‘On Biting Tongues’ Coming to Terms with Writing and Life

You’re not entirely sure what changed between the ages of 23 and 27. You wondered if this was the mysterious post-25 panic that you’d seen set in with the Americans you used to make mulled wine with during a bitterly cold Italian February. You’d laughed at their hysteria. Dismissed their monologues about their bodies not feeling the same with an eye-roll. They’d planned to do so much, but still hadn’t quite got round to it. This was the period that you’d introduce yourself as a poet when people asked you what you did. You hadn’t published your collection yet, but the statement was always followed with a coy smile and a comment about it being in the works. You were convincing.

When a writer believes in their words, they don’t need to work too hard to garner curiosity. They’ll share post after post on their feed, and occasionally check for views, but mostly take pleasure in having scratched that itch to dig into something that had been playing on their mind. Memories will ripple through you as you go about your day. You’ll shiver abruptly, like the idea is tracing a cool finger down your neck. You’ll sit down and give in to that compulsion. Something so instinctive feels impossible not to share. You’re brazen. And they flock. 

When a writer believes in their words, they don’t need to work too hard to garner curiosity.

The repetition of life is what jolts you. It had felt romantic, at first. Telling people that you loved your day job, but really, as long as you had time to write, it didn’t matter what you did. It was the truth, though you’d failed to mention how you’d bowed to pressure at a certain point and let that part occasionally seep into evenings you’d planned to set aside for finishing that next book. It was spreading. Becoming a larger part of your identity than you’d intended it to. Somehow, word had got out that you were a teacher. And it felt good to be wanted. And paid for your work. But it also felt like a dirty word. This change in title had branded you a traitor. For the first time in your life, you’d chosen safety over art. 

Was it possible to have both? Can you still make it behind the guise of a suit, slipping out of the office on a Friday night like everyone else? You wrestled with these questions. You continue to wrestle. You’d always thought that the scales of being considered a writer were a delicate matter. Tip them too far one way, and you venture into hobbyist territory. Tip them too much in the other direction, and you find yourself weekend-deep in deadlines you never have time for. Though at least this way, you have something concrete to show as proof. That you didn’t cave. That this had always been part of the plan. You’re just Clark-Kent-ing it, is all. 

What you didn’t expect was that sometimes the suit wears you. Suddenly on Instagram, you’re just a girl standing in front of your followers, asking them to click the link that you’ve shared on your story. It’s the same list of people, only now it seems as though they’re letting out that breath that they’d been holding for you to hold up your end of the deal to do something big. You’d suspended them in a constant stream of anticipation. You don’t know how to explain that they’re already bearing witness to your final act. 

What you didn’t expect was that sometimes the suit wears you.

There would be no grand leap of faith into the abyss of an industry that bottled, and snipped, and elbowed your words into tightly formatted squares of ink. You’d rather sit on the edge and dip a toe in often enough that they remember your name. 

It had always struck you as odd that writers could be writers and not need to do anything else. Where would they find the outlines of the people that they trace out in their writing? You now lived in a world of travel writers rejigging the words of their competitors to sell cultural tours in places they’d spent a full thirty-minutes researching. Long gone were the days of disconnected musings and perfect strangers, which had been the career you had grown up dreaming about. You’d been forced to re-evaluate and ask yourself what was so shameful about pursuing a life like the ones that you crafted for others to read. 

So, when your old university professor reached out to you about giving a mini lecture on your work, and what you were up to nowadays, you were honest this time. You told them about the joy of teaching, of your fascination with languages and their sounds. How you’d like to write a book of dystopian fiction, but it’s not an easy task to commit to in a world that feels as though it’s halfway there anyway. They asked you about whether you believed you’d finally be able to go full-time as a writer, and you didn’t say no, and you didn’t say yes. Sometimes you were writing, sometimes you weren’t. Meanwhile your work, and the people who flickered through it are still out there in the world, turning ideas into words, and living the lives that we write about. 

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