Becoming a Writer: The Pursuit of Creativity

Working on Celeste during a lunch break.

Working on Celeste during a lunch break.

Calling myself a ‘writer’ doesn’t come naturally. It’s not an easy thing for me to say. Out loud. To other people. First of all, I have nothing to back this up – I’ve got half of a novel and a blog that has two posts. That’s it. Every time I say "I'm a writer" I feel like an imposter. How can you be a writer if you haven’t got any work under your belt and only get to write in your spare time? I have a full-time job so I’m not even able to give my writing the undivided attention. Secondly, I feel there’s a certain stigma around calling yourself a write­­r. You may as well say: “Hi, I think far too highly of myself”. Now that judgement may not be accurate, I have no problem when other people say that to me, but it doesn't sit right with me. I know this stems from my feelings of inadequacy. If someone were to ask me what have I written, what do I have to give them? A link to my blog, and maybe a chapter of work if I am feeling confident. That doesn’t seem like enough to classify myself as a writer. So I reject it the title. I tell myself that I'm not writer, because I haven't earned the right to be one. Yet.

But the thing is, I do write. I write a lot, I write often and I write with enthusiasm. It’s always been a part of who I am. At the age of seven, inspired by Ann M. Martin's The Babysitters Club series, I told myself I was going to be an author when I grew up. But that dream was pushed aside when I was 11 and I wanted to become a botanist instead. Then a magazine editor (age 14), a science teacher (age 16) and a photographer (age 18). While writing has always been the crutch I lean on, it’s never been something I actively pursued. Even when I was accepted into QUT for Creative Writing, it was my plan B after not getting accepted into the Photography course at Griffith. (I was unwell for my last exam in Education, and the supplementary exam was held after first round offers).

Unfortunately, that one semester at QUT was enough to scare me off writing for a long time. I was young, a little too careless, and studying wasn’t my top priority – as long as I passed, I was doing okay. Of course I regret this now, but at the time I still believed that photography was my calling. Plus, the other students who did make their studies a priority made me feel like a faker who didn’t have the right stuff to be a writer. While they were writing chapters of their novels on the weekend, I was out with my friends all night, and sleeping until the early hours of the afternoon. I wasn’t in the right headspace to do well, and so I didn’t. Maybe if I had the same amount of passion as those other students had, it would have been a more positive experience. Instead, I spent all semester feeling out of my depth. In the end, I deferred university altogether. It wasn’t an easy decision but I didn't want to spend the time and energy on a course I didn't enjoy.

I took 2 years off before returning to university. This time I enrolled into a Bachelor of Arts at UQ, studying a single major in English Literature and an extended major in Japanese (language). Fast-forward to 2012, and it's my last year. I had come to the crushing realisation that I no longer wanted a career in Japanese translation and I was absolutely devastated. Japanese had been fun at first, but as the course progressed, it became evident that it wasn’t what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I wasn’t happy studying it anymore, and so I changed my extended degree in Japanese to a single one. This gave me extra electives to use in the my last two semesters. Excited by my newfound tertiary freedom, I enrolled in a subject that had always interested me but never had the chance to study before: Screenwriting. I’ve always found screenwriting to be a lovely marriage of writing and film. One of the best feelings in the world is being immersed in a well-written storyline of a TV show/movie. I entered the course with no grand expectations. I hoped to have fun, learn some writing techniques, and pass. My tutorial teacher was a charismatic man that reminded me of Ira Glass. He was very passionate about the course, and in turn I became passionate about it too. I attended every lecture and tutorial, writing notes furiously. It soon became the highlight of my week. Also, much to my surprise, I liked the other students in my class. There were no ‘aspiring auteurs’ looking for ways to impress the teacher. Everyone just enjoyed writing, and I enjoyed hearing them speak about their ideas and creations. It was against this creative backdrop that I began working on Celeste vs. Celeste.

The course called for us to create a screenplay. We weren’t asked to complete the screenplay in its entirety, but the story we created had to be complete. One assessment involved pitching your the story to your classmates. This was the pivotal moment for me. At first I was nervous, the stories pitched had varied in engagement from others – some were excellent, with lots of discussion and critique following their pitch. Others were met with a couple of remarks, mostly from the teacher. I wanted Celeste to do well. It was the first story that I really connected with on an emotional level, and I hoped to god my peers would connect with it too. I needed reassurance, to know it was worth pursuing.

