Do You Ever Want to Go Back?

A question you often hear published authors being asked is when did you know that you wanted to be a writer? Well, today I’m asking when did you know that other people wanted to be writers too? And do you ever dream of returning to the time before that, when you thought you were the only one? Do you ever want to go back? 

Once upon a time, I was the only person I ever knew who wanted to be a writer.

As a child, it seemed as if it hadn’t even occurred to anyone else that someone was actually sitting at a desk and typing out our Point Horrors and our Babysitters Clubs. In secondary school there were certainly other girls who had a flair for the written word, but I was the only one writing articles for a student newspaper, entering writing competitions and generally flouncing about the place as if writing a book was a dream that was mine, all mine. There is no time as ripe with possibility like the summer after you finally finish school, and it was then that my published writer dreams really kicked up a notch. I started to devour every book I could find on the subject, daydreamed about query letters, synopses and Courier (double-spaced), and even though I had recently abandoned my aspirations to be a Level 4 virologist specializing in the Ebola virus—and had made my peace with the fact that I was never going to be a NASA astronaut—I still had I want to be a writer, which was exotic and unusual and exciting and dreamy and great.

And still mine, all mine.

By now I had encountered a few other aspiring writers at workshops and the like, but they were always my seniors by twenty or thirty years. This reinforced my delusion that I was the only twenty-something in Ireland who wanted to be a writer, and so the only twenty-something in Ireland who would—could—become one.

Then one Friday night, through the magic of television, I discovered that there was another one—and she was also blonde, also Irish, and also in her early twenties. Except she had just become a writer,  signing a slew of deals worth over a million euro for her first novel, P.S. I Love You. She was me except for the fact that she had closed the gap between daydreams and reality, and she had done it in spectacular fashion. To say I took this news badly is like saying that Cecilia Ahern has sold a few books. Her deals and subsequent success hit me like a bad break-up: it took me a couple of years to really get over it.

While I was working abroad, I wasn’t thinking about writing or writers, other than reading books that other people had written. When I came back home and started to take my own writing dreams seriously, one of the benefits was meeting scores of other writers. This time around knowing that other people were trying to achieve the same things as me was more comforting than it was unnerving. It made me feel a little bit less crazy about my so-called crazy dreams.

But it had—has—its downsides too. Knowing what’s going on in the publishing world means that you can be a better writer and a better bookseller (when you’re selling your own books), but it also means that you know way too much about everything that’s going on. Every morning a lovely little e-mail drops into my inbox telling me who just signed a deal, what books publishers have just acquired, and how many copies Shades of Grey has sold this week. Then there’s all the blogs I read, the clued-up Twitter types I follow, and the gossip at writerly events. (And please don’t suggest that I cut myself off from it because if I did, I’d have to unpublish Self-Printed, stop writing this blog and find something to do with my life other than try to make a living from my self-published books, because you CANNOT operate successfully in a world you refuse to learn anything about. I have to keep up to date so that I can keep up to date. I could cut myself off if I wasn’t self-published, perhaps, but I can’t because I am.)

But sometimes I daydream about not knowing about all the amazing deals other writers have got, or who just signed with my dream agent or how a novel that contains the phrase “I rolled my eyes at myself” is earning its author seven figures a week. (That’s you again, 50 Shades.) Sometimes I daydream about going back to a time when ignorance was bliss. Like Jack, sometimes I want to go back to when I first wanted to be a writer, and I’d no idea that millions of other people wanted to be writers too.

What do you think? Do you ever want to go back? 

29 thoughts on “Do You Ever Want to Go Back?

  1. Jason O'Mahony says:

    I know what you mean. It’s the old adage: everytime a friend succeeds, a tiny part of me dies. Funnily enough, I’ve found that if you just look at the writing for its own sake and regard everything else as a bonus you’ll do alright. I have to write because I have to get this stuff out of my head, and that if no one ever reads it that’ll be a disappointment but it still has to be written. Of course, you’ve taken the ultra-gutsy route of making writing your source of income, which would make me break into a cold sweat. It’s a funny thing about writers: for the last four years I have been paid for freelance writing I have done for magazines, columns, etc, and I have a busy blog that actually gets me stopped in the street and onto the radio yet I still suffer from that imposter syndrome, that belief that I’m going to be found out any minute now.

