Written by Lisa Williamson
I recently met up with a bunch of friends from university for the afternoon. ‘You’re very successful now, aren’t you?’ one guy boomed at me before even saying ‘hello’.
I blinked back at him. I had absolutely no idea how to respond. In the end I think I just laughed nervously and said something terribly British along the lines of ‘yes, it’s all been going quite well, I suppose…’
This was not a one-off. Ever since The Art of Being Normal was published in January 2015, I’ve encountered a large number of well-meaning people who’ve made the assumption that just because the book appears to be doing well, my entire life must therefore be brilliant.
A caveat before I go on: being a published author is an utter privilege. I get to make up stories for a living for goodness sake! Having said that, it presents its own unique challenges too; challenges we don’t always like to admit up to publicly for fear of sounding ungrateful. Although I’ve been overjoyed by the reaction to the book and love so many aspects of my new life as a full-time writer, over the past eighteen months I’ve also experienced crippling self-doubt, extreme loneliness and healthy dollops of imposter syndrome.
First of all, publication is an exposing time. Spotting your book out ‘in the wild’ is both thrilling and terrifying. It was the first time it truly dawned on me that its fate and success was completely out of my hands. Although I was hugely proud of what I’d written, lovingly stroking the front cover every time I walked into a branch of Waterstones, I was wracked with fear no one would buy it or like it, so much so, in the weeks proceeding publication, I started shedding my eyebrows – an apparent manifestation of stress. When people did start buying the book, and indeed, seemed to like it, although delighted, my anxiety didn’t go away; instead it simply changed focus.
Because the gap between signing a publishing deal with David Fickling Books, and The Art of Being Normal hitting the shelves was so short (eight months), I’ve spent the majority of the process of writing my second book (another standalone contemporary) feeling the pressure to come up with a worthy follow-up to my debut. The more people that liked The Art of Being Normal, the more pressure I felt to deliver something they’d enjoy and engage with just as much, preferably even more. I spent months lurching from project to project, waiting for something to click, something magical, second-guessing my audience and writing ability at every turn. No matter how positive my wonderful agent and editor were, I couldn’t quite believe they were telling me the truth. I felt a fraud, convinced The Art of Being Normal was a fluke, a one hit wonder. At the same time, I’d grown horribly lonely without even realizing it.
By nature, I’m a pretty sociable thing. I wouldn’t exactly describe myself as the life and soul of the party but I definitely thrive on human contact. Before I was a writer, I was an actor and constantly surrounded by people. I spent most of my twenties on tour, sharing digs and dressing rooms and far too much personal information. It was exhausting and slightly incestuous, but it was also great fun and suited me at the time. Upon giving up my part-time office job in summer 2014 (between acting jobs I temped in various busy offices), I initially loved working from home. After all those years of enforced intimacy as an actor, the solitude felt heavenly. Quickly though, I realized the lack of social interaction was having a negative impact. I would spend entire days thinking of nothing and no one but my fictional plotlines and characters. I began talking to myself and got disproportionately excited by the doorbell or phone ringing. I was lonely but felt embarrassed admitting it. After all, being a full-time writer was my dream, I was the envy of my friends for working in my pyjamas if I wanted to; I had no right to complain. And so I didn’t. Instead I quietly fretted, and hoped my uncertain mood would lift.
Earlier this year though, I decided enough was enough. I wanted to enjoy the book’s success and have fun with my writing again, and the only person standing in the way of that happening was me. Having identified my need to get out of the house and inject more structure into my working day, I started making the effort to arrange writing ‘dates’ with fellow author friends. Just like doing homework with a mate, there’s something oddly comforting about writing alongside someone else, not least of all the breaks for a slice of cake and a natter. On solo days, I try to get out the house for a change of scenery (I live in a one bedroom flat, my writing desk in the living room), setting myself a word count goal or particular task before allowing myself to come home. As a result of compartmentalizing my day in this manner, I’m finally able to enjoy my time off without the constant guilt I should be writing. More importantly, I’ve learned to stop treating my second book like a problem child. It’s not. It’s just different, and different is good.
Along with my saint-like editor and agent, the amazing UK YA community has been invaluable in changing my mindset. Getting to hang out with fellow authors and hear about their experiences has been an utter godsend. Working alone and scrolling through social media, it’s so easy to that you’re the only one struggling. Not the case. Almost every author I confided in was more than willing to share their own fears and insecurities, and I was often shocked at just how closely they mirrored mine.
Another revelation has been the wonderful world of bookish events, from school visits to literary festivals. Although the first few I participated in were vaguely terrifying, I’ve quickly grown to genuinely enjoy them. Meeting people who have read and enjoyed the world I’ve created is quite simply joyous and something I’m certain will never, ever get old.
Reader reactions in general have blown me away. Gender identity is an emotive subject for many, regardless of where you might fall on the gender spectrum. On a bad writing day, an email or tweet from a passionate reader can elevate my mood in seconds. When you first set out to write a book, publication is such a far-off dream, you don’t dare let yourself think about actual members of the public reading it one day, never mind having an emotional reaction. I’ve heard from young people who say the book helped them come out to their families, as transgender or otherwise. Others explained it encouraged them to explore their identity in a broader sense and challenge the concept of what is ‘normal’. Others reported weeping on trains and buses and in cafes because they’d become so emotionally invested in the story and its characters. I treasure every single piece of correspondence I receive. It’s a glorious and unexpected perk of this writing lark. Selling books and being considered for awards is bloody lovely but knowing you’ve touched someone’s heart and/or mind is truly the special part.
Writing can be a vulnerable profession. In a world of Goodreads and no holds barred Amazon reviews, you’re only ever a few taps on the keyboard away from having your soul destroyed (top tip: don’t look!). One thing I’ve learned from my first eighteen months as a published author is to celebrate every triumph, big or small, whether with a glass of something fizzy or an episode of your favourite TV show. Be kind to yourself, keep your feet on the ground and embrace the writing community – they’re a good bunch. Publication may be the dream, but it’s just the beginning of a long and twisting journey.
Visit Lisa’s own website here.
Read Bookgazing’s Shiny review of The Art of Being Normal here.
Lisa Williamson, The Art of Being Normal (David Fickling Books, 2015). 978-1910200520, 360pp., paperback.
BUY The Art of Being Normal from the Book Depository.