a few) there is a definite route-map to follow: you will know how to get from A to B. But when a young person decides they want to become a writer there is no route-map. You have to make it up as you go along. And sometimes you get it right, and sometimes you get it wrong, but you learn from your mistakes. And… I explain to them… that is what I did.
So, now for some unpalatable home truths.
An ugly word. Money. It is a fact I have noticed that most writers (and I’m probably going to make myself unpopular here) are from well-off backgrounds. I’m not talking about whether you were born in the Gorbals or the East End of Glasgow or not, but it you are able to write, then the chances are that your personal circumstances to some extent have allowed you to do that. Perhaps you have worked as a teacher for a long time and have taken early retirement, or you are married to someone with a “sensible” job with all the benefits that brings, a secure lifestyle, a pension, a home of your own to live in.
In short, you probably have some level of financial security which is – quite frankly – beyond the means of many of the pupils we authors visit in schools, who often live in under-privileged areas with limited opportunities for when they leave education. It is not always the case that authors are from financially secure backgrounds – there are exceptions, I know that – but in my experience of belonging to the writing community here in Scotland, it is largely the case. An unpalatable truth which we don’t always like to acknowledge.
After finishing my second novel, SHIVER, as a single parent I felt the need to earn a proper living in order to ensure that my teenage children would have no issues about going to university, and while it broke my heart, I tried to do just that. I trained to become a teacher, and tried very hard to be “sensible” and put a lid on my creative well-spring. Eventually I realised that I couldn’t give up being a full-time writer, that I had to return to it for the sake and sanity of everyone in my household – including the dog.
So I took a risk, tried to survive on English tuition alone, and as soon as I made that decision the National Library of Scotland asked me to run a series of workshops. This allowed me the time and freedom to continue to write, and I got another book published, which then led to further events, visits and workshops – which are the bread-and-butter of a writer.
As authors we all know that in order to survive you MUST be available to do events, workshops and visits. It is not enough to just write the book. However, few people can afford to give up a “sensible” full-time job, and very few young people can afford to write, especially nowadays when we live in a culture which doesn’t tend to encourage, respect or even understand creativity. Brian Eno in his Reith Lecture in 2015 admitted that when he was young he did “sign-on” while composing music.
Confidence and self-belief
Every author needs lots of this, and there’s not a lot of it around. It’s a hard-won prize. Hopefully, once the risk is taken and you have the confidence to realise that this is what you should be doing and what you are good at, the opportunities follow. It’s about doing live events, getting out there, making the most of any opportunities you see on the Scottish Book Trust website, and putting the word out. The more you do this, the more your confidence grows with each event, each hurdle cleared.
If you have a niche, then corner it.
If your books have a hook, use it.
In my case it’s my love of Scottish history, and ghosts. Teachers and schools love the Scottish history aspect so I make the most of it: I use my expertise, what I’m good at.
Don’t browse on Facebook too much
There will always be writers more successful than you. Celebrate your own successes, but be generous with others as well. The social media culture we live in can take over and encourage an unrealistic self-centred hothouse atmosphere among writers, so be generous with others, and don’t lose touch with reality. It has been suggested somewhere or other (I’m sure) that Facebook and Twitter can lead to low self-esteem – there is nothing worse than checking your notifications and seeing all these writers congratulating themselves and each other, and also becoming slightly competitive about how many important engagements they have, and how sought-after they are. When I feel like this I just take the dog for a walk, look at nature, get back in touch with reality and remember why I’m writing in the first place. The deciding factor is to take pleasure in your writing and enjoy being creative. However, it is – I hasten to add – important to have an online presence, and to celebrate your own successes, but do it politely, and be generous with others.
So, with that in mind, writers should take care to encourage each other, to think “community” rather than ME.
Another ugly word. All writers get them. It takes courage and gutsiness and determination to believe in yourself despite them. Rejections WILL get you down, as you try to jump another hurdle, leap a little higher.
This is what I do. Cry. Get angry. Tear the rejection up. Then go out, walk the dog, smile and start again. However, every professional author must be prepared to take on board creative criticism, and to respond to it positively. If you’re wise, you’ll listen to any criticisms and try to grow and learn from them.
At the risk of sounding like a LITTLE BOOK OF CALM, my advice is this. Let life cheer you up. Yes, it’s a rejection letter, but the sun still shines, the rain still falls, babies are born, life goes on.
Being a writer is like climbing a mountain. It is a long and arduous journey with lots of unknowns; very few reach the summit. There are plenty of false summits along the way, and you never know when the next blizzard will hit, but if you ever arrive at the place where you want to be, the chances are you won’t feel creative any more.
Being creative, by nature, is about striving to be better at what you do.