Word Count 5: The stories we tell ourselves in the dark

by Suw on June 14, 2022

Hi there,

The theme for this week’s newsletter was inspired by a mashup of the title of Robert Shearman’s We All Hear Stories in the Dark, an amazing three volume set of 101 short stories that you navigate by answering a question at the end of each story, and something that Tom Hiddleston’s character, Will Ransome, says in The Essex Serpent: “Sometimes, the middle of the night lies to us.”

As I said in Issue 1, hitting 50 last year unleashed a wave of regret that I’d not worked harder at my writing. All that time I’d wasted fretting about writing instead of actually writing. The six years I’d wasted working on a novel about a sodding pandemic, something no agent or publisher wants to see right now. (Despite the TV adaptation of Station Eleven doing well. I also read that there’s another pandemic-related TV show coming up, but I ragequit the article before I got as far as the name.)

I was feeling frustrated with myself, but also a bit scared that I didn’t have any more ideas in me, let alone an idea that could be considered good. I thought that my writing hadn’t gone anywhere because I was neither imaginative and nor good.

But, sometimes, the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves are lies.

Fast forward to January 2022, when I first got an inkling that a transatlantic move might be on the cards. Knowing that the contents of an American house won’t fit into a British flat, I started sorting out the boxes of stuff that were lurking in the basement. The great joy of American houses is that they are huge and, in the midwest at least, basements are common. The great horror of American houses is the amount of shit you can hide away in them.

As I was sorting, I came across a stash of old notebooks which I decided to scan them before throwing out. I was surprised by just how many of them contained the beginnings of a new story that I’d forgotten ever writing. A couple were ideas books, each page containing two paragraphs of set-up for a world I could explore (though a disturbing number of them ended with the words “…or something like that”).

I also found print-outs from stuff I’d written in my 20s. Lots of them. Stuff I’d totally forgotten about. And then there was the stuff on my hard drive from my 30s and 40s that never made it onto paper. Lots of that, too.

I even discovered a finished short story that I wrote in 2015, and then did nothing with. I read it last week. It’s not bad. Needs a little work, but not a huge amount.

So it turns out that the story I’d been telling myself, that I’ve spent too much time not writing, really isn’t true. It wasn’t just the middle of the night that was lying to me, it was pretty much all day, every day. I have been writing. I have been having ideas. Some of them still have legs. Some of them you might even get the chance to read at some point.

If there’s a lesson in this, it’s that I need to stop listening to my insecurities and start looking at the hard(copy) evidence in front of my eyes.

Watch this: The Invention of Career

Back in 2015, I was asked to talk about my career for the annual Campbell Lecture at the University of Southampton. My career is, it has to be said, a bit of a mess. I didn’t really feel like it should stand as any kind of blueprint for any young woman in STEM, although it could do well as a dire warning.

Instead, I decided to talk about that mess, about the stories we hear about other people’s careers, the stories we tell about our own, the stories we tell ourselves and how that all affects how we think of what is possible. I’ve given that talk a few times now, updating it each time, but only have a recording of that first presentation seven years ago which you can watch on YouTube.

It’s ironic that, as writers, we don’t scrutinise the stories we’re telling our collective selves or how we’re telling them. We’ll hear career glosses that will almost certainly involve some sanitised tales of failure, but we rarely dig beneath the surface. We’ll end up comparing our (OK, my) disaster-strewn lives with the highly polished profile of a famous author and feel that our failure is a sign of an inherent lack of capability, rather than consider that their overnight success might have taken 20 years, that their failures and disappointments stung just as much as ours do.

(Here I must note that there’s some evidence of a gender difference in how we perceive failure: Girls see it as a damning indictment of their capabilities whilst boys have a healthier attitude and see it as a temporary setback. I’ve no doubt we carry these attitudes into adulthood. Cf above.)

And, as someone who knows that it’s possible to develop deceptive narratives about our own lives, it’s annoying that I still find myself doing it. For the record, this is not the first time that going through old notebooks has exploded a negative narrative I’d created for myself, though that one’s a story for another time.

Stop, look and listen: Write-Off with Francesca Steele – Episode 2, Andy Weir

This episode from 2021 really chimed with me, not least because it includes a frank discussion of failure and the (wrong) assumptions self-doubt encourages us to make. Andy Weir, bestselling author of The Martian, talks about the two not-so-good novels he wrote before he self-published The Martian, and how even after it became an e-book bestseller, he “didn’t think to find an agent because earlier attempts had left him feeling like he wasn’t good enough”.

The stories we tell ourselves are often lies.

Obligatory cat picture

This week’s picture of the late Sir Izacat Mewton, Professor of Mewtonian Physics at the Small Feline Collider, and Grabbity’s brother. He sadly departed this mortal coil a couple of years ago, but lives on forever in our iPhones. What a handsome fellow he was!

That’s it for this week!

I do hope that you’re finding these newsletters interesting, and if you are, please forward any of them on to friends or colleagues who might also enjoy them. We’re heading towards 100 subscribers, and I would love to hit that number over the next fortnight!

All the best,

Suw

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