On 1st April this year, Anne Tyler made a rare appearance at the Oxford Literary Festival. This wonderful American writer has been publishing her stories of large dysfunctional Baltimore families since the 1960s. In all that time, she’s only given a couple of interviews. It’s no wonder so many people queued to get good seats to hear her speak.
The sun shone, everyone was relaxed and chatting; sitting on the window sill way above the stage in the magnificent Sheldonian Theatre, I felt a moment of pure happiness. I told anyone who would listen to me: I am a writer! I had my notebook in my hand to prove the point.
The day before, I had officially ‘retired’ from a thirty year career in pharmaceutical manufacturing and consultancy. I’d written technical text-books for the past fifteen years but had gradually found my interests moving towards fiction. Now I had the chance to give free rein to my creative side.
Three months down the road, this seems like a good time to reflect on what have I’ve achieved so far— and what I’ve learned. I wasn’t really staring at a blank page or starting from scratch. My to-do list at the beginning of April read like this:
- Convert Chudleigh Phoenix (the community magazine I co-edit) from bimonthly to monthly;
- Write 6000 word story and 1500 word essay for final module of MA;
- Write 15000 word creative piece and 5000 word essay for MA dissertation;
- Write article on ‘Doing an MA as a Mature Student’ for Writing Magazine;
- Finish the first draft of my novel Gorgito’s Ice-Rink
- Put the final touches to Pharmaceutical Process Design and Management
- Ramp up the marketing for Life is Not a Trifling Affair
- Bump up my score of ‘out-theres’ (submissions to magazines or competitions);
- Put more time into building my marketing platform.
And that’s without mentioning planning and writing a 40 page brochure for our town’s summer festival; project managing the town’s Christmas Fayre; and generally ‘sorting my life out’! It didn’t take long for me to bring out that saying so beloved of retirees: I don’t know how I had time to go to work at all!
I’ve always been good at time management — and as a former factory manager, I tend to work on the ‘just-in-time’ principle. (In fact, I’m quite impressed with myself that I’m writing this on Wednesday morning when the deadline I’ve been given isn’t until Thursday evening.) Some of the items on my list have defined deadlines. So I calculate how much time each will take; work back from the deadline; and set a start date. No problem. In the past three months, I’ve published three editions of CP; submitted the WM article (which will be out in the August issue); completed my final module assignments (achieving a reasonable mark); and am well on the way towards completing my dissertation work. The 40 -page brochure has been printed and is being delivered this week. The pharma textbook is out on 12th July — although I confess asking the publisher to contract out the indexing.
Life is Not a Trifling Affair is an anthology of short stories I co-published with another writer last July. It’s been a huge learning curve — and frankly, the writing side was the easiest part. We launched it at the Chudleigh Literary Festival; organised a pre-Christmas Fair; heavily promoted it with friends and family; and converted it to an ebook in March. What we’d avoided doing so far was getting out on the road, knocking on doors and asking strangers to stock it. There was always an excuse: she has children and a part-time job; I was working more or less full-time for a demanding client. But in reality, we were scared of rejection.
Finally, in mid-May, we ran out of excuses. We planned our route and hit the road. The response we got was overwhelming. On our first day, we found five outlets that agreed to stock the book. The only refusal we got was at a local holiday park that had closed their shop — but even there, we left with a list of suggested other venues. We were so relieved by the reaction, we quickly planned several other days out. We gained so much confidence that when we did get a rather surly refusal in a gift shop in a popular tourist haunt on Dartmoor, we smiled sweetly and left without feeling in the least abashed. The highlight of that day was two outlets that refused to consider Sale or Return – and bought 13 copies between them on the spot. We’ve even started taking a stall at local craft fairs — our confidence is growing every day.
I am finding that my enthusiasm for writing the novel waxes and wanes. Some days I can write more than 3000 words; one week I added more than 10000 to the total. Sometimes, I write nothing at all — and initially, I felt guilty, wondering if I was being afflicted with the dreaded ‘writers’ block’. Then I looked back at how much I’d done in three months and decided that wasn’t it.
I’ve always been a grasshopper in relation to my writing (and to the rest of my life for that matter). I tend to jump from one topic to another, from one task to the next, as the fancy takes me (unless I’m working to a deadline, of course). So, I’m learning to relax and enjoy the process. Writing should be the best job in the world, but if I try to force it, I’m not enjoying it – and in that case, what’s the point?
If I feel like working on the novel, I do so. I switch off the phone and the email, log out of Facebook, and get on with it. If I don’t feel like it, I work on a short story, make notes on a character, update my website, prepare the minutes of the last Christmas Fayre committee meeting — anything that involves putting words on a page. Then when I’ve done enough to justify my title as ‘writer’, I read a novel (an illicit day-time pleasure that can now be justified in the name of research).
I’ve released the inner grasshopper and she’s having a wonderful time exploring.
Elizabeth Ducie is a writer (as she never tires of telling people). She produces the Chudleigh Phoenix Community Magazine and runs the annual CP writing competition. Her first co-written anthology of short stories Life is Not a Trifling Affair is available from the website or on Amazon for Kindle. The second anthology Life is Not a Bed of Roses will be out on 23rd November. A Brummie by birth, Elizabeth moved with her husband to the south-west of England for its rich, green scenery after many years in London and the arid south-east. She forgot to wonder why the countryside was so green — but has now invested in a pair of wellies, so is much happier. When she grows up, she wants to be a best-selling novelist and live in a cottage with roses around the door. So far, she’s got the roses!