Author Tom Savage on why taking a year out from his career gave his writing the kick-start it needed
Sitting at a red light outside Charleston, South Carolina, I listened to Desert Island Discs – my weekly dose of Britishness. I was driving back to Beaufort (where they filmed Forrest Gump), which had been my home for the last three years. I’d taken a job teaching English and Creative Writing at a small private school, but really I’d moved to Beaufort to write. I’d envisaged sitting down on a porch, pen in hand, surrounded by palmetto trees and sipping Bourbon while the ocean breeze whispered story ideas to me.
This hadn’t happened, not even once.
On my BBC podcast, Kazuo Ishiguro was talking about taking an MA in creative writing, and how it perfectly replicated the time and space a writer needed, and as I pulled away from the light, I made a decision. I would quit my job, return to London and write full time. I would make my own MA and the final project would be a novel.
By fortunate coincidence, when I called my parents to tell them, their tenant had just informed them that she was moving out. I had a place to live, rent free for twelve months, as long as I covered all the bills. I had about six thousand dollars saved, and I sold my car and all my possessions. I figured that would get me through till Christmas.
Having decided to make such a huge change, I needed a simple outline for the year. One year, one finished novel.
My goal might have been simple but it began with a stuttering start, because I didn’t know how or where or what to write. This was a problem which led to me allowing myself to spend the first month of my year off catching up with friends and telling lots of people I was writing when I wasn’t.
I quickly realized I couldn’t write at home. When I tried, I suddenly had the world’s cleanest, most organised house. I would do anything but write. A low point was using baking soda and a toothbrush to clean in-between the bathroom tiles. They gleamed, but the pages remained empty.
One day, despite never having been there before, I thought ‘I should go and write at the British Library.’ I don’t know why. I ended up having lunch with a pretty girl, but that’s another story; the love affair with real legs was my one with the library. I began to leave the house in the morning with purpose. I commuted with people and it made me feel productive. I’d found my place to write.
Almost every day for the next nine months, I went to the library. I didn’t set a word limit; I just showed up and stayed as long as I could. All that mattered was showing up.
Taking a morning tea break, lunch and afternoon coffee alone could be hard. Writing, it turned out, was a lonely business. If I didn’t play football in the evening or meet friends for drinks, sometimes the only person I spoke to was the person behind the till in the cafeteria – the guy who made the coffee being a fairly monosyllabic chap.
In fact, the lack of interaction on the whole was difficult to get used to. As a teacher, I received lots of feedback – whether it was a pat on the back, a mention in a staff meeting, or just someone telling me how I could do something better. With writing, there was none of that. I’d hear nothing for eight weeks then get, for the most part, a generic e-mail saying ‘Thanks, but no thanks.’
There were other difficult moments. I was having dinner with some friends one evening and one made a comment about me being ‘a great teacher.’ There was no hiding the fact that what he really meant was that I was wasting my time and should get a decent job/career like everyone else at the table.
But there was also plenty of good points. I was overwhelmed with love and support – anytime a friend told me that they respected what I did, it gave me the most uplifting feeling. So many people would say ‘I wish I could do that.’ The truth is they could have. It wasn’t self-satisfaction that I felt, knowing that I was doing something that others would like to do. But I did feel a sense of accomplishment, having jumped off the cliff while others stood and rocked back and forth trying to build up the momentum. I woke up nearly every day with a sense of purpose and freedom. I definitely felt like the Master of my fate and the Captain of my soul. Certainly bloodied but definitely unbowed.
Now that my year is over, I’m back working full-time, teaching English. I’m back to writing during the evenings and weekends, as well as marketing my novel, and I’ve found it a struggle. However, I now know I can write and, more importantly, finish a novel. Going to evening events and weekend conferences is draining, but the difference is that now I show up with a completed novel, rather than an idea for one.
I took away from the experience that I love to write. I learnt what it means to live the life of a writer, and that I can do it. The fact that I am not currently making a living writing is fine; 90% of published authors don’t make money from writing alone. I have held my novel in my hands and that’s an amazing experience. I wanted to try and be a producer rather than a consumer and I achieved that.
I don’t regret my year out at all.