Chasing the dream: a shortcut to the soul…
We all chase dreams. Some more than others. But the writing dream is one that comes with its own issues. In this honest and revealing post, Gordon Doherty, writer of spectacular Roman and Byzantine fiction explains how the profession of writing really tested him!
Writing was always the dream; penning a novel, telling stories for a living. I chased it for years… until one day I caught it. I was stunned and euphoric for a time. Then the dust began to settle and I realised that the dream actually entailed a lot of hard work and a huge change in outlook and attitude. I’ve come through five years of ‘living the dream’. Along the way it has tested me, tickled me, stoked me with moments of thunderous elation and deep angst. The transition into this new way of life has taught me a lot, so I thought it would be worth looking back on how things have changed for me…
A day job provides the things we all need: a sense of purpose, stability and routine, not to mention a reliable income to allow us to enjoy our free time. In fact, ‘free-time’ is probably best defined by the stark contrast that is the day job. In 2012 whilst working a 9-5 office job and writing in the evenings and weekends, I released Legionary: Viper of the North. Book sales soared. I watched on, gulping, excited and terrified. People were reading my stories, enjoying them and leaving great feedback. More, it was bringing in enough money to pay my bills and keep the fridge stocked with food (and beer). Was this real? It felt like I held in my hand a chunky, gleaming key – to unlock a new path in life, one of unfettered freedom and creativity.
(The office job. Swapping it for a life as a writer was an exciting, terrifying moment…)
(The writing job – excitement, drama, fabulous recklessness…)
I’m not reckless by nature, but I knew that if I let this moment of opportunity pass, I might regret it forever. I armed myself with a resignation letter and headed into work, set on ending my time in the rat race. But, to my surprise, my employer asked if I would be interested in staying on in a part-time capacity. After a few rounds of discussion, I realised this might be the best thing: a gradual transition towards full-time writing instead of going straight for the big plunge. And that’s how it started: two days a week of office work, three days of pure writing time, and evenings and weekends to do with as I pleased! And, of course, it’d only be a matter of time before I shed those two days in office-land, wouldn’t it?
At the end of my final five-day week, my wife and I celebrated in now traditional style: with fish and chips and a bottle of champagne ? Now that was a heady moment. I had a walking-on-air feeling for that night and several weeks afterwards. Every morning of a ‘writing’ day, I’d awaken with a sense of elation and guilt: why was I getting to choose when or if I got up while everyone else was scurrying off to work? Even our cats were giving me copper-rod stares from the end of the bed – looks that could slice a mouse in half – as they rose before me to head outside and, well, slice mice in half, probably.
(Cats – not best pleased with my decision.)
But my laurels went unrested upon. In fact, I went the opposite way – becoming a bit of an auto-tyrant. Soon I took to rising way earlier than I would normally on a day job morning. At 6.30am I’d roll out of bed and flop onto the writing chair*, cane the life out of my keyboard, shovelling a breakfast of toast into my mouth in between paragraphs and halting long enough to grab a microwave ‘thing’ for lunch. All very perfunctory.
*A bit early and OTT to do this every single day. But… actually quite a good idea on occasion, especially if you’ve had a vivid or even lucid dream. Get up as soon as you awaken, and just let the colour and essence of the dream fall through your fingers and onto a blank page. It might be unintelligible mince, but now and then I’ve captured the seed of a fantasy or sci-fi story by doing this.
When it reached 6pm and my wife returned from work, I’d feel all sorts of withdrawal symptoms. My evenings would be a series of a few shell-shocked hours, gazing at the telly and wondering what tomorrow’s efforts would entail. Now I’m not a ‘pantser’ writer as Stephen King would say (someone who writes with little or no planning or method… by the ‘seat of their pants’). Thanks to my scientific background I’m methodical and logical to a fault. Task lists and neglected scintillae sit on my shoulders like cartoon angels and demons. So harnessing the chaos and defining my writing timetable was never a problem for me. Indeed, I got a through a bucket-load of drafting, editing and proofing. But disappointingly, I also lost sight of that life-changing (for the better) feeling.
In hindsight, I think I know why. I tried to fill the day job void with nothing but pure writing, pure output, pure word-count. I failed to realised that this was an inadequate substitute for my previous life as a full time office-bod. Perhaps I didn’t want to admit it, but the day job offered interaction, chat (of the professional and puerile variety) and having a common purpose with others – something that is simply necessary in an office environment.
