Choosing to be a Writer, by C.J. Flood
My name is Chelsey Flood, and I’m an author.
It’s still a little strange for me to say that sentence, because for the longest time, it was something I dreamed of, often in secret, and for many years, I didn’t even know it was a job. Where I’m from people don’t become authors. They become housewives and tradesmen and managers of supermarkets, and even though I was a talented writer all through my school years, it was never suggested I might take this gift forwards. Careers advice for me circa 1998 was to become a librarian. Which would have actually really suited me, but I was trying to pass as an extrovert back then, and I was horrified by this dorky profession.
I’m not sure how I thought authors came into being, precisely, but I sensed there was some mysterious and nonsensical selection process that decided it, like the force at play when I choose an outfit or when my best friend chooses boyfriends.
It was a habit of mine for a long time not to think too deeply about how things worked, especially society and the economy, not because I wasn’t interested, but because the nature of life and being in the world and having a body, was so confounding and befuddling to me, that it took up almost the whole of my brain just to exist within these absurd and inexplicable and ever-changing circumstances minute by minute.
The question of how one became an author was nowhere near the top of my list, and I was overwhelmed by the uncertainty life seemed to throw up, not only at each milestone, but also on the way to each milestone. Way more pressing than the extremely pressing question of where I would fit in the world and who would love me, and how on earth I would support myself seemed to be the smaller questions like how do you talk to people in the supermarket without blushing, and how do you have just one pint and go home, with dignity, instead of always ending up drunkenly shouting at the sexists? How, too, do you deal with recurrent thrush?
Aged twenty-one I didn’t feel ready to take on the world, I didn’t feel ready to have the internet bill in my name. But this isn’t the case for everyone when they graduate. Some of you will be busting to get out of here and get started. For both types of graduate, and those that fit in between I have the same advice, which I’ll share with you in a minute.
Now don’t tell me I haven’t learned how to wield a story hook.
First let me tell you what it was like for me, setting off into what I thought of as The Real World after three years of guitar playing and reading Jane Austen and struggling in and out of a sandy wetsuit at this wonderful university. (I did learn some stuff here too.)
I remember growing sick of the conversations around graduation time, sick of people talking about the internships and jobs they were going to do, and the cities and countries they were going to travel to. When had they sorted it all out? I wondered. And how had they arrived at these decisions? I remember being baffled at those who had somehow, when I was sleeping or surfing or drinking the aforementioned pints, secured themselves proper jobs. I judged them as being too quick to grow up, which is another way of saying I resented them for leaving me behind. All of it, the whole thing, is a trick of perspective. And you can choose yours.
A tip. Choose a positive one.
It’s a feeling I’ve had often in my life, that things are moving too fast for me, that I can’t keep up, that my peers have received some memo containing instructions regarding how to proceed during the next bit of life and it is entirely missing from my inbox… and as anyone who has ever felt they’ve missed a memo knows, you must never admit that you didn’t get the memo. It’s like admitting you’re a virgin in your teens, or that you still don’t know exactly what your best friend’s job entails, you’ve got to keep that stuff close to your chest. Or so I always thought. You must bluster through, regardless.
But this feeling, and this trouble to keep up with my peers, and what was expected of me by life, has played a crucial part in helping me to discover where my place in the world is, and what I actually have to contribute. Because in all the times that I’ve been lost or struggling or happy and scheming, I’ve written. Whether trying to understand what is happening or to escape my reality or to feel better about myself and my choices, I’ve written. Through all of the crappy jobs I had between graduating and working out what I wanted to do and publishing my first book, I have continued to write. And so, in spite of my immaturity and procrastination and confusion, I somehow managed to accomplish the biggest dream I could think of. Something I genuinely thought impossible. And I did this entirely without a plan.
Which brings me to my central nugget of advice, the thing that I wish I had learned when I was where you find yourselves now, and that is how to thrive in the face of uncertainty.
