“Are you a student?”
I get asked this question a lot. The answer is always the same: “I used to be. I graduated a year ago.”
The follow up to this exchange is usually the same too, with the other person asking, “So what do you do now?” and myself thinking, ‘Tell me about it.’
I’ve been dipping in and out of the hospitality industry all my life and for the past year since graduating, it’s become a full time job, a means to pay the rent, however it isn’t exactly something I’ve always been destined for. I’m a writer – it was one of the first things I ever knew about myself for sure. From the age of seven when I first picked up a pencil and started drawing a comic about my pet cats, I’ve loved telling stories. It’s a staple of my personality, a means of self-expression, creativity, catharsis, escapism. Charlotte Brontë, author of my favourite period novel, Jane Eyre, said, ‘I’m just going to write because I cannot help it.’ These words ring extremely true to me but as I’ve learnt – as do all writers in time – it is not always a forgiving pursuit.
People who know me usually agree that I’m a little unconventional – the word ‘quirky’ is thrown around when describing my personality. The more I heard this about myself growing up, the more I tried to own it. ‘Free spirit’, ‘dreamer’, ‘hippy’. I liked these terms, they made me feel different; I became proud of the identity as someone who happily goes against the grain. When my teachers told me that I would end up waitressing for the rest of my life if I didn’t go to university straight out of sixth form, I refused point blank to apply for UCAS. What’s so bad about being a waiter anyway? (If you’ve ever been one yourself, I’m sure you have all the answers to that question.) But the suggestion was a challenge, like a red flag to a bull. I wanted to prove that I could do whatever the hell I wanted and do it good at that without following any of the formal paths. I took a gap year, bar-tending and travelling, interrailing through Europe and seeing new places.
I know, I know. What a cliché. You won’t hear me apologise for it.
Now don’t get me wrong, it was a very nice experience but really, that’s all it was. I didn’t feel inspired or empowered. If anything, I felt a little bored.
At the end of my gap year, I started a course in Drama with Creative Writing at UWE, Bristol. It was equally the scariest and most exciting thing I’ve ever done. For the first time, peers and professionals alike were judging me on my art and I really, really wanted validation. Acting and writing are two of my greatest passions and I needed people to like it, to care, to turn around and say, ‘Shit, you’re actually good.’ Thankfully, that’s just what I got, not all the time but quite a bit. People said things like, ‘You have a real talent’ and ‘If you don’t follow this up after you graduate, it’ll be such a shame’. Isn’t that a nice thing to hear?
To a degree.
When I graduated, the praise stopped for a number of reasons. One, because I was no longer surrounded by hordes of like-minded artists every day to share and discuss our work. Those who I had remained in contact with were, like myself, more concerned with making rent to have the time or energy to be creative. The second reason is a derivative of the former: I was skint broke and working enough long hours at a high-end restaurant to render me incapable of creative thought for weeks at a time. Occasionally, I would pull up an old Word document and shutter out a sentence or two, sometimes I would write a little ditty on the back of a napkin during a shift but on the whole, I wasn’t writing anymore. I was disengaged from my own talents, distancing myself from my true vocation. Once again, I was bored.
This boredom, along with a few other factors in life, led me to a pretty dark place for a while. You could say that it was just good old fashioned depression because that’s what I was: depressed. It’s important to know that I’m not ashamed to admit this and nor should anyone be. I was a little lonely, a little lost, a little uninspired. I began to second guess everything I had tried to prove before in my life: that my lack of convention was meaningless, that I could make it as an artist without having to put myself through the grind of the soul-crushing nine-to-five, that my lightness of spirit wasn’t in fact a weakness but a strength. I’m aware how naive this makes me sound and that is partially true. But I am also passionate which can be a very powerful resource.
Time for a song lyric.
‘You made yourself a bed at the bottom of the blackest hole
And convinced yourself that it’s not the reason you don’t see the sun anymore.‘
As Hayley Williams of Paramore so aptly puts it, I was down and had concluded that I couldn’t write anymore, that my creativity had run dry and perhaps I was going to have to accept the fact that I wasn’t going to pull off my dreams, would never achieve the goals I had set for myself since I was a child.
But here’s where the epiphany comes in. I left Bristol for a while, went AWOL if you like, quit my job and disappeared off the grid in search of a bit of clarity. I’m not saying it’s a foolproof technique when looking for answers but being in a new, unfamiliar place definitely provides a change of perspective if nothing else. While away, I realised something obvious: I wasn’t enjoying the act of writing anymore. But why? Through several sessions of soul searching, both by myself and in the company of others, I started to see what was going on. It seemed that due to the recognition and praise I was used to getting throughout university, my art had morphed into not a passion, not a mode of expression, but a form of self-validation. If I wrote something, play, poem, story, and people didn’t like it, what on earth was the point? The pressure I had subconsciously placed on myself to be flawless was strangling the love I once had for the thing. So how was I going to fix it?
The answer became clear very quickly.
‘Stop trying to be good.’
Since then, I have been training myself not to panic when I work, whether it’s for others or just for myself. I draft and redraft and redraft again because that is the craft of a writer: to explore every avenue of possibility. When I hesitate to send off a job application because I may not be good enough, I breathe and say out loud, ‘Who fucking cares if you’re not good enough?’ When I entertain the idea of compiling a short book of poetry and think who would even bother to buy it, I think, ‘How cool would it be to have your own book on your shelf?’ When I’ve spent the day hammering out the first draft of a short story with an embarrassingly cliché plotline and some damningly over-the-top description, I ask a friend, ‘Fancy giving this a read? It’s rough but I’m enjoying it.’
In summary, when I stopped giving a shit about what other people felt about my art and remembered that the only reason I create is because I love it, the sky started to clear and everything felt brighter. It’s not as if that feeling of nervousness when sharing your work ever goes away – that’s just part of the deal. Hell, writing this right now with the inevitable prospect of releasing it into the stratosphere is a bit nerve-wracking but I’m pushing through it.
What I’m saying is, I got the fear and it nearly took away what I’ve long considered to be my greatest weapon. Leaving university is hard, losing that stability, that support network is hard. If you ever find yourself at a loose end, a bit confused about where you’re going, try not to panic. Breathe. Remember why you started down the path you’re on, what you love about the journey, how shiny the lights look at the end.
It’s been a year since I was a student but that’s not what’s important.
I am a writer.