LOUISE O'NEILL: I am a writer, all my dreams have come true, but why do I not feel whole yet?

I spent this morning listing the reasons why I became a writer, says Louise O’Neill.

I was in serious pain because of a neck and shoulder injury which I know makes it sound like I damaged myself doing something adventurous like rock climbing or pole vaulting, but it was a repetitive strain injury from spending hours at my laptop. 

Writing! It’s dangerous, kids.

I didn’t always have a burning passion to write. I loved reading and making up stories, but I had the vague idea that I might write a book in my spare time between picking up my Oscar for Best Actress and covering Vanity Fair. 

How hard could it be, right? Everyone needs a hobby.

This nonchalance was quickly annihilated when, at the age of 19, I actually tried to write my first novel. 

It was an exploration of a toxic relationship between a perfect, kind, almost angelic woman and a terrible, terrible man which, funnily enough, had been immediately preceded by me having my heart bruised (not broken) for the first time. 

Coincidental! Luckily for me (and for him), I realised that writing about people I knew was a terrible abuse of power and said book trailed off at approximately 10,000 words, languishing in a drawer somewhere.

But with that first attempt, the longing began. Anyone who has ever wanted to write will know what I mean when I use the word ‘longing’.

Every hour that you’re spending not writing — and there were a lot of those for me, my perfectionism paralysing me — feels like 60 minutes of wasted time. 

When I wasn’t writing but still wanting to write, it felt as if I was starving all the time and no matter what I ate, nothing could fill this gnawing emptiness in my stomach.

Thus, I sat down one day. I began to write. And I am a writer now. I can say that. I have written novels. They have been published, can be bought in book shops. All my dreams have come true.

Why do I not feel whole yet?

I suppose that’s the problem. One book is never enough. You try again. 

You sit at your writing desk, and each time you do it you secretly wonder if this is the time when it, whatever ‘it’ is, the gift or the Muse or the nightly visitation of Yeat’s ghost, decides to abandon you.

I hoped the fact that I had written two books would give me comfort, perhaps even boost my confidence. But in some ways it has made me feel like there is more to prove. There is more to lose.

Higher expectations, more pressure. I tell that voice to shut up and I keep going. I keep writing. I sit with those fears every day, and try to ignore them.

And the pages, as they do, start to add up, the edges of a world forming until there it was. Another book. It is like magic, at times.

“Aren’t you lucky?” People tell me. 

“Isn’t it great that your first two books have done so well. You can relax now.”

Relax?

But what if they don’t like it?

What if it’s not as good as the others?

What if...

OK. I’ll stop there.

I wonder why I chose writing as a career, why would someone who is afraid of rejection (or maybe we all are?) and afraid of criticism (or maybe we all are?) and afraid of failure (or maybe we all are?) and afraid of being vulnerable (or maybe we all are?) as I am, chose a career as uncertain as writing?

A career that basically insists that you be as honest and vulnerable as you can be and accept that oftentimes you will only be met with censure?

Someone once told me that all writers are ‘crazy’.

We live in our heads. We think too much. We’re too sensitive.

But you need to be sensitive to be a writer, I replied, you need to be able to empathise with others so that you can understand their motivations, their behaviour.

Unfortunately, then you are expected to ‘toughen up’ so you don’t take what other people say about your book too personally.

How can writing, or any art form for that matter, not be personal when it’s the deepest expression of yourself that you can offer to the world?

I know I’ve been lucky.

The reaction to Only Ever Yours and Asking For It has been overwhelmingly positive, and for that I am grateful. I tell myself that it doesn’t matter what people think of the third book or the fourth, or the ones to follow.

I tell myself that I didn’t want to write for approval. I wonder if that is true.

When I thought of writing as a career, I saw myself at book signings, talking to fans, interviewed on TV, at launch parties with a glass of champagne in my hand.

I didn’t think about the cold mornings waking up at 5am to creep into my writing room.

I didn’t think about doing that again and again and again and yet it turned out that the sitting down and writing for hours was that bit that was heartbreaking and terrifying and exhausting and exhilarating.

It was during that time where I felt as if I had come home. It was that time when I started to feel like I knew who I was.

And maybe that is why I write? To make sense of what I feel. To make sense of who I am and the world around me.

Maybe I write because I feel I have something to say, and I hope others will want to hear it. 

And maybe, just maybe, I write because I want to leave footpaths in the sand behind me.

I want to prove that I exist, that I am here.

I want to prove that I am alive.

Louise O’ Neill is the author of Only Ever Yours and Asking For It

@oneilllo


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