  2. claudenougat says:

    Catherine, I know just how you feel and thanks for the post, it makes it clear that it is something that (at one point or another in our writer’s life) affects us all. It’s also interesting to see how you came to the writing life, by believing you were actually the only one doing it in your circle (and I’m sure you were!). I came to it via a different route: when I was young, jsut turned 15, a French writer who was only 18 hit the best seller list, number one spot, with her debut novel, a tear-jerking romance aptly titled “Bonjour Tristesse”. It was decently written (much better than 50 Shades) but I still felt I could do just as well if not better…
    Well, the only thing I can say is that it was good that I decided to embark on the career of an economist instead or I would have died of hunger! Now that I’m retired I can indulge in the luxury of writing, and indulge I do! Love it! Love it for its own sake – and I believe that’s how good writing is done anyway. You, the author, have to be the first one to enjoy your own stuff…so it had better be good!

  3. dragonmis says:

    Do I want to go back? And how. Sometimes I can’t even bear to go into a bookshop, where those ranks of successfully published books stare down and intimidate me to the point I just want to crawl away into my un-traditionally published hole. On other days I scan what’s out there and decide I write as well, if not better, so why not me. And then of course there are the days when I sit and write and know that whether or not there are other people doing the same thing, writing is so much part of me I will never stop.

    Having said all that my writing group is always supportive helpful and above all, they understand!

  4. L.J. Miles (@LJMiles_Writer) says:

    Oh yes, I’m with you there. The blogosphere and Twitter have made it ten times worse too. Having let the suppressed writer in me rise to the surface again after a decade, it feels like every other writer in the world is now umpteen steps ahead of me (by the look of their fabulous and well-established writer platforms). Would it make you feel better to know that I felt rather like your teen self did when I came across your blog? 🙂 In my book, you’re nearing the top of the mountain (unique voice, wide following, books with your name on the cover – even if they are self-printed). I’m kind of at base camp here. So, take heart 🙂

  5. sean walsh says:

    “If there’s no going back there should be no looking back either…”
    Quote from my play, ASSAULT ON A CITADEL. (rte radio 1 and rte tv one.)

  6. CG Blake says:

    Great post. I never had envy for other writers. Everybody has unique gifts and will take a different path to achieving the dream of publication. Like you, though, when I was younger, I did assume there were very few others who were as passionate as me about writing and when I decided to write a book, it would be published in an instant. Yeah right! I am still astounded by the sheer number of people who actually write a book. I guess we’re hard-wired to want to tell our stories. Thanks again for this post.

  7. DJ Kirkby says:

    Sometimes I want to go back to a time when I had more time and less to do so I can really enjoy those hours of writing solitude instead of nowadays when those periods of writing are always shadowed by the anxiety about everything else I have to get done besides writing. Trying to work full time, be a mum, a wife and a half decent writer is a challenge….

  8. gardenlilie says:

    Great. I’m fairly new at this so I have nothing to go back to! I find most days I’m in the game, glad to get all the info, etc. etc. and then wonder what are you doing? Then a new day comes and I go right on baby you can do this like who cares.

  9. Lane says:

    do sometimes want to return to a pre social media existence — in fact recently I found a link suggesting this has been true for quite a while, when I went back to the trade Technology Quilt – where I wrote this probably in around 2000?

    A small girl in a flower-patterned nylon miniskirt, I would hurtle through time and space in my imaginary spherical craft, always landing in the same 1970s playground. Space tourism finally exists now, for the stupidly rich. No longer tempted by the future and its gadgetry, I want to travel to a world without mobile phones, a world where there is no constant up-sell, no celebrities, no ‘intelligent’ missiles destroying people whose only crime is having been born under the ‘wrong’ flag; I want to stop feeling American even though I’m technically European. Bring on time travel, bring on the past.

  10. Michael N. Marcus says:

    This is not really an answer to you question, but it’s a holiday so I don’t have to follow the rules.

    I was always a reader (as a kid I read by flashlight under the blanket after my bedtime), but I was not one of those prodigies who wrote short stories in second grade.

    Electronics was my main hobby, and despite steadily dropping College Board math scores and rising verbal scores, my misguided high school guidance counselor decided that I should become an electrical engineer,

    After a few weeks in college I realized that I was in the wrong school and headed for the wrong career. I dropped calculus and physics and the next semester I became a journalism major.

