After the book I’ve been working on for three years gets rejected countless times by publishers and agents, I happen upon a bit of spare cash and say, fuck it, I’m getting a shed.
On an icy February evening, in preparation for its arrival, I measure out the space at the back of the garden, and dig. My da gives me a hand and I’m glad of his help. We lay twelve breeze blocks and cement them in place, making sure the air bubble in my da’s spirit level always drifts into the sweet spot.
My da presumes I’ll be using the shed for the kids’ bikes that are starting to rust. His breath smokes silently through his nose when I tell him my plans.
Even though my laptop is fourteen years old, has no battery, and the C key is broken, I’m more in need of space to work. Besides, it was used for my previous two novels, Beatsploitation and Citizens. Surely it can go again.
The shed is just a cheap, 6 by 8 wooden thing with woolly insulation. It’s elevated a few inches above the grass by blocks. No room for bikes, spades, tools or brushes: it might be a monument to my misplaced determination, but at least I’ll have somewhere to write.
Every evening after work I turn the power on in the shed for a few hours before I go into it. The electric heater needs time to make the temperature bearable. The desk lamp in the shed window shines like a gentle reminder as I go about my life with my wife and kids in the house.
When the kids are in bed and I sit on the couch, I can see the light in the shed glowing. We’re a single income family and the money spent on heating the shed doesn’t come easy, so I can’t waste it. I have to trek out there, through the long grass, and write.
But writing is never a chore. I enjoy the process, enjoy the escape, enjoy the pen and the words, the sentences, the paragraphs, and suddenly, the pages.
There were pages, plenty of them, before the shed. They were written in my car on short breaks from work, or at the kitchen table, then typed up on a Bluetooth keyboard on the ramshackle computer wherever I could plug it in. Only this wasn’t serious writing, and if I was honest with myself, it wasn’t committed. Family life and teaching was starting to subsume the writing. I could see this happening, I was allowing it. I was tired in the evenings and it was too easy to blame everything else: the computer wasn’t working, I had essays to correct, school had been mental that day. But ultimately, I wasn’t applying myself to my craft as I knew I needed to. I was looking to other writers and their successes, instead of looking at my own practice. And so, the pages I sent out came back, time and time again with short rejection notes attached.
My excuses for failure were excuses for not writing consistently, rigorously, truthfully.
Maybe two novels were it. That was my shot. My window for publication. Maybe I had said all I could say. There are other ways to spend evenings—watching Champions League matches, reading a book without the feeling you’re meant to be doing something else.
Cold November nights come in and rain patters off the corrugated roof. The electric heater to my left ticks on and dims the table lamp. Dense clouds descend, blocking out the north star above a neighbour’s chimney. The seagulls are silent and every window in the street is dark. I ease back from the page and yawn. When I login, I notice the day’s emails have changed from the time received to yesterday’s date. I opt for ‘schedule send’ on more submissions. They will go out in the morning while I’m at school. Possibility lightens everything.
I get a reply. It’s a pleasant promise to read my work. So I wait. When another email comes back, I spot the no thank you in the body of the message before I even read the whole thing.
Life goes on under the secret weight of rejection.
The shed brings a new vigour to the work. I type up the pages, print them out. I strike through messy sentences with red pen strokes, add extra words between the lines. Change the font type, the font size. I find the mistakes, make the corrections. There’s pleasure in watching the number of versions hit double digits. The work is taking shape. With one last push, I take ten thousand words away. There’s something liberating in the cutting.
In my role as Year Head, I hear my students’ stories, solve their problems, tell them things will get better. I smile through the days, teaching teenagers about the beauty to be found in words, books and characters’ obstacles and struggles. The joy they encounter on the page, in the unfurling of a story they can somehow see themselves in, strengthens my desire to keep writing.
To witness a four-hundred-year-old text bring a room of fifteen year old boys and girls to life, smiling, anticipating what Romeo will do after Juliet says: ‘Doff thy name, and for that name, which is no part of thee, take all myself!’ is a privilege. I sit in silence with my seniors as we finish the last line of Claire Keegan’s Foster. The emotional impact of a well-earned ending is something to behold in a room of twenty-eight impressionable readers. At home, reading bedtime stories to my daughter and son, I marvel when they plead for lights-off to be delayed and the next chapter started, after the cliffhanger ending of the last.
Every night, I come downstairs and see the light in the window and make that short journey over the long grass in the back garden to my desk. I find joy there too, in my pages, my words.
I keep going. And after six years of trying, find a publisher.
I embrace the editing.
I enjoy the kind of writing experience I hoped I’d someday hit upon, and when it happens I think, shit, so this is how writing can make you feel. But sometimes at the computer, looking at the editor’s comments to the right of the page, doubt drags, and I worry, shit, you’ll never be able to do this.
But I enjoy the doubt. The doubt keeps me sharp.
That icy February in the garden years ago comes to mind, the digging and measuring. My willingness to let the workers place the shed on random bricks, until my da insisted I lay solid foundations. How with my da’s guidance I ensured that extra step would make the difference. I open up to the possibility of even further suggestions and look outside myself to the stuff that makes my work interesting. The stuff of stories: other people.
I ask some of my students to read chapters from the book, to cement my characters in place, elevate them. And they agree to help; over the course of a few weeks, five seventeen-year-olds stay back after school and read. We laugh at some lame word choices, ‘Come one Sir, Princess would never call someone a MILF!’
‘Nae Nae? Oh my days! Really? You gotta say, Getting shifty.’
And then we nod along together quietly when they find moments that ring true: Princess’s lack of space, her second-hand uniform being too big, the random DMs from old perverts, Angel’s self-consciousness walking down the street with friends.
My editor pushes me to go further with the characters, merge scenes, to really get down to the details of the moment. The little bubble in the spirit level glides into the sweet spot.
I achieve something rare in the writing world: being happy with what I’ve written. How? Because I’ve felt the lows, carried the weight of the rejections for work I thought was there, the hopelessness of it all—the constant second guessing, striving for something just out of reach—and if I can’t be happy with my writing now, at this polished point, when will I be?
What I’ve written is better than I thought I could ever write. I allow myself the pleasure of admitting that. And it’s the best thing I’ve written because it’s the truest thing I’ve written. I forgot my ego and gave everything up to the characters. The further away from myself I wrote, the closer I got. At school, witnessing the kids from all backgrounds, 1st and 2nd generation Irish of all races and religions, living as friends and in solidarity with each other — despite their varied socio-economic circumstances—reaffirmed what I already knew: kindness to yourself, and others, is ultimately all that matters.
To get to this point, I have written: a 30,000-word novella at twenty; an 80,000-word novel in a drawer at twenty-seven; a 90,000-word “debut” at thirty; an 80,000 word “second book” at thirty-four; countless short stories in between; and now at forty-one, the “third novel”, written over the past six years of trying. Six years and 140,000 words of a first draft, halving it to 70,000, halving that to 35,000 and starting again. Defeated but not beaten, returning to where I know I can find some sustaining joy: the blank page in the shed at the end of the garden.
This essay forms part of a series of reflections on the writing life.
Previously: The House That Shame Built by Sheila Armstrong
Next: You gotta have faith by Donal Ryan