Why You Owe it to Yourself to Detox Your Writing Life

Kass Boucher is a poet and playwright who teaches Creative Writing at the University of Winchester. She won first prize in the Winchester Writer’s Festival poetry category in 2015 and 2016, and has also been shortlisted in the Four Corners International Poetry competition. Her poems have been published in, amongst others, Vortex, Bare Fiction and Mslexia magazine. She is Poetry Editor for The Colverstone Review.

It was a Wednesday evening, just after 9pm, sometime in 2001. I was in the car park of the local 6th form college when I spotted my then boyfriend’s Red Audi. I jumped into the passenger seat, beaming from ear to ear. ‘You’re happy about something,’ he said, as he started the engine. ‘Listen to this,’ I read from the piece of paper I was clutching as we pulled out of the car park, ‘Kass, for your first piece this is really good. It’s original and striking, and, although it’s introspective, it reaches out and you want to read on. It has a poetry and paints a picture; I really enjoyed it.’ He was looking in the rear view mirror, indicating right. ‘Well, what d’you think?’ I asked. He kept his eyes on the road ahead as he steered the corner. ‘A bit over the top isn’t it?’ he finally said. There was a brief silence before I conceded, ‘Yeah, it is a bit.’ I shoved the paper back in its envelope and we drove home in silence.

The previous year had been difficult; my mum had died suddenly in a road traffic accident in March 2000 and the strain of funeral arrangements, inquests, court cases, probate and countless forms requiring ‘name of deceased here’ had left me feeling depressed and very lonely. In desperate need of a distraction, I signed up to a creative writing course at the local college. The classes were run by a charismatic woman in her mid-forties, with long blonde hair and brightly painted nails. She was generous, encouraging and passionate about writing. It’s not surprising I was so drawn to her; she was the same age and possessed many of the same characteristics as my mum. Others in the (mainly female) group were also around the same age as my mum. It was the perfect, supportive environment in which to encourage my writing and, as my writing improved, so my confidence began to return. When I outgrew the classes I enrolled on a Creative Writing degree at university. When I graduated I began teaching and, eleven years later, I’m still sharing my passion for creative writing, always striving to offer the same encouragement to others that I was given at the start.

However, when your ambition is to write for publication, reality (i.e. rejection) will always bite and there are plentiful famous tales of the trail of polite (and not so polite) knock-backs that successful writers have left in their wake. For many of us, though, the biggest struggle is to keep writing in the face of the demands, the dismissals even, of others. It’s all too easy to allow negative influences into your writing life. That’s why it’s so important to surround yourself with people who will nurture you as a writer. As my partner, also a writer, once said to me; ‘Every writer needs another writer in their life.’ That is, someone who understands what it is to want to write, to feel the emotional pull of writing, but also the fear of rejection and censure.

It’s also, I would argue, vital to acknowledge the negative voices in your writing life; not just the inner critic (we all know what they can do) but the actual living, breathing toxins in human form that invade your writing space, be it physically, emotionally or mentally. Those who, for their own reasons, bring negativity and self-doubt to the door of your writing room. Be they fellow writers, or family members, you must protect your writing from their negative energy and save that valuable space for those voices that encourage, understand and nurture your writing dreams.

I’ve consciously chosen my supporters, my writing champions if you like, and I’d urge you to do the same. They offer constructive criticism, and yes, they tell me the truth, but they also understand what I’m trying to achieve. As one said to me, ‘I will support you in everything except bullshit.’ This should be music to the aspiring writer’s ears.

I also give myself permission to remove the negative influences from my writing life; the toxic critics whose motivations are probably honourable but offer me little in the way of inspiration and encouragement. This needn’t involve removing them from your life entirely; that may be too drastic, or impractical, for some! But you can redefine the parameters of that relationship in order to protect your writing life from harm.

Your writing champion needn’t be someone you see every day, or even at all, as long as you can channel their supporting voice and hear their words of encouragement ringing in your ears as you write. When things are at their most difficult or challenging, I often think back to my 18th birthday, when I came home from college to find a present from my mum in the front room; a word processor. Mum was at work but she’d left a typed note in the processor itself;

‘I know you love watching old movies, but maybe with this you can start writing some of your own.’

Even now, nearly twenty-five years later, I can hear her words cheering me on as clearly as I heard them back then. And so I write. Because I owe it to my mum, to my ever-supportive writing champions and, most importantly, to myself.