I Wrote My Way Out- on writing in 2020

 Writing about achievements in 2020 seems redundant, it also seems insensitive (I’m looking at you, anyone posting about their income, new home or generally bragging, read the room my dudes). But I did want to spend time thinking, and fittingly writing, about how my relationship with writing changed in 2020. 

I preface this with, if you didn’t write a single word in 2020 you are still a writer. Similarly if you didn’t read a single book (God I hate the end of year brag lists at the best of times). Spoiler I read basically nothing all year. I started and put down so many books. I couldn\’t handle anything that required me to think. Do I feel a bit of a failure for it? Sure. Am I going to let that both me for long. Nope. What I am saying is, I couldn’t read this past year very much- not my usual amount anyway. So if you couldn’t write, that’s valid. 

And for the first part of the year, neither could I. 

Pre-Pandemic times, I think were normal? I honestly can’t remember. Actually what I know was all I was doing was theatre reviewing. 

I hate to say it in some ways- and I in no way wish the year we’ve had that caused it- but I have enjoyed the break from reviewing theatre. In a way, I felt like I was on a bit of a treadmill with it- a sentiment we can all relate to in different areas. But in another I had long had a creeping discomfort with the position of the critic in, at least local theatre writing. There was a great amount of pressure to ‘review everything’ or you weren’t seen as ‘supporting’ theatre. But only if you reviewed in the ‘right’ way (I’m looking at the husband of a performer who started a twitter pile on here). Things felt increasingly fraught, and I increasingly wanted no part of it. There’s also a sense of critical exhaustion, if it’s the only writing you get time to do, then it\’s like you get burnt out. So I don’t know if I’ll return to it. On one hand it’s something I do deep down love, like the last piece I wrote before lockdown, on Daf James’ Twlyth. This kind of cultural deep-dive, reflective reviews are how I started. So maybe it’s just a step back and a return to that, on my own blog. Or maybe, after almost 10 years, it’s just time to hang up that hat. 

I still seem to have blogged a lot in 2020- I think around 30 blogs. But they’re all over the place. Some are reflections on the state of things, some are random book reviews, some are about creativity in a pandemic….and that’s…ok? This was the biggest revelation of writing in 2020 for me; literally nothing was going to happen for several months so I could do what I wanted. 

And aside from those blog posts, from March to July I wrote nothing at all. 

And in August something in my brain kicked in and I could write again. When everyone else was reveling in being briefly allowed back outside, I was apparently really excited to stay in and write. 

And from August- October I was actually able to finish a draft of my ‘PhD book’ which had been in limbo for nearly 3 years. 

Let me preface this by saying: IF YOU WROTE NOTHING IN 2020 IT’S OK. 

For me this is the reason it worked finally: I had stepped off the job hunt treadmill because there were no jobs to apply for. I had stepped off the theatre treadmill because there was no theatre. There was finally nothing else I ‘should’ be doing that was ‘a better career choice.’ because in trying to be a ‘theatre person’ I’ve spent 5 years with a constant pressure to be out at theatre, reviewing theatre, writing theatre, applying for theatre things, applying for jobs. Oh and also keeping a day job, which obviously is fixed term, and I will have to find a replacement for. 

And massive spoiler alert: books are the slow path. They take time, and concentration. They take research and also the PROCESS from proposals through drafts and peer review are slow. And all this ties in with my ‘rejection pot’ blog (here) from this year and the pressure we feel constantly under to be ‘showing what we’re doing’ and ‘showing our successes’ if we’re not visibly doing ‘stuff’ then we aren’t succeeding. Me writing the book has nothing to show for it yet, it won’t for some time. It might never (I mean please dear God I hope it does). It’s the slow path. And I was scared of the slow path for a long time. Because I thought from the outside it looked like a failure. Like I wasn’t doing anything. Doing enough.  That also it looks self-indulgent ‘man how long does it fucking take to write that thing?’

Turns out a fucking long time. 

Also you try writing a book on Tony Kushner’s beast of a play and see how long it takes you to untangle some of that mess. 

Also when you love something, it’s harder to write about. 

Also, fuck you writing a book takes ages. 

