Ten years ago I started a new personal blog (as opposed to my professional one) and wrote a timid first post, in which I made a promise to myself.
This is where I can be myself, not a mother, not a daughter, not a wife, not a businesswoman. And not a scribbler, but most definitely a writer.
This was not the first time I resolved to be a writer. Aged six, I had decided age that I was going to win the Nobel Literature Prize for Romania, wrote plays for my friends and me to perform (I also directed, earning me the nickname ‘Bossyboots’), stories and novels, diaries, letters, and above all poetry. Throughout secondary school and university, I wrote and wrote, almost always in English, the strongest of my three childhood languages.
But then I started working, often four jobs at once to make ends meet (at first as a school teacher and secretary, later as a university lecturer, private tutor, copyeditor and translator), and my writing fell by the wayside. I went abroad for postgraduate studies, then got married, started working in a completely different and very demanding field, had children, moved jobs, moved countries, became self-employed and worked crazy hours after the children went to bed to establish my business. I was still dreaming of writing creatively at some point, but that point just receded further and further away. I went into creative hibernation for twenty years.
Then, in the autumn of 2011, we moved to Geneva for the second time. After all of the administrative hassle of renovating and renting out our house in the UK, packing and unpacking, settling the children in at school, doing lots and lots of French admin, I found myself stuck at home with nothing much to do. I had lost many of my clients because of my move abroad and had not yet established myself in the new environment. The time to pursue my writing dream was now or never, I felt, especially after I attended the conference of the Geneva Writers’ Group in early 2012.
I jumped in with both feet, set up a blog and a Twitter account, discovered the storytelling site of Cowbird (now an archive) and started writing something every day. I resolved to never allow life to get in the way of my love of writing again.
But life had other plans for me.
The last five years have been all about survival. With hindsight, I wish I had used the previous five years in Geneva mostly for writing, but I hated being dependant on a man for money. So I worked and travelled to exhaustion, put up with all sorts of corporate (and marital) humiliations, only to then watch that money flow into my husband’s pocket during our acrimonious, long-drawn-out divorce. Because I was travelling so much at the time, I felt guilty about neglecting the children, so tried to give them as many happy memories when we were together as I could. My writing once again came last. And guess what? They don’t remember all that much about the years when I was pretending to be happy and doing so much motherly stuff with them, neither the good nor the bad. I’ve often thought what an outstanding husband, father, career man and writer I could have been, with half the amount of effort I put into things because of my gender.
That’s why it doesn’t feel like I have much to show for the ten years of ‘taking writing seriously’. Other than 165K of tweets (and many lost hours), and over 1 million words of blogging. Enough to have written around eleven average novels, countless short stories or poems, but no book to show for any of that. I’ve seen other bloggers become judges for literary prizes, get invited to speak on radio or at literary festivals, interview famous authors. That is not the reason I started this blog, but it’s only human to feel an occasional pang of envy – or of failure – that all that work has not led to more visibility and has settled down to a pleasing but not astonishing number of 4000-5000 views per month. Many years of book reviewing and volunteering for various literary organisations have not led to any startling insights or superb industry contacts or even a job in publishing, even though I was prepared to take a drop in income so I could do the thing I love.
Yes, yes, I know that it’s too easy to focus on the things you have NOT done, so let me remind myself of the things I have achieved. I have 38 publications in print and online journals, although for about 3-4 years I didn’t submit a single thing. I have co-founded a publishing company Corylus Books which is trying, by hook or by crook, to introduce the English-speaking world to a greater variety of languages and countries in crime fiction. I have translated two crime novels (published) and am working on a third, a play and a poem (although I said I would never translate poetry), and am busy pitching other novels to publishers. When I have the time to do it for longer than frantic ten minute bursts, I enjoy the actual writing as much as when I was a child. I have finished the second draft of my first novel and the first draft of my second. Above all, it’s the quality not the quantity of blog readers that really matters. I have made many excellent literary friends via blogging and social media, but also in real life, and they are often the people I consult most nowadays.
All the time, in the background, that relentless tick-tock, the clock being run down. How much longer can I afford to ignore it? No wonder ‘tick, tick… BOOM!’ resonated with me – although it was quite funny to hear the Jonathan Larson character complain that he is nearly thirty and still hasn’t achieved anything. At thirty I was just establishing my career for the second time in a new country after my Ph.D.
It’s been ten years since I vowed to prioritise writing. I never thought I would still be so close to the starting line after ten years. As Tillie Olsen says in her hugely influential work Silences, do I really want to remain mute and let writing die over and over again in me?
Work interrupted, deferred, postponed, makes blockage — at best, lesser accomplishment. Unused capacities atrophy, cease to be. … The habits of a lifetime when everything else had to come before writing is not easily broken, even when circumstances now often make it possible for writing to be first; habits of years — response to others, distractibility, responsibility for daily matters — mark you, become you.
Forgive the self-indulgenct and self-pitying tone of this post. Two years of Covid have brought the fragility and transience of our human lives to the forefront. Call it foolish or egotistic, I will never not be preoccupied with my legacy. I don’t mean my children – they are their own people, and I was never the kind who felt the biological urge to perpetuate my line. I may not have the talent or the single-mindedness to succeed. But when the camellia falls, what is left behind? A blog that will be archived in some corner of the internet? Half-finished projects? A scattering of publications in journals that disappear as quickly as they appear?
furuidono kurakini otsuru tsubakikana
an old well
into the darkness
falls a camellia