This is something that I have become better at, out of necessity, in recent years. It is something that was sorely missing in my twenties and beyond. I remember very well sitting in the jumping off point you are at now, and how most of my dearest friends were preparing to leave Falmouth, either to travel or to save up to travel, or to begin practicing whatever they had studied, if they were lucky enough to have studied something with gainful employment opportunities. As for me I wasn’t ready. And I didn’t understand how they could be.
It’s only from this place, that I can see the sense in the path I took. It is only from this moment that I can see how my absolute bewilderment about how to live and what to do helped me, so gradually I couldn’t entirely decipher it, helped me to discover precisely what it takes to become an author.
The secret, then, for those of you unsure what you even want to do, is to find something that comes naturally to you, and keep doing it. Make time to keep it at the centre of your life, and practice it. Eventually you will find that you have become good. Take things step by step. When I began writing I wasn’t trying to be an author I was simply doing something I had ability in to feel better about myself, and to try and make my life and lack of money less dull… I wrote reviews in the hope of getting free cds and gig tickets, and then I interviewed an author in the hope of getting a free book. Soon I had a sort of portfolio. I submitted a story to a magazine at my friend’s suggestion and after it was published I got hooked on seeing my name in print. The notion of being an author solidified in my mind, and I looked up young authors, and saw that they had done MAs in creative writing.
I tried to pay off my overdraft (do you know how hard it is to pay off an overdraft?) and begin saving to do a Masters, and failed, and missed the deadline for all the MAs, and put it off until next year, and then did the same thing again, and in the interim I kept writing and applying for residencies and submitting stories to magazines, and being rejected, but I didn’t give up – mostly because I didn’t have any other skills – I applied again and again. All the time feeling like a total failure.
But in the midst of all this failure, and quite unbeknownst to me, I was learning to write. And by the time I did get it together enough to take out a career development loan and complete the application to do a Masters, I was good enough to secure a place. Something that may not have been the case in any of the preceding years when I failed to meet the application deadline.
Moreover when I got to UEA I was confident enough not to be destroyed by the harsh criticism I received, but not so confident that I couldn’t listen and grow and improve. Recognising the underlying logic of this pattern of events, the relationship between my readiness and my ability to succeed, has taught me to have faith that things are happening at the speed that is right for me, even when it doesn’t feel like it.
During my MA, I improved my craft and learnt to give feedback. I improved my understanding of how stories worked, and found a central conflict juicy enough to sustain a novel. At the end of the course, we were introduced to publishers and agents and I got that where’s-the-memo feeling again. How were The People striking up conversations so naturally? And how did you politely end a conversation?
I was so intimidated that I sat at the back, guzzling wine and scoffing sandwiches. I slagged off my coursemates in my head as schmoozers, and told myself there was a direct correlation between the ability to mingle and pure unabashed talent. I was too talented! I told myself, that was the essential problem. I was too talented, and no one would ever know because I’d never learnt how to strike up a conversation.
Then a lovely and unexpected thing happened. A friend pointed out that one of the agents represented a writer I loved, Meg Rosoff, and we introduced ourselves, and I gushed wholeheartedly over a book called How I Live Now, and in spite of myself, and my conviction in the missing memo conspiracy, I made a connection.
After I graduated this agent offered to represent me, when I finished my novel a few months later, she sent it on submission and it went to auction in the UK, Germany and America. My dream was upon me. That, my friends, is when the penny dropped, that writing was a job. Somehow, along the way I had convinced myself being a writer was a ticket to absolute freedom and eternal parties and never having to grow up – but being an author is a job, like many others, and requires hard work and concentration and saying no to parties and Netflix and barbecues.
But what a job to find yourself with. Pyjamas in the office are not only acceptable but expected, one of the main reasons I continue showing up, and the Christmas parties are peerless. Last year I cooked myself a roast for one with all the trimmings and ate both chicken drumsticks in one sitting. But it’s hard too. Isolated and boring, with no team meetings and deeply inadequate pep talks. Plus people read less than they used to, and notice how even I, a writer, book-pusher, biblio-junkie, mentioned Netflix rather than books as one of the sad sacrifices of the job. The times they are a-changing. But you, are at the forefront of this change, ready to shape the face of writing as you move away from the safety of university into the wider world.
