Monday, 16 February 2015

Tips for Being a Selfish Writer

This post was inspired by someone in a Facebook group that I run, who told us how unsupportive their family are towards their writing endeavours. The family's negativity was astounding and very sad to hear about.

Another friend recently showed their book to a friend who was an expert in the subject about which they wrote and the 'expert' completely rubbished the book, leaving my friend feeling very sore and bruised indeed.

I think that most writers come up against these problems at some point in their writing career. If it's not close family, it's friends and acquaintances who just don't understand that compulsion to write. More importantly, they are unable to separate you from whatever you've written. Alternatively, they have some ulterior motive for not wanting you to succeed.

When I first went back to school, in my early thirties, I had to put up with a lot of negativity. Not from my family, who I'm glad to say were, and still are, very supportive, but from friends, neighbours and acquaintances, who asked things like 'Don't you think you're too old for that?' Or mused 'I don't think I could do that' (the inference being that you shouldn't be trying it either). Even when I stuck to my studies, I'd get people commenting in disbelieving tones, 'Oh, you're still doing that, are you? I thought you'd have given it up by now.'

Then someone, claiming to be supportive would say to me, "I was talking to so-and-so the other day and they were on about you and they said 'I don't know who she thinks she is. She's nobody really, yet she thinks she can do that.'" Yeah, thanks for that. I already knew I was nobody, which was why I wanted to better myself, but there's nothing like having it laid out before you by someone claiming to be on your side.

The most astounding comment was from a male friend who said, "(Wife's name) couldn't do what you're doing. She's not as clever as you are." I don't know why he thought I'd see him demeaning his wife as a compliment. She left him not long after that. I can't think why...

It was much easier when we moved house, so that when I met new people, I was already a mature student and a writer. They didn't know the old me, who lacked goals.

I don't want to generalise (which means I'm about to), but it does seem to be women who have more problems in this area. I was reading a book of writing advice, and the author had got together some big writing names to add tips at the end. It was interesting to note that all the male writers said 'Oh just shut the door, sit down and write', whereas all the female writers said 'Make sure the kids are dropped off at school, try not to worry about the housework, don't let people ring you and interrupt you, etc etc. You have to learn to be selfish.'

It's not selfishness to want something in your life that's your own. It's just that women in particular are often made to feel this way if they dare to have a life outside of the narrow bounds of family.

So here are some tips, for both men and women, about how to be a more selfish writer.

Find a space of your own and claim it
It can be very difficult, when living with a family, to find your own space and even harder to claim it.

I have an oft told story about when I first started writing. I'd set up a desk in the bedroom. One day when the family were all sat watching telly, I thought I'd go up and start writing. Ten minutes later, hubby came up to the bedroom, lay on the bed and promptly started snoring. Loudly.

A couple of minutes after that, the daughter arrived. She jumped on the bed, woke her dad up and they started having a conversation. Also loudly. What's more, they wanted my input.

Then my son arrived, and joined in. So that's three of the family, all sitting on the bed, talking, whilst I'm trying desperately to write in the corner. When the dog came and joined them, I put my head on my desk and gave up!

Nowadays, I'd probably tell them all to get lost and leave me alone. But back then I hadn't learned that I was entitled to some space of my own. I just felt guilty for wanting to do something that didn't involve them.

But it was after that that I learned the art of being invisible in the corner of the living room, tapping away on my word processor. If I didn't leave the room, they didn't even notice I was still there.  The minute I left the room and tried to write anywhere else, they'd follow me, as if they were afraid of missing some great mystery.

Whatever space you choose, whether it's the corner of the living room, the bedroom or your own study, teach people to respect that space and that when you're in there, you don't want to be bothered unless the house is on fire or there's some other emergency. Running out of Chocolate hob nobs is not an emergency, unless they're for you. The same goes for answering phone calls in the middle of the day. It's a sad fact that if you work at home, people do think you can just drop everything and go and do their bidding. Make it clear that you can't and won't.

Accept that you are allowed to have something of your own
It can be hard, especially in a busy family, to put up boundaries. Family, more than anyone else, is allowed to push past certain boundaries. We all do it. But remember that as your family members are allowed their own hobbies and interests, you are allowed yours.

You're also allowed to keep it to yourself. I don't mean keep the fact that you're a writer secret. What I mean is that you don't have to tell them what you're writing and you certainly don't have to show it to them (more of which later). Just get on with it.

Don't let your family and friends put you off writing

There will still be naysayers; people who've known you a long time, who might still try to put you down. Don't let them. Remember that no one can make you feel inferior without your consent (though God knows some people will try very hard to do so).

The problem is, I think, that when you start trying to reach goals in your life, it reminds some people that they don't have any. And that's fine, if they're happy the way they are. Sadly, a lot of people aren't, and because of that, they can't bear the thought of anyone else trying. It makes them feel inadequate. That's no excuse for making you feel inadequate. They might tell you you've become stuck up or selfish. Both are accusations I've had aimed at me - not by close family - but by 'well meaning' people who think they're doing me a favour in pointing it out. Neither are true. I'm the same person I was twenty years ago. The only difference is that I've stopped apologising for being that person.

If you're in a relationship with a partner who puts you down, chances are they're afraid that if you do really well with your writing or other endeavours you might realise you deserve better than them. So they'll try to drag you back down to their level to avoid losing you. When I went back to school, I lost count of the number of women in my classes who gave up because their husbands told them they were wasting their time, or he resented the couple of hours a week the woman didn't spend on him.  Another girl told me that her partner was annoyed with her because she was doing her homework instead of watching him playing a computer game (!) For the sake of balance, I also met a man in OU Summer School whose wife had told him that if he went away that week he needn't bother returning home. I don't know to this day whether she let him go back in the house.

