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I’m back!

I’m sitting at my dining table with a fire at my back and a cup of tea by my side. Bell’s Kenya Bold, loose leaf, strong, milky. There’s a weekend’s worth of dishes to be washed, but they can wait. The sunrise was a stunner earlier this morning but now the light has a hazy, lazy feeling to it.

It is hard to know exactly how to start writing this post; where exactly to begin. So, let’s start at the beginning (you might need a cup of tea, too, goodness knows I can ramble on for ages).

Writing a book, being an author, had been a secret little dream of mine since childhood. I thought that one day, when I was old and wise, I would try my hand at it. That is, until I met my now-husband. He encouraged me to give it a go, and with his support and a growing circle of writer friends, I started.

At that time, I was reading a lot of middle grade fantasy (that’s fiction for 9-12 year olds, not average-Joe quality writing). So, it made sense to write in this genre, too. I wrote the book that I’d have wanted to read as a child, and then I wrote another.

The first book, The Caretaker of Imagination, was a huge learning process. I wrote, re-wrote, read, edited, took on feedback, edited some more, formatted, proofread, published. The second book, Lucy’s Story: The End of the World, pretty much wrote itself. There was depression, and there was anxiety, but writing gave me something to focus on, and a way to express myself.

By the time book three was due, I’d dug myself into a dark little hole. Self-publishing had cost me more than I’d anticipated, and eBook sales were much less than I’d hoped. I was okay with the hard work – I enjoyed it! – but I was being rocked about by other people’s ideas, and putting a lot of undue pressure on myself. My work ethic was driven by a need to prove myself worthy, which didn’t help much either.

After book three, I ventured into non-fiction. Painting. Illustration. I discovered the world of zines (interestingly, zines are the one thing that I have never lost interest in since I started). I hopped from one thing to another, in the vain hope that one of them would fill my need to feel ‘good enough’.

In retrospect, I had entered the world of writing with eyes wide open, ready to soak up all the opportunities available, but with a thirst to prove myself. While this certainly has its advantages, it also meant that I did not have a firm idea of what I wanted my path to look like. I did well enough (you can see some of my achievements here) but had a deep fear of being found out as unworthy, and allowed myself to be rocked by criticisms. Eventually, I lost the drive and confidence to achieve.

It all culminated when I moved south. Auckland had been my home for 29 years, and I had this naïve idea that I could move to the other end of the country and keep going the way I was. I didn’t account for all the changes, nor did I account for being on my own for such a long time (my husband moved down more than a year after I did). Despite the communication technologies of this day and age, and the wealth of lovely people around me, I felt like I had no one to talk to.

I pushed stubbornly on for a while, until it all became too hard to continue. My accountant helped me wrap things up and I got rid of as much stock as I could. I felt utterly relieved, and got on with being a ‘normal person’. I made art just for me, I discovered photography and re-discovered music, and I loved every second of it.

As time went on, the niggle of failure grew. I’d worked so hard, gotten so far… and then I had given up. The feelings of Imposter Syndrome, and my own deep-set belief that I’d never be good enough, knew it was their time to shine. I found myself spending days in bed, hours crying, because I felt like a failure. Worse, I felt like I had always been destined to be a failure. How could I ever have expected anything different?

I finally confided these feelings to my husband. Saying them out loud was the beginning of working through them. I started plotting some stories again. I made a new zine. I blogged. Slowly, slowly, I clawed up and out of the hole I was hiding in – three steps forward, two steps back.

I realised that I couldn’t escape the fact that I have to create, and I have to share; I have to express myself. It’s been a long journey to accepting that my work has value – I’m not out there saving lives, or giving up my life for others, but perhaps people can see the world with fresh eyes by seeing it through my lens. I reached out to my accountant, who helped me get things going again, and I opened up my Etsy shop, starting with just my zines and some photos.

So now, I am working on a creative non-fiction book, a memoir about me and my garden. I’ll illustrate it, and probably publish it as a chapbook/zine. The leatherback turtle picture book, which I started in 2018, is back on the agenda again, and I have another fantasy story up my sleeve that I am very excited about. And, of course, there are the zines. I’m working on a ukulele-themed edition of my perzine Hubris, and after that it’ll become a larger zine (apparently I really like talking about myself). I have some photography zines planned, too.

Years ago I said to my husband that painting felt like the creative version of coming home. It felt good and I was skilled enough at it to feel comfortable using it as a tool of self-expression. One day, I said, I would love writing to feel like that.

Well, it appears that day arrived. It slipped past me, and I can’t quite put my finger on when it happened, but writing is now a place of comfort. Like painting, it will continue to challenge me and I will continue to learn – I am nothing if not a life-long learner – but I can say without doubt, that I am a writer.

By Z. R. Southcombe

writer, artist, teacher (and other things)

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