Industry Focus: A conversation with Cathy Retzenbrink
Writer and journalist Cathy Rentzenbrink was born in Cornwall and grew up in Yorkshire. Before moving back to Falmouth in 2017, she worked as an editor at The Bookseller as well as heading up literacy charity Quick Reads. Cathy is the author of two books: The Times bestseller Last Act of Love and A Manual for Heartache. She is currently writing her first novel. Here, Cathy shares her insights into a writer’s life, and why living by the sea is good for your soul.
On finding peace in Cornwall
Every time we came to Cornwall we’d have a brilliant time, and every time we left I thought ‘Why are we leaving?’ I spent a couple of years writing the book whilst working more than fulltime. It was extremely enjoyable, but I wanted to steady off a bit, to retrench. I needed some silence. Cornwall is fascinating. There are lots of writers here and lots of people that want to write, and that’s what I need.
On being addicted
Since coming here, I am in pursuit of how to feel small in a good way, wanting to feel less addicted to things. I want to be less manipulated by my own internal yearning to feel good about myself. If I spend a day looking at Twitter - and it does turn into a day - I start flirting with it and then find that a few hours later, I am in a puddle of despair and self-loathing. It makes me hate everything, including myself, and then I have to buy stuff or drink to make myself feel better. I just wanted to reverse out of all of that.
I am wary of encouraging a myth that being creative and drunk go together. I’ve known a lot of people that are just drunk, they’re never going to write a good novel, and they’re certainly not going to do it until they sober up. I stopped drinking, which I needed to do. My own internal yearning to feel good about myself is satisfied when I have a glass of booze in my hand and interesting people to talk to - it massively stroked my ego - but I didn’t have the self-discipline to sit and write. I won’t create new work that’s any good if I am at parties every night.
On struggling with depression
For years I have always been depressed in January and I wasn’t this year. I know its lots of things, but not drinking is a big one. Also forcing myself outside every day, looking at the sea coming in and out, rather than wondering if I am jumping up and down enough about myself. I am finding the joys of a simple life. Even when it looks like it’s just raining, you go out and look at the sky and the colour of the sea. Being attuned to that is monstrously good for me. I definitely have got something going on with the sea.
I don’t mind talking about my own work when people are interested, but I don’t like self-promoting. I find it psychologically bruising that I have to be on Twitter being amusing so that somebody might buy my book. If I can’t write books because I won’t go on twitter, I’m not doing it. I’ll just get another job. I don’t care. Or I would care, but I am trying to change my mind about what’s important.
On facing your fears
You’d think that I would be more confident about writing than I was before I had finished anything. No, I am more nervous. I am in a continual state of writer’s block. I have to open up so much to choke out every sentence. I don’t know if that’ll get easier, I try not to think about it. I’ve basically gone mental writing every book so far.
On the future
I feel more relaxed now about what the future might hold. At one point I was paralysed with fear: what happens if this identity of being a writer is actually quite short? I have decided now that it doesn’t matter. It’s only bad if the fear of it makes me not do it.
On creative self-doubt
My most fertile writing time was when I was having to work hard to find two free hours. When I have a lot of time, I sit around thinking how crap and pointless I am. I am constantly wrestling with my own self-doubt. Part of the reason I really love teaching and mentoring is that I get let out; I’m not sitting on my own, looking at my own work, wondering whether or not it’s crap. Because I talk to other authors, I know that everyone feels like this. People don’t talk about it much because it makes you sound like a twat.
On the writing process
All the problems that you have with writing, you generally find are problems that you have with life. Writing takes a long time. The media can be misleading. The stories that you hear about are all ‘Oh, I woke up one day with this fully formed idea and three weeks later I had a six-figure book deal,’ but it’s always more complex. Any creative endeavour is hard work. It’s not coal mining, but it is hard.
Advice to aspiring writers
Just go for it. One foot in front of the other. Start recruiting all of your mental forces, buy a specific notebook and start harvesting everything that floats up. Whether or not it comes to exist will depend not at all on whether you’re talented, but on whether you can get over the obstacles to put in the graft that will take you from being here to being there with a finished copy in your hand. Try to have some fun. It’s really hard to keep the curiosity and the playfulness. Try not to get completely fucked over by your own self-doubt.
Emma Fowle is currently enrolled on the MA Professional Writing course at Falmouth. She loves to write about things that matter, such as social justice, faith and not wasting good food. You can find out more about her and read some more of her stuff here: www.emmajfowle.com