Trampling on someone's dreams is a way of controlling them and keeping them to heel. Don't let that happen to you.

You don't have to share your writing with your family and it's probably better if you don't
When I first started writing,  mostly poems and short stories, I'd bore everyone who came to the house by pushing the latest one on them and saying 'read that'. I must have been insufferable. I was lucky though, because they were fairly kind.

It took me a while to realise that I didn't have to do that and probably shouldn't have in the first place. Family and friends aren't necessarily the right people to read and review your work (unless you're married to Stephen King or Hilary Mantel, in which case...). One relative told me, in very kind and positive terms, that she found it hard to separate me from the story so would I mind if she didn't finish reading the novel she started. I was glad she told me, and particularly grateful that she understood that it didn't mean my story was rubbish.

Your family and friends know you. They know your strengths and your weaknesses, and all this will be at the back of their minds as they read your work. They may find it very hard to separate the two. They may be shocked at a scene that is sexy or violent. They may not like romance or crime or horror, or whatever other genre you write. They may just not have the ability to know if it's good or bad, because all the time they're thinking of  you and the fact that you've written it. They may even be looking for signs that you're failing, because that will make them feel better.

I must admit I find it very hard to read friends' books because I'm terrified of not liking them (though I do know some bloody good writers so that never happens). But I do start each book with that worry in my mind. What do I say if I don't like this? Luckily I'm able to be tactful if I find I don't like something. Family and close friends are rarely tactful, especially if they've grown up in a negative household.

Unfortunately some households do seem to run on negativity. It's often inherent, so that if parents had negative parents, they pass that on to their children. Sibling rivalry may also play a part. When I was a child I was often compared, unfavourably, to a prettier, cleverer cousin. Try not to let that negativity get to you. Avoid it completely by not letting your family see what you've written.

Keep telling people you ARE a writer
Don't tell people that you 'want to be a writer'. It's too easy then for them to tell you not to bother trying. Tell them that you ARE a writer. Keep on saying it, until they get the message.

You don't have to be published to be a writer, and nor do you have to have earned lots of money to claim that title. If you put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) then you are a writer.

As an analogy, stamp collectors are still called stamp collectors even though they don't earn a wage from their stamp collecting. The same with trainspotters, those who enjoy needlework or woodwork etc. Yet for some reason, if one doesn't earn a living as a writer, then people think you don't have the right to call yourself a writer. That's rubbish. If you write, then you are a writer.

They may say you're wasting your time. It isn't a waste of time if it makes you happy to do it. If it makes other people unhappy for you to do it then ask yourself if they have your best interests at heart. They won't have.

Recognise that it's others who are being selfish, not you

People will try to put you off for all sorts of reasons, as discussed above. But in reality, they're the ones being selfish. Every time they rubbish your attempts at being a writer, they're really saying 'I don't want you to do this, so I'm going to say whatever I can to make you stop.' They'll wrap it up in 'honesty', but it's not honesty at all.

Chances are you do still have a lot to learn as a writer, but rest assured that the family and friends who are negative about your efforts aren't really bothered if you're good or bad. They're only bothered that you're doing something they don't think you should be doing, because it takes away time they think you should be spending on them, or it makes them feel threatened in some other way.

Be unselfish sometimes
Life is all about compromises and it's possible that your partner or friends are genuinely upset that what you're doing is taking time away from them. Writing is like a drug and it is easy to lock yourself away and do nothing else.  So learn to compromise a bit. For example, if my husband, who is retired now, says to me 'Shall we go out today?' and I know I have to write, I'll say 'Not today, but we'll do something tomorrow'.  Or I might say 'Okay, we'll go out today, but tomorrow you have to leave me alone so that I can write'.

But whilst you're compromising, insist that your family compromise too. Make sure they understand that if you say you want to be left alone to write, that you mean it. if you give in through a sense of guilt, every time they moan at you to do something else, then they will never respect your boundaries.

Don't end up in the corner of the bedroom, banging your head against the desk, with hubby, two kids and the dog chatting on the bed, whilst you're desperately trying to get that story down!

It isn't really about being selfish in the end. It's about asserting yourself, in a non-confrontational way, so that the people in your life begin to accept that you've made a decision to follow this path, and you're not going to be put off by their negativity and/or lack of support. Once you accept your right to do this, they'll have to accept it. And if they don't, then ask yourself whether you need them in your life.


  1. If anyone has 'friends' who rubbish what they do and make them feel small - those people aren't friends! Get rid of them.

    Real friends might not understand and might not be able to help, but they would support the fact we have something we're interested in and would wish us well.

  2. Oh absolutely, Patsy. In fact, you do find out who your real friends are when you become a writer.

  3. Excellent post and great suggestions. My family always pushed their expectations onto me, but not the genuine guidance that might have helped me. Creating a space in the midst of chaos is sometimes the way forward - learning to shut out the background noise is an art.

  4. This is a great post -- that thing (me in the corner, hubby, kids, conversation) happens to me all the time, and it's a wrestle finding a balance. My youngest is still tiny so I stopped trying to juggle, stopped writing for a year, spent the time with the kids, and then when they're a bit older will assert my right to some time of my own. As regards adults, my writing has been described as "playing on the computer" (while my husband's writing was "work" -- a difference that never fails to surprise me). So, yes, really enjoyed your post!

  5. Such wise advice Sally. I can totally relate to everything you've written. I used to be the guilty mum with small kids. They're all grown up now and so I find myself hiding from the grandchildren. I find a lock on the door and headphones help!

  6. What a great post, Sally. Thank you for sharing these thoughts.


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