The Happy Author
Sometimes, I have to pinch myself. I get to write for kids. I also spend a lot of work hours hanging out with kids, making stories. I have six books coming out this year, and more in production. It’s a dream job, and a dream run.
If I told my six year old self one day I’d be making books like the one she was reading, I think she would have gotten pretty excited. A bit the way my own kids bounce up and down when a new book of mine arrives in the post. Being an author is FUN. In so so many ways.
But it’s not always fun. And it’s not always happy. Or easy. Children’s authors share common experiences with the rest of the population. Fear. Envy. Worry. Sadness. Laziness. Most nights last year, I laid awake, thinking about things. Sometimes stressing. Really. We are making beautiful things. Hanging out with lovely children. Why the stress? Why the worry?
I put it down to being human. I also put it down to being someone who cares about getting things right, and doing well. I care about not disappointing people. Or myself. To add to that, I am self employed. If I don’t make it happen, no-one will. And as most self-employed people or business owners will know, that pressure keeps you awake.
I’ve been chatting with lots of authors lately, and it seems I am not the only person with fitful sleep, and bouts of negative feelings. But my goal for this year, is not getting overwhelmed by the negatives. Keeping the worry at bay. Not getting too consumed with the BUSINESS of it all, and returning to the pure joy of creating. Isn’t that what it’s about, after all?
Anyway, I’ve been thinking up a guide for the Happy Author. And although the pressure to be happy all the time, whether you are an author or a goat, is plain ridiculous and a recipe for disaster, at least let this guide be inspiration.
A remedy for envy
Ah envy. The root of evil. It’s the one human emotion I can’t justify, and can’t bear. Why do we need it. Why? And yet, there have been many times in my life, I can’t help feeling a little bit jealous of someone else, even though my own path flourishes, and so many wonderful things are happening.
After a recent attack of jealousy, my husband took me by the horns and sat me down.
‘Focus on your side of the net,’ he said. He was talking tennis, as he often does, and about the master players, like Nadal, or Federer, who reign strong year after year. All the top 900 players and insanely amazing players. Why, though, does this tiny bunch of men dominate tennis year after year?
Because they are focused on their own game. They do their best for each and every shot. That’s all they can do. They can’t control or influence the other player. They can only be their own master. They take pleasure in the perfection of each hit. And as soon as one is done, it’s behind them. And when another player wins, they congratulate them on their game, graciously, and with appreciation. Then they get on with mastering their skill.
Creativity is not a competition like tennis is. But there is something there, about putting your head down, and mastering each stroke of the pen. Focussing on you and what you are doing. Let the haze of others’ success wash over you, with appreciation.
A remedy for sleep and creativity
The life of an author is a sedentary one. We spend countless hours in front of the computer, necks craned, wrists at risk of carpal tunnel syndrome. And yet creativity requires anything but sitting still.
When we move, our brains are juiced. Thoughts flow. Ideas flow. Connections are made. Apparently, Aristotle gave lessons walking. It was the only way to learn, as far as he was concerned. It’s also the only way to be creative, as far as I am concerned.
When I analysed why I spent so much time awake in 2017, a lot of it came back to lack of exercise. I was exercising regularly, but my runs were slow and short and lazy. I wasn’t doing 8km around the forest, like I’d done the year before, or races, like I’d done the year before that.
2018 arrived, and I resolved to exercise every day. So far, so good, and I feel amazing. I sleep well, which is great for creativity. And while I move, ideas flow. Exercising is also a good opportunity to listen to inspiring creative podcasts, like All the Wonders or The Yarn. That half hour a day is an invaluable investment in my creative life.
Make for joy
I love Elizabeth Gilbert’s ideas about the joy of making. In Big Magic, she asserts that the pressure to be a creative genius takes the joy away from the making. Humans were made to make, says Gilbert. We’ve been making for most of human history. And why not do it with a cheerful heart?
The year I spent unemployed, overseas, I put a lot of pressure on myself to be ‘successful’, whatever that means. Get published, I suppose. But more than that. Get published again. Get noticed. Sell books. Honestly, it never ends. After about ten months of relative silence, I was by a lake in Italy, tearing my hair out. Why wasn’t it happening?
‘Quit,’ said my husband.
‘What?’ I yelled back. ‘I can’t. I can’t quit.’
‘But why do it if you don’t enjoy it?’
‘But I do,’ I said. ‘I really do.’ What I enjoy is writing. I love getting lost in a page. I love turning ideas over like rocks, and discovering what’s underneath. I love talking about ideas, and watching them flourish. I can’t do without that. Not now I know how good it feels.
So I didn’t quit. But I let go of something. A certain seriousness and pressure I’d put myself under. Moments later, I opened my laptop, 3pm on a Sunday, and bam. There was a four-book offer from a big Australian publisher. Well, if that’s not a lesson, I’m not sure what is. Make with joy. The rest follows.
Be at one with the kids
Really, we are making children’s books. Bits of joy, strung together to please small smiley people. Why so serious? Why serious at all, really? Why not pure joy?
I was struggling over some business-y thing one afternoon. Practically going crazy. My kids ran to me with new Tiggy books, which had arrived in the mail earlier that week. ‘Please read!’ they said, then buried me with hugs etc, until I read. And I read those precious books, so long in the making, through gritted teeth as I processed what was in my head. And I missed that precious moment, of sharing joy with the kids. The kids! I wrote those books for the kids! Really. I had to kick myself (softly) at that moment, and take it as a lesson.
Wear the happy pants
Mum made me happy pants for Christmas. I’d wear them every day, except people might think I’m unhygienic. When I wear them, I feel happy. Other people feel happy too, and smile at me, and the world becomes a better place.
When I used to struggle with depression in my late teens, early twenties, I put on my happy pants. Back then, they were a pair of denim overalls, before overalls were trendy. Something about them made me feel silly and sweet, and it was impossible to take myself too seriously.
Thankfully Mum brought happy pants back into my life. It’s a remedy I’d highly recommend.
Ride the waves
It often amazes me that I can go weeks – months even without any external feedback on my writing. Then kapow, three emails on one day. A drought or flood type thing. My creativity is a bit the same. Sometimes it’s there with stores to spare – keeps me awake at night, manuscripts flowing out of my fingertips. Other times, it’s frustratingly barren. I sit staring at a blank page, hate everything I write. Need coffee. I’ve come to realise that I have to go easy on myself, and on the publishing industry generally. It comes in waves. Some high and mighty, and others flat.
No matter how big the waves, you have to keep things on deck in order. And go gently on yourself. Sleep well. Feed your creativity. Enjoy the little highs, and accept the little lows. It’s all part of the process. Each bump helps you grow, somehow. The hardest times in my career so far have been a secret lesson in disguise. And it’s only months later I realise how relevant those times were.
And as for being a happy author? Well, if you were always happy, you’d have nothing to write about.