On resisting being just one thing

As I travel I write. I like to write on paper – every day I handwrite morning pages, and most of my ideas start life on paper. Paper is heavy. And for the last three months I’ve been lugging a fair weight of it in my backpack, through Sri Lanka and Kerala all the way up through India and now into the Himalaya.

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This week I am reading back though months worth of handwritten material as I photo-archive it (the notebooks themselves will then be sent back home). Oh boy. a) I’ve written a lot b) I’ve changed a lot c) What I’ve written has changed. I am not the writer I was two years ago. I generate a lot of ideas, both for fiction and non-fiction, and I’m careful to make a record of all of them. There are are fragments of stories that I read back, and don’t recognise the me who wrote them.

Which brings me to my point.

There’s a pressure for writers – and I know this because I feel it sharply at times – to be just one thing. It’s both an industry pressure and self inflicted. Publishers want writers to be a brand, and for your name to equal a particular kind of story that the readers can come back for again and again. The writers who inspire you as role-models almost certainly have an established, singular identity. It’s so tempting to try and adopt an equally singular identity.

It’s also a mistake. Firstly, because it will happen without you trying. Even the most prolific writer’s bandwidth is limited, and when you reach the point of publishing, you’ll inevitably end up writing and publishing within a relatively narrow spectrum. Your identity forms as a necessity. Secondly, no writer is only the identity projected by their professional work. Read up about the writers who inspire you and you’ll find they have whole creative lives you never necessarily hear about, that don’t fit with the public persona at all.

My first opportunity to publish a book came when I was in my late twenties. And a second wave of chances came when I was in my early thirties. I’ll never know if passing over those opportunities was the right thing. But I am glad I did. Because I look at what I would have published, what my identity as a writer would have been, and I can barely relate that person to who I am today at thirty-seven. Maybe I was fortunate that I’d been around writers long enough to see the damage that trying to force yourself into being Just One Thing can do.

Because here’s the thing, until it becomes a professional necessity, you can revel in NOT having to be just one thing. I like that I can write a high brow literary critique for The Guardian one day, then scribble out a chapter of swords & sorcery fan fiction the next, without worrying how these things relate to the Just One Thing we’re pressured to try and be. Once your work is being read, and readers have an expectation what Just One Thing you are, you’ll have to dedicate most if not all of your writing time to that. Until then, enjoy being many things.

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