    I no longer remember why I picked journalism, but 47 years later, I’m still writing. I still ove it, and get paid for it. What could be better?

    Michael N. Marcus

  11. Mary J. McCoy-Dressel says:

    I’ve walked a tough path with many twists and turns to go back now. My dream to write full time has finally come true. It seems like if I miss a day of visiting the writing social world, things change around me. New ideas and new technology pop up daily. Going back would put me in square one again and I don’t want to re-learn what I know now. Lord, I sure don’t want to travel this road again.

    After saying this, there are days I want to rest my brain, walk away for a day or two, but it’s so hard to catch up. I do give in, but I don’t want to go back to the beginning. A great question and post, Catherine.

  12. Laura Roberts (@originaloflaura) says:

    I know what you mean, but honestly I do think that cutting yourself off from the industry talk, to some degree, is important. Not 100%, and not all the time, but I would certainly cut back on it while you’re in writing mode. Knowing about sales figures and marketing advice is important — when you’re DONE writing your book. During the writing process, it’ll only drive you nuts to be constantly comparing yourself with others. You’re trying to write the best book YOU can write, not the best book that “50 Shades” dipstick could write (I’m pretty sure YOUR books are better… Rolling your eyes at yourself? Come on!), so it’s okay to be a little self-involved and “keep your eyes on your own work,” as they used to say in grade school.

    We indie writers do have to pay attention to the business side of things, but I’ve definitely found that focusing on that stuff during my creative part of the process will screw everything up. Creativity and analytics just don’t mix.

  13. Sumiko Saulson says:

    No. I don’t want to go back. No, there is no going back for me. I enjoyed reading your blog and seeing how many comments are from people who really can relate to what you are saying, but I don’t think there is any point where I didn’t know that others wanted to write.

    First of all, I was born in Los Angeles, California – people being successful in arts and entertainment is common where I grew up, and people trying to succeed in arts and entertainment even more common. By the time I was 5 years old announcing that I’d like to be a writer, an artist or a veterinarian when I grew up, my mother was already a published poet (published, in fact, on velvet posters with her artistically rendered likeness on them, because it was the 1970s). My dad’s parents were contortionists on Vaudeville, my mom’s dad was a signer who married the daughter of one of Count Bassie’s band members. I was pragmatically told by my father exactly how much work either one of those three career choices would take.

    That didn’t stop me from pursuing either visual arts or creative writing as a possible career. As things so happened, and as it all fell out, when I was 19 I was able to start a career as a commercial graphic artist: I call it a career because between the graphic design jobs, and the computer repair jobs when the economy is bad, I’m able to make a living. This, however, was probably due primarily to my being a computer technologies early adopter, and only secondarily to any talent. That is not to say I am not talented: it is to say that I am well aware that the world is filled with talented people. Many people I know are more successful than I am, as writers. That’s always been the case. There is nothing to go back to.

  14. Candy Korman says:

    I grew up surrounded by readers, writers and aspiring writers. I can’t imagine a blissful time when I was on an island of imagination. My family is still a reader/writer clan. A little competitive? Sometimes, but there’s support there too.

  15. Julia Hidy says:

    It’s very natural to compare our ‘deal’ with others’ deals. I recall a science book on bees that netted a $100,000 advance. I was incredulous! Figured the agent had a kickback deal with the publisher as there was no way the book’s sales would ever pay back the advance. Yes, those moments can zap you hard. But you are building a writing career and there will be many great moments ahead. You’re just rounding the corner.

    Only a few old friends are actually writing and will get books published. The rest just talk about it. I’ve begun new friendships with folks who publish. The old friends want to sit at a cafe and ‘write together’ – an excuse for getting away from kids and hubby and talking my ear off, but not writing. Or want help with their blogs because they don’t want to learn WordPress. Or say they want to ‘get back to writing,” but they won’t.

    Your self-publishing book and all the research you do in the industry will have major payoff. I’d run a writers’ group for four years. I was at a cocktail party for BookExpo Canada and saw an introverted fellow glued to the wall. I could see he was very shy. His name tag noted he worked for the company that put on BookExpo. I went over, and offered to introduce him to the only three people in the room who I knew. He seemed so relieved. An hour later, he told me that he’d had more fun at that outing than he’d had in years (the folks I knew were characters). He encouraged me to apply as a speaker for the event the following year. I did a, ‘yeah, yeah…sure, sure,’ in my head. Speakers slots were highly coveted.

