I am moving to Seattle in two weeks, for about a year. I am in the process of emigrating to England from South Africa, and trying to bring everyone I love with me. I am building a career in a foreign country and I am learning, one day at a time, how to live a life I didn’t plan for.
And in the midst of currency conversions, moving boxes and multiple tax return nightmares, I am also trying to enter one short story a month for a year. That might not sound like a lot of stories to write in a year to you. But maybe that’s just because you’re an overachieving try-hard with unreasonable standards.
For me, 12 good stories is a lot. And while 12 months sounds like a long time, I have spent many more years in my writing career not writing. I have edited presentations, prepared proposals, attended pitches, and amended everything from blog posts to banners. And none of the thousands of hours spent doing any of those things has left me with a compendium of work that I feel proud to present when someone asks me ‘So what do you write?’.
I know what I want to write, and who I aspire to write like. But while my icons like Steven King, Lauren Beukes and J.K. Rowling squeezed in award-winning bestsellers between demanding jobs, parenthood and personal demons, I am made of weaker stuff. A full day at the office. A too-cutting criticism from a client. Dinner and a movie. Dinner or a movie. Dinner. Any of a hundred daily distractions could derail me from my lifelong ambition of being a ‘real’ writer.
And as far as literary ambitions go, mine is not a lofty one. I don’t expect to sell a million copies of my memoir, and I don’t expect a mantelpiece littered with trophies. I just want to be able to call myself a writer, mean it, and believe it.
So, how do I reconcile my natural inclination to be a lazy sack of human shit with the nagging need to produce art? The answer has been deadlines. Anyone familiar with the ‘elephant and the rider’ analogy used to describe the ego and the id knows that the analogy is meant to portray the sheer, stubborn force of the unconscious mind. The part of your brain that refuses to get out of bed for a run at 06h00 (apparently), that demands another biscuit, that imagines your bus driver naked, and has plotted out, stab for stab, the murder of that woman who rear-ended you in traffic.
The rider is the poor bastard in charge. The tiny force for good, trying to steer ten tonnes of hormonal bullshit towards your goals and keep you from ending up dead or in jail. Every time the rider tries to force the elephant to do something, the elephant fights back with all of its strength. So the only way to make that dumb, trunk-waving fucker do anything worthwhile is to trick it.
That’s why deadlines are important for me. In every job I’ve ever had, I’ve been conditioned to never miss a deadline. I was taught that doing so, repeatedly, would eventually cost me my job and my income. Deadlines matter to me. Writing matters to me. Competitions have deadlines. It’s kind of like rewarding yourself for going for a run by stopping at your favourite coffee shop afterwards. Apparently.
I don’t have to win any of the competitions to feel vindicated either. Although, the mug I won from Horror Scribes, and the illustration I won from Zero Flash are now amongst my prized possessions. By simply submitting a story for the month, I’ve tricked the elephant in my head who just wants to scratch her butt and watch TV into taking her personal writing almost as seriously as she does the paid stuff.
Twelve stories in 12 months is not a lot of writing. But it’s more writing than I would probably do otherwise and the fortuitous side effect is that my collection of work is growing, along with my confidence. I spend more time acting like a writer and less time feeling like an impostor. Hopefully one day, one of those stories will inspire something meatier than a 1000-word competition entry, and hopefully I’ll be able to trick my elephant into writing that too. If not, I might just try to keep to the ‘one a month’ format until I have enough short-stories to self-publish an ill-advised collection of the losers.
Want to read the ‘losers’? They’re here, on my medium page.