In contrast, writing leans towards isolation. Beyond the organisation and planning of tasks, you need to be able to find silence, darkness and time to elicit ideas and conjure genuine emotions with which to carry them on the breath of a story. Penning a novel is a monumental undertaking, and it draws one into a cave of creative seclusion. Without realising it, I can find myself spending days talking (to myself) and thinking only of fictional beings.
Soldiers, heroines, kings, absolute bastards, spirits and plucky animals who have necessarily come to mean something to me personally. That might sound arty-farty, but a story is nothing if the author neither believes in nor cares about it.
Back in those early days of my new writing career, those long stints of creativity and the associated industry were producing rounded and satisfying tales, but they tended to neglect and exhaust me as a writer – or more accurately as a person. I’d often be left feeling very disconnected with the world around me and had a sense of paranoia that the fuel for new stories might run dry. So, just as when I was dissatisfied with my day job life, I made changes.
My running habit (and that of Apion the Strategos too), was one big change – instead of rolling out of bed and thudding onto the writing seat, I took to rising at dawn (I fully expect a few readers to hate me for how smug this might sound!), pulling on some training gear then just opening the door and… running. Sounds a bit Forrest Gump, I’m sure, but jogging through the park at dawn, feeling the chill of night and the heat of the rising sun on my skin at once, smelling the crisp air* and hearing the chattering of woodpeckers really help give me a solid grounding and sensory inspiration for the writing day ahead. More importantly, they leave me feeling quite heroic – and that usually fuels the scenes I write that day.
(Running – the one good pic during a recent parkrun – in the rest I looked like I was mid-coronary).
*Apart from the days the nearby refinery process what smells like out-of-date stink bombs. Those days I run with a peg on my nose.
Next, I made sure to relish every aspect of my research. Previously, I would be so focussed on deadlines I would scan-read without enjoying the learning experience. So I took up archery – to understand an archer’s mind… and to rid myself of illusions about if being in any way easy (when you hear an arrow clatter onto the ground at my archery club, it’ll be mine). I went climbing, so now I know how terrified and brave the hero of my forthcoming Hittite saga must have been when he was clinging to a perpendicular cliff face in central Anatolia. I made sure to plan and relish research jaunts to the places my characters consider home – Constantinople, Adrianople and Halicarnassus. All brilliant stuff that really spiced up my writing life into dream-like realms once more. And surely that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? You need to live a rich and varied life in order to be able to tell a cracking story!
(A nice set of bamboo arrows, made by the talented Chris Verwijmeren, to go with my Seljuk-esque horse bow)
And there was one other thing I did – as vital as any of the above: reaching out, understanding and communicating with writers and readers alike. Now I allow myself an hour every morning after my run to enjoy my breakfast while catching up on correspondence – emails from readers are a golden thing to find upon a morning – and see what my readers and fellow writers are up to on Twitter, Facebook and so on. Taking the time to do this and enjoy it – not just throwing out bland promotional tweets – is so important; it’s another pinch of variety and very much provides that sense of common purpose and community that came with the day job.
So, nearly five years on from that day when I wolfed fish and chips and champagne, I’m actually in no hurry to cut ties with the part-time day job – again it provides me with a welcome change of scenery after a three-day writing stint, and the chats, anecdotes and simple little things I see when I’m there help fuel my imagination. Book sales go up and down, but it’s never critical when I’ve got a backup income. Vitally, the balance of writing and ‘normal’ work is healthy and enjoyable – it keeps me fresh as a person and an author.
So, there have been ups and downs over the last five years, but I love the fact I now understand my writing life – and myself – a little bit better. Crikey, I must be getting old!
Anyway, I’m starving. I’m off to the fish & chip shop… and possibly the fizzy wine aisle of the supermarket too ?.
I suspect that we are all filled with the same odd stories of adjustment. It’s a re-invention of our persona in many ways. reading between the lines, I suspect that you, Gordon, have struck what may be the perfect balance. Because it is all about balance, that’s for sure! Thanks so much for guest-posting here and good luck with the new Hittite Saga!
To find out more about Gordon and to find links to his spectacular Strategos and Legionary series and shortly his Hittite Saga, go to: