Finding that voice.

On November 30th this year, I reached a milestone: my short story, “Clara,” appeared in the November issue of Electric Spec magazine. This is the first time that a short story of mine got published. I can’t explain what this means to me. It’s been a long road.

I took the decision to live my dream rather than dream my dream in the beginning of 2016. Before that, I had always wanted to but had never taken any real steps to live the life of a writer. But finally, two decades of wishful thinking culminated in me having had enough of dabbling. By Christmas that same year, I completed the rough draft of my fantasy trilogy, and in January 2017, I gave in my two-months resignation notice from my day job. This was not a spontaneous decision. In that faithful spring of 2016, a slow transformation began inside me, ending with me finally breaking through the thick wall of fear that had hitherto held me back.

Something else came out of that transformation: I finally began developing a voice in my writing. This is the advice we hear again and again at conferences and workshops: Find your voice. This seems the prerequisite for greatness. Well, I don’t know if I’ll ever be great, and this, frankly speaking, is irrelevant to whether I will keep writing or not, but what I have discovered is that finding my voice entailed more than writing a great deal.

I don’t dispute that practice, practice, practice is the mother of all crafts. However, I believe that there is another component: the creator’s outlook on life and, even more, their own life. Accepting that what I wanted to do was be a writer made my craft stronger. Perhaps, finding one’s voice has a lot to do with finding and living one’s own truth. The inhibitions and fears we have as creators would come out in our creations, wouldn’t they, masking who we really are? But beneath them is where the treasure lies. It’s about bringing that deep essence to the surface.

Finding balance in life is not a balancing act.

There has been a lot of hype around the concept of finding balance in life: work-life balance, balancing social life vs me-time, a balanced healthy life, balanced parenting…you name it.

Lately, I have been struggling a little bit with this. For example, I love to exercise, but I’ve also had plenty of couch-potato moments. I like being among people, but I also love being on my own. I love spending a day reading, but I also love binge watching Star Trek: The Next Generation. Most years, I have been wobbling through my life, feeling pulled in all sorts of directions, wondering when I will finally find balance.

Well, it finally clicked. I never will. The golden mean is an unattainable myth. I think very few of us ever manage to reside in this blessed area for a long time. But that’s OK. Why not embrace the different aspects of our lives and personalities? Why not focus our attention—fully—at one thing at a time? This in a way already brings balance to the mind: when I’m with my son, I’m with him fully; when I’m writing, I’m completely immersed; when I do yoga, I’m filled with my breath.

We can’t be everything we want to be fully all the time. I think balance lies somewhere else: in a softness to our ambitions, so we can find our way back to relaxation after the work day is done; in remembering to enjoy the ride while striving for success; in being kind and giving while still taking care of ourselves.

The real balancing act is on a scale much smaller than the day-to-day grind. It’s about consolidating the opposites of which we are all made. In this complicated dance, equal measures are not always the answer.

Taking the plunge into writing full time (and a word on citizen’s basic income).

A few weeks ago, I quit my researcher job to focus on my writing. And now that the mental and physical fatigue, which this decision brought about, are finally starting to abate, I’d like to talk about how I took this monumental step.

What I found out while pondering my options is that I will never stop feeling apprehensive about stepping away from the well-trodden path. Not unless I had a huge advance from a three-book-deal in the bank. But how to get to that point with a day job that eats away a considerable number of hours and creative capacity?

The truth is, taking the decision to step away from a steady job will always entail a certain amount of risk. So it basically comes down to how much risk is bearable vs how unbearable the current situation is. But there was another factor to add to the balance: how much my current situation was damaging my chances to succeed in my coveted profession.

In my case, a few things converged to a point where the balance tipped, and I made a choice: 1) I finished the first draft of my trilogy. 2) I couldn’t go on with my double life without serious mental damage. 3) Financially, it wasn’t totally crazy to quit (just a little bit), thanks to my husband being happy at his day job and being absolutely supportive of my dreams. Bless him!

Let me elaborate on the third point because this is what most decisions hinge on: the finances. My husband is a researcher, and researchers often don’t get permanent jobs until their forties. And we have a small child. So, taking these two facts into account, I was mad to quit. But on the other hand, my science job was not permanent either, we are ok with one salary for now, and, in science, it’s common not to have permanent contracts, so there’s a high turnover of jobs. Later, I might have to find a new job, but I won’t go for one that takes all my brain power. I would choose carefully and go for something that allows me to write.

There you have it: It was not the right time to quit, but it was also not the worst time to quit.

This much for the practical side of it. One can stop here, but anyone in my situation knows that there is so much more to the choice to follow a dream than a simple balance of pros and cons. It’s not about getting out of the 9-to-5 rut to freedom because this is not where freedom lies. If one has a 9-to-5 job which brings fulfillment, one is still free. It is about not having to go against your own grain. In my case, no regular job will ever fill the void that writing fills, so I made the choice I had to. The alternative was depression. At some point, making a less-than-sound decision financially can still be the right decision. What’s the point of a heavy wallet when one is so worn out and unhappy that one can’t be a good parent or partner? There are other currencies than dollars or euros, and we often forget about them when we take decisions.

A world where these other currencies count with equal weight will be a world where the choice I took wouldn’t be a hard one to make. It often saddens me that this world has not yet arrived, though I know it will. Call me naïve, but I do believe that a money-less world is the way to go. Like the one in Star Trek, where to discover a better version of ourselves is the driving force of society.