    A few months later, I applied for and got one of 13 featured speakers’ slots of 50. 450+ had applied. The fellow was the president (truly, I didn’t know). Had I not given 4 years of workshops at my writers’ groups, I wouldn’t have the street cred to talk to his group.

    In 2010, I’d done a packed session at PodCamp Toronto. After, a woman asked if I ever spoke in New York. Seems she was on the Board of the Independent Publishers’ Association (IBPA). One email pitch and two phone calls later, I was booked and spoke in New York at IBPA’s Publishers U. It was great fun and industry visibility for it too. You never know where your self-publishing book and the folks you know will take you. I smell very good things ahead though. 🙂

    As your career expands, so will the range of folks who you hang with. Choose to only be with people who are supportive. Let all the jealous, potentially crazy ones go. Success needs and deserves to breed success and get support. Who knew when I gave workshops to writers at the back of a Korean restaurant I’d get asked to speak at these other events. You just never know where your writing and self-publishing will take you.

  16. darlenecraviotto says:

    If you like to write non-fiction (especially when it has to do with self publishing), then of course you need to know what’s going on in the publishing world. However, when you delve into fiction I think you’ll find it easier to write if you submerge yourself in what you’re writing and to hell with what’s happening in the publishing world. I don’t know how anyone can do both at the same time. And stay sane, I mean.

  17. balancinggal says:

    Speaking as one who is now 40 and only still starting to peck at my dream and to try and feel out whether there is a reality there as well, I guess there isn’t much going back except maybe to regret I didn’t start working on it earlier. You should be proud of who you are and I hope to God I can be half as successful. I feel like a bloody idiot even trying.

  18. Connie Brentford says:

    I love the Jack button and need to possess it. It’s perfect for the post.

    I’ve always had a sense that a six-figure deal was just around the corner so another author’s success never really bothered me. I feel like I’m making my own six-figure deal now with self-publishing. Yes, it slower than signing on the dotted line with a big publisher but I am getting there. I didn’t realize I wanted to be a writer until I was in my 30’s. I was just an avid reader back then. Sometimes, that’s what I want to go back to, just being a reader and yet I can’t. Once you’ve decided to be a writer and educated yourself on the ways of writing, you can never go back to just being a reader. As a writer, you read differently, more critically, sometimes comparing their prose to yours. I miss the pleasure of just being a reader.

  19. twopurplecouches says:

    So much of this post has resonated with me!! Ever since I can remember, I’ve had my nose stuck in (at least one) book and a glamorous vision in my head of what a Writer’s life must be like. I initially had my sights set on a college degree in Equestrian sciences, but when Fate intervened, I turned to English / Creative Writing. It was wonderful to be surrounded by fellow writers and readers for four years, but towards the end, I started feeling that same anxiety and envy over others who were getting published or making more promising progress at being “real” Writers. But I also felt like I didn’t have a story to tell yet – I was only 22, after all! So, I got a big-girl job, as a copywriter for a branding agency, no less! Now, I write everyday. But it’s not the same type of writing. So by the time I get home at night, the last thing I want to do is conjure up more words.
    I am creeping up on 30 myself. And that panicked feeling is starting to rise again – like I’d better get moving on some type of literary dream or I’m going to get passed by.
    So yes, in a way, I wish I could go back to that feeling I had in college – that I was on the right path, working toward my goal, surrounded by fellow Writer-Dreamers, all believing that some day, we’d see our name in print, nurtured by a staff of professors who had titles and publishers to their names.
    I’m glad I’m not the only one who feels this way 🙂

  20. Eliza Green says:

    Would I go back? Absolutely not. No matter how far I get with this writing business, I like it. It challlenges me and I haven’t felt challenged for a long time now. I spent the last four years writing and learning to write, the last two years submitting with very encouraging comments/results on my manuscript the final time around and the last year blogging and getting to know other writers on twitter. I like reading about successes because that’s the random beauty of the writing world — you never know who will be next. AND you can’t predict what readers will flock to.

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