When it was my turn to pitch, I was flustered and my hands were shaking. I fumbled at first but once I got into my story, my confidence grew. I told my peers the story of a young woman who was accidentally given two lives at birth by the gods, and now she had a year to figure out which one she wanted to keep. After my pitch, the class provided me the enthusiasm and valuable critique I had hoped for. I was delighted! It was then that I decided that I wanted Celeste to be more than a university assessment. This story was going to be my first piece of work. After my course ended, I had a great foundation for a screenplay, and a plan to finish it.

A note my best friend Sophie left me after raising my concerns that I wasn't good enough to be a writer. I keep it on my desk as a reminder that yes, I am a writer. 

A note my best friend Sophie left me after raising my concerns that I wasn't good enough to be a writer. I keep it on my desk as a reminder that yes, I am a writer. 

Since then Celeste has changed formats – it’s no longer a screenplay, but a novel. The scene breakdown I was creating ended up generating more content than a film could properly convey, so I changed the scene breakdowns into chapters, and worked on an even more detailed plan to follow. Shortly after I started writing the first draft I found out that a plan, no matter how good it is, does not automatically mean you’ll get a novel written. As I wrote, my characters were starting to do their own thing and I began to alter the storylines, depending on my mood. Naturally, some were great for the story but others were complete failures. I was going off the path I had made for myself, and I wasn't sure how it was going to turn out.

Writing this novel has been difficult. I was on a great run until recently – I was approximately three quarters of the way through my first draft and the finish line was in sight! But as I kept writing, the story became more dramatic and lacked the underlying emotion that I wanted to convey. In April, I came to an event in my story that I didn’t want to write. I wrote myself into a corner, unable to transform it back into the original story that I had connected with so much. Celeste had become melodramatic, and lacked substance. I didn’t see the point in pushing through it. I no longer enjoyed my story; so I stopped. It was a difficult decision to make, but it was necessary. If it didn't bring me joy, what was the point?

I am currently about three and a half chapters into a new version (that's based on an earlier plan). It too was going well but now I am stuck. Again. I don’t know where to go with the story. I have a few ideas of where it could go but none of them sit right with me. I am trying not to freak out, but I am scared that if I don’t freak out a little bit I will abandon all these years of work in hasty frustration. I want this novel to be good. Actually scratch that, I want this novel to be GREAT. My biggest worry with Celeste is not that my story sucks, but that I don't have the talent and technique to pull off such an ambitious story. I don’t want to let my story down with my novice writing style, so instead I rewrite and rewrite and rewrite instead of actually writing.

All of this has been playing into my self-doubt recently. I see other authors my age on bookshelves, and I wonder if that’s ever going to be me. I have to believe that it will be, but it can be hard when you can't even put pen to paper. When I began working on Celeste seriously I told Lockie that I would be happy just to finish it. But now things have changed. My ambitions have grown and I want Celeste out there. I love the premise of the book so much and I truly believe that others will too. I have never been a confident person, but when I write well, and get things down the way I want them, I feel surprisingly proud of myself. I am no longer the introverted woman who struggles with anxiety and low self-esteem. I believe in myself, and I can see the potential in my work.

Sure, there are days where I wonder if I am setting myself up for failure (I know not everyone is the next J.K. Rowling) but I can’t think about it that way. I attended a course during last year’s Brisbane Writer’s Festival in which we discussed what we were working on, and I spoke about Celeste. I was still nervous, after all these years, worried that I was seeing much more potential in my story than it really had, but at the end of the course the teacher told me he looked forward to reading my book once it was published. That was the first (and only) compliment I’ve had about Celeste (outside of supportive friends and family). I wasn’t just some deluded hipster who thought I was the next Kerouac – an author, who didn’t have to compliment my work, actually praised it!

Well, I think this post has been enough of an exercise in procrastination. I initially intended to write about the self-doubt I feel when it comes to writing, but it seems to have turned into a full-blown anecdote about my experience as a writer. Even now, I feel awkward using writing that, but eventually I will have to own it. I am hoping that the more I use it, the more comfortable it will become. 

Before I leave you, I wanted to share my favourite quote about creativity. It gets me through the tough times – the times when I believe my writing reads like subpar fan fiction and I am so frustrated I want to smash my laptop against the wall. It’s from Ira Glass (surprise, surprise):

“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take a while. It’s normal to take a while. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

Much love,
Valerie