I can see the beginnings of such a world in initiatives like citizen’s basic income. The nay-sayers are against such an initiative because they think that having a guaranteed income would increase the number of lazy bums exponentially. But the truth is that there will always be lazy bums around with or without money in their pockets. And even if the number of lazy bums does increase, this will be offset by the many other people who will suddenly be visible because they will have time to create, to work with their grain, to reach their full potential, and thus enrich society. Also, think about how much money the state will save when there are fewer depressed and anxious people around because we wouldn’t have to stress with choices such as “Do I make money so I can live, or do I live a life worth living?”

Good ideas are hardy and how got started on my novel.

Tomorrow, I will fly off to Ireland. This will be my second visit to this beautiful country with stunning nature and majestic ruins from times unrecorded and times somewhat better recorded but vague enough to inspire.

And indeed, inspired I came back from my first road trip there, and, soon after, I started on a novel. This second visit to Ireland is a pilgrimage back to a place that lit a literary spark inside me. I know I’m not the first and won’t be the last to feel this way about Ireland. Only the centuries know the exact number of monks, scholars, and writers that have made a similar pilgrimage. But, really, the story of how I started my fantasy novel is bitter sweet.

The initial idea struck when I saw the Book of Kells. Still, I didn’t feel compelled to immediately sit down and write. I let the little idea simmer. At first, I thought it would make a nice short story.

At a writing conference that same year, I ended up in a situation where I had to pitch my current project. I realized what was going on too late and couldn’t walk away. The embarrassment! I had nothing to pitch because I had just given up on a project and felt pretty downcast about it. But I would not have admitted this for the world, so I racked my brain for a story I could pitch as my turn neared and neared.

I remembered my simmering idea then, so I pitched it as a book just so I had something to say. Later on, during that same conference, the agent who heard the pitch asked for the manuscript, and when I said it wasn’t ready to be shown, he asked for the first three chapters. And when, now heart-sick, I said that I can’t even show that, he asked for the first chapter. I was far too embarrassed to tell him the truth. I know I should have. It must have been one amazing pitch. Too bad I can’t remember it anymore.

It’s some years now since the conference, and though the outcome probably deviates from the original pitch, this novel is no longer a mere idea in my head, but a living, breathing work that I have lovingly written while getting a PhD, moving a couple of countries, getting married, and having a baby. Good ideas are hardy. This one has endured it all.

Oh, that elusive word count goal.

To me it seems that every writing advice out there homes in on the following mantra: write every day, no matter what. Stephen King writes in On Writing  that he writes 2000 words a day. I do agree that a writer should write. I also think that if I were to write only 250 words a day, it will take me an awful lot of time to finish my novel. And what about all the other ideas in my head?

In my opinion, though, steady, sustainable writing is the crux here. What is the point of writing 2000 words today if this will drain all the creative reserves of tomorrow? Figuring out what is a comfortable daily or weekly writing goal—be it hours spent writing (that works best for me), pages edited, or a word count—is perhaps a better approach than aiming for a rigid word count in the thousands. I’ve experienced that overstepping my limit is counterproductive to good, steady writing. And even worse, it leads me to write less and less.

I usually work on a single long-term project at a time. On such projects, I write on average 1000 to 1300 words a day, 4-5 times a week. I work on other shorter projects when the longer ones are having a rest in the drawer. This is my comfortable limit and it has steadily been increasing. I started out with 500 words or less a day. What got it better, I believe, is that I have been harvesting my creative pool rather than draining it. I showed up (nearly) every day and did what I could afford.

This is why I just can’t thrive in the NaNoWriMo environment as much as I respect this event. The focus there is in words and pages and this completely blocks me. So, no matter what best writing practices recommend, in my opinion, the most important thing is to find a way to keep the writing going, page after page, day after day and not burn out.

Now or never: I will write.

Though making writing a paid job has been on the table for a really long time, I never seriously acted on it until now. What changed? Well for one, I suddenly found myself with a lot less time on my hands. I had a baby.

Having a baby really puts a different perspective on things. Suddenly, you realize how efficient and focused you can be in the little time allotted for any single task. Like many aspiring—Cringe! Oh how I hate that epithet. Scratch that. Like many aspiring writers, I have been writing only on the side. There never seemed enough time for my dream. Now, this has finally come true.

After struggling for a while (my son is now nearly a year old) to get a handle on my schedule, I had a really low period. I was tired of always being interrupted while trying to write; I was tired of not having full control over what I do and when I do it (a baby does that to you), and I was tired of living for the future–the future when I am a full-time writer. I was most of all upset that I hadn’t used my time more wisely when I had it.

Then one particularly gloomy day last week while feeling very down and half-sick with a cold, I finally got it! I realized that if I don’t get on with living my dream now, I never will. Now, this sounds trivial and obvious, but there is a fine, yet significant line between knowing something and realizing something.

I already know that if I want to make it as a writer, I need to act professionally about it even before anybody has laid eyes on my work. I know that very well, but only last week did I finally internalize the fact that there will never be a better time than the now to finally begin.

If my dream always inhabits this far-off reality, I will never be able to catch up with it. Life will always intervene and keep an equidistant abyss between my now and my then. In a way, I had to make a mental quantum leap and bring this dreamed reality to my present.

So now, I’m finally on my way to achieving what I want and I have stopped hoping that life will allow me to. I myself have allowed me to. Before I could even begin to rearrange my life to accommodate me as a writer, the rearrangement had to first happen in my head.