What I didn’t realise in all of those painful and exciting years between graduating from my BA and selling my first book was that they would be some of the most creative of my life. I had total artistic freedom, and no one anywhere cared at all whether I wrote a word or not. Again that trick of perspective. At the time, this fact seemed tragic to me. It is only now, from the vantage point of having two books on the market, that I can see the benefits and privilege in being so absolutely unknown.
Infinite Sky was published in 2013 just before my 30th birthday. This is young in writing terms. But I’d been having a quarter life crisis since I turned 21. This seems like a waste, and so I implore you to work at the thriving in uncertainty thing. My second novel, Nightwanderers, came out with the same publisher last year. At every step along the way in my career and life, I have felt like I’m not ready, like I’m missing a memo. And at every step along the way I have continued to write. These are the constants.
In spite of the absolute absence of a working plan, I managed to create the life for myself that suited me best. Not that this is constant and unchanging, or even secure, but it is a life with meaning and challenges and it suits me. If I could go back in time to my graduation, and offer a memo to my fearful self, there is only one thing I would want it to say, and that is THERE IS NO MEMO. So stop worrying about the future. Enjoy things as they unfold. After all, they are going to unfold whether you worry or not. We are all just making it up as we go along.
Some of the most exciting moments of my life – a book tour of America, falling in love, being nominated for a national prize – all occurred in a bloodbath of fear, because of my mistaken belief that I was supposed to know what was going to happen next. This notion is an illusion. Sorry planners! None of us knows what is going to happen, and people that pretend they do are in for the biggest surprises of all.
So if there is one thing it is in your interest to learn, more than how to structure a story or set up a social enterprise to match Dave Egger’s 826 Valencia or make CEO of your Tone of Voice company before twenty-four, it is how to thrive in the face of uncertainty. Which is to say how to thrive in life. The future is uncertain when you are eleven and when you are twenty one and when you are thirty-one. I don’t know for sure but I’m beginning to see a pattern and I’m guessing that it continues to be uncertain when you are fifty-one and a hundred and one as well.
Thriving in the face of uncertainty means being able to make the most of the infinite and surprising options that the universe throws up for us. It means being able to abandon a long-dreamed-of plan when a better option we couldn’t have imagined presents itself.
So please, all of you, those with concrete plans, and those without a clue, practice having faith that if you are following your interests, and putting effort into taking action to make this day the best it can be for you and those around you, then you will be creating, the life that will suit Future You best. If you don’t know what you want, enjoy the uncertainty. If you do know what you want, prepare for surprises along the way. There will be more than you can count.
Nowadays, I am much better at thriving in the face of uncertainty. I take decisions, knowing that there isn’t a right answer and that I must choose what feels right in the time available, and trust. Life is a state of constant dilemma. We can’t have everything and sometimes you make the wrong decision.
But I can live with this today. I work on having faith that things are unfolding as they should, and that the right things are happening at the right time. I tell myself the churning in my stomach before giving a talk like this is excitement, instead of anxiety. I do what I can to shift my perspective so I can make the best of today. These are the most important lessons I have learned about how to improve the quality of my life.
So thanks for inviting me here, to my old university town, where I fell in love for the first time and published my first short story and discovered feminism. It is an honour to have the opportunity to talk about my journey to becoming a writer and a responsible (ish) grown up, and the things I’ve learned that have helped me along the way, and I hope that something that I said might help one or two of you thrive as you set out on your uncertain paths.
I wish you every success as you forge ahead into this new world of writing and storytelling.
Chelsey Flood is a graduate of Falmouth Creative Writing, as well as a UEA Creative Writing MA graduate and a member of the Lucky 13 writers group. Her debut novel, Infinite Sky, won the 2014 Branford Boase award. Her writing has been described as "Extraordinarily powerful . . . brilliantly visual and full of feeling" (The Guardian).
Chelsey generously gave the speech above at the awards ceremony for our graduating third years.