But here’s the thing…I enjoyed it. When I finally had the headspace and ‘permission’ to do it in the absence of anything else. In absence of the pressure that I ‘should’ be doing other things…I enjoyed it. I remembered I am also sort of …good at it (let’s not count our chickens\’ pre-peer review, but I’m not terrible at it let’s say). 

And, in August I also started writing other things again. I needed a parallel to the Angels book to keep me sane (It didn\’t work. I still fully lost my mind in the process, but if you don’t lose your mind a bit writing about Angels I’m not sure you’re doing it right). Partly my writing was yes, fanfiction. I’m not ashamed. There is a whole other blog in how fangirling and fanfiction in a pandemic saved me a bit too. But in doing that (and yes, a lot of that) I rediscovered my love of writing prose too. I also started getting crazy things like being inspired to write things. Write things that aren’t scripts, and enjoy them. 

It was like once the option of theatre was switched off, I realised a lot of things. And a key one is: I don’t think I want to write for the theatre any more. 

Even when it was an option, at my beloved 14/48 theatre festival. I hated it. I’m so sorry, but I hated writing those scripts. And right now, I’m not sure I ever want to pick up another theatre script again. 

And maybe it’s a self-preservation thing. Maybe it’s grieving for the loss of theatre this year. 

But maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s finally accepting, without sadness, that this is not the right path. That maybe I just don’t fit with theatre, and I can love it, I can even be good at making it. But that it might not be the right path. 

Theatre never came naturally to me. I wasn’t born into it like some people.  I fell into it and late. I fell into it because I’m lowbrow and wanted to see a TV actor on stage. And then I loved musicals. And you know what I’ve never been quite high brow enough for theatre. I trained in improv (there’s a thing you didn’t know!) and devising. My roots will always be in being a child of comedy of sitcoms and romcoms. I will never be the high concept dark and twisty political theatre scriptwriter. 

And that’s ok. 

I don’t write how theatre wants me to write so maybe it’s time to stop trying. 

I get told in my academic work I’m too ‘journalistic’ I get told in theatre I’m ‘too screen’ I don’t fit. So maybe I should just stop trying to fit. Maybe I just write what I write and see what sticks.

And, when the pressure was off in 2020. When there was no writing for ‘the next thing’ or it felt like for a bit the noise was turned down on competing with everyone else to write something, it felt like some things fell into place. I wrote more words this year than I think I ever have, even during my PhD. I didn’t write to be productive, I wrote to stay sane. And in doing that…I found some things I wasn’t looking for but might have needed. 

So I wrote stories, lots of stories. Many of which will never see the light of day, and that’s ok. And I wrote critical works. I wrote in the space that my academic/journalist brain falls into naturally. 

And I stopped trying to be the academic that I’m not. Kushner aside I am not that ‘high brow’ theatre person. I’m musical theatre and feelings. Not concept and politics. 

I might not even be a theatre person any more either as an academic. And that’s ok too. 

I fell into writing because I followed my heart and some stories as a teenager. I fell into theatre academia because I followed my heart. Maybe it’s time to follow my heart again, and write about what matters to me, not what I think I should be writing.  

I described writing to a friend not long ago as ‘company in my head’ and that’s what I feel like again finally. I have company in my head, I have living breathing characters talking to me (I really hope other writers feel this otherwise I truly look crazy). I have ideas for non-fiction stuff I’m doing that I am so, so excited about (really, when you hear about this you will HEAR about this because I am very very excited). I’ve remembered why I love writing. 

And I think it’s because when you find the things you should be writing, it feels right. I spent many years not knowing what right felt like for writing- it didn’t feel natural like it fit. Finally, I think I know what right feels like. 

And so I think I’m shifting once again where my priorities are in writing. I have a few things in progress that I really hope I get to shout about soon in 2021. And I think actually if they fall into place it’s a sign, if I needed one, that’s where to shift. But also the sign is, writing what you love. What you want to do. Because if you’re going to live with voices in your head, they might as well be good company. 

Writing saved me in 2020. I needed to write my way through this. I also needed to write my way out of where I’d ended up. 


By Emily Garside

Academic, journalist and playwright. My PhD was on theatrical responses to the AIDS epidemic, and I continue to write on Queer theatrical history. Professional nerd of all things theatre.

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