More Writing About Writing: Shadow Boxing

Photo by Karin Dalziel (copied from Flickr)
Photo by Karin Dalziel (copied from Flickr)

The screen is blank in front of me. This is not about writer’s block. Its glow burns white light into my retinas. I don’t believe in writer’s block. She told me it was a beautiful day out, before leaving. Bass rumbles from the neighbours above and below. Am I sure I don’t want to join them? Yes. Am I sure I wouldn’t prefer getting out, getting some sun, getting lost in conversation, who’s wearing what, who’s eating what, what must be done, fun, fun, fun. Yes, quite sure.

So now it’s just me. And this, the blank screen staring, its judgement clear, its face unmoved, its questions loud and repetitive. Am I worth it? Am I really what you want? Last time I checked there was no gun to my head. Mother wasn’t cursed during my birth. I have chosen this. The solitude, the heart-stop moment when someone asks you what you do and you want to but you can’t say,

I am a writer.

This, though, is an altogether different problem, with different levels depending on your rung on the ladder. The problem today is decisions, not what to write, but when, how long, to what end. The problem is choice, put in front of you. The problem is people, solitude, shadow boxing.

The phone had rung early. Loud. Intrusive. Over the voice of the ‘someone’ selling something on the Saturday Morning Kitchen always on too loud, they said,

Hey what you up to today do you fancy meeting us down the pub?

I said,

Sorry. No can do. Busy.

What all day?

Yes. Writing. It has to be finished. I need to get it done.

Silence. Words cease. Then comes the stuttered oh ok. The, you crack on, pal, maybe another time, eh, always another time. Yes. Maybe. I’ll let you know when I’m free. I can’t complain about this though, they used to argue with me, tell me to give it a rest for a day; you know it’s only a silly story. They would get angry when I insisted; their tone would become childlike. They would say fine, fine, as if it was an adjective, a verb, a noun. I put the phone down. I walked towards the open window. Clouds moved slowly over the moss-covered roof of the high-rise flats opposite. I sighed. She looked at me. Didn’t ask who it was. Continued for a while, preparing her bag. Sun tan lotion. Sun glasses. The dog-eared book she’s been trying to finish for over a month. Then suddenly she said,

You know, once you start getting paid, they’ll understand.

I say nothing, but I know she’s right.

She continues,

Artists think it’s harder to convince the people they don’t know that they have talent. I think it’s harder to convince the people you do know.

This wasn’t about talent though.

It’s not about that though is it.


No. This is about making money. You said it yourself.

She then proceeded to explain that she didn’t think it was as cynical as that. Taking pains to make her point quickly, resourcefully, for packing still had to be done, the sun was moving on. She told me that all she meant was that making money shows people you’re serious. It shows people you’re not just being lazy. Lazy. I was shadow boxing. I was running the endless race. Every day without fail, two thousand words or more. Articles, on books, film, art. Short stories. Memoir. Lazy. This ain’t no party. This ain’t disco. It’s lonely. It’s stepping out into the darkness. There is no promised land, no matter how strong your faith. You must stand naked. Open to ridicule, to the,

So when you gonna give this writing nonsense a rest. Get a proper job.

When are you going to make a down payment?

When are you going to have a child? Grow up? Join the adult world.

What do you say to say to this? How do you defend yourself if the bank balance is not standing strong? Declare your love for the written word. That won’t wash. Tell them it’s not about making money, it’s about artistic purity, about sharing your story. That won’t wash either, unless you are planning on making an appointment with your local psychiatrist, for they will declare you insane, or vain, egotistical, either way you are in need of help.

I remember two years ago. Coming towards the end of my degree. The novella I had to submit had proved problematic. I had aborted one attempt and was in the middle of a Gogol-like meltdown. It’s rubbish. Ludicrous. Waste of time. Hand me the matches. Where is the petrol? Burn it. Burn it. I left the city. Went to my Uncle’s in Devon. I took with me Henry Miller’s The Air Conditioned Nightmare. Patchy but interesting, it follows Miller on a journey around America meeting artists, writers, some of whom have day jobs, well paid, some of whom don’t. Some of them have comfort, acclaim, capital letters, awards, attached to their name. Others have nothing, no food, barely any clothes, just a burning desire to express themselves. It is these artists who have the real battle, the battle against shame, ridicule, self-doubt, humiliation, strong words of course, but what words aren’t strong when art is involved.

At the time I thought nothing of it, well not much. It scared me, but I put this down to the impending completion of my degree, cutting of the strings, stepping out. A year or so later, stacking shelves, yes Sir, yes Madame, right this way, I had my first short story published, ‘The Smile That Broke He’. It was in a tiny online magazine, a drop in the ocean, of the thousands that exist. This didn’t bother me though, receiving the acceptance e-mail, the we really loved your story, is still one of my proudest moments, and I am still eternally grateful to them for publishing it. Miller time came shortly after though. I called my Dad.

Alright son. How are ya?

Just been told I’m getting my first short story published.

That’s great son. How much you getting paid?

Cue embarrassment, humiliation, shame, when I tried to explain that no money would be changing hands, they were not buying my work, they were just happy to share it. Yes, they were happy to share it.

The screen is blank. I don’t have writer’s block. I know exactly what I want to say. The challenge, the battle, is convincing yourself it is worth saying. Because we’re all shadow boxing, artists, writers, musicians. We are not preparing for the big fight though. There will be no weigh in, no stare down. The fight is now, with ourselves, in the shadows of a lonely room on a hot summer’s day.

Reece Choules

About Reece Choules

Reece Choules is a regular contributor to both Litro and The Culture Trip. He lives and works in South London.

Reece Choules is a regular contributor to both Litro and The Culture Trip. He lives and works in South London.

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