Jess Nickelsen: Discombobulated
July 30, 2021 - On finishing things


I’ve been thinking a bit lately about how much my focus has changed in life.

Some of it has to do with becoming a mum. Oh, all of the lifestyle changes that accompany that shift! I stopped work when I was about nine-and-a-half months along. (And didn’t pick up any contract work for several years after Leila was born.) Steve and I decided pretty early on that we wanted someone to stay home with her. Our circumstances were ok financially; we’re pretty thrifty; we were keen to make it work.

Hah: this is me making the excuse for being a stay at home parent. We don’t have grandparents nearby to help out; we’d rather save on childcare costs and spend more time together; etc. It’s harder than I thought to even just talk about that part of my life. There is so much baggage around parenting. Safe to just say that everyone does it differently, everyone’s circumstances are different, people have different needs and priorities and obligations.

So anyway. For the first few years I really did find being at home” tough going. Not because of anything Leila did but because I had all sorts of complexes about being a woman, at home, with a child. Like I’d gone backwards, or failed at being a feminist somehow. I didn’t like not having my own” money. Felt awkward spending Steve’s” money, even though he’s always maintained it’s the family pot.” I’m maybe a bit stubborn in my thinking on that front, and it doesn’t do me many favours.

But I did find that being at home, with small windows of me time,” did wonders for my focus. When you don’t have unlimited time to do whatever you want (outside of work of course) you have to be selective about what you do. Yeah, I mucked around for a long time, and still have my moments. But little bit by little bit, the less-important things started to drop away.

Because I didn’t have a large amount of disposable income I naturally had to tighten my belt on buying stuff. I had to think more about what I needed, and what I wanted. I had to ask myself the hard questions.

Ditto with the things I filled my time with. When I was working, when it was just me, in a series of slightly-unsatisfying-yet-well-paid jobs, I’d fill my time with substitutes for that excitement and independence I really wanted in the rest of my life. Yeah, with video games. In fairness I also was a game reviewer for over ten years, but somehow my focus changed from needing that escape. Or perhaps the things I needed had changed.

I’d always been crafty but I stepped that up a notch, sewing and making most of my own clothes. I knitted for the family. And I’d always tried to write, but always, always struggled to actually, even, finish a piece of writing. I blogged, journaled compulsively. But struggled with the fiction side.

But then something changed. I’m still trying to put my finger on exactly what it was, but I think I can come up with a few factors.

NaNoWriMo happened, for one. I did my first one in 2003, on a borrowed laptop, on the kitchen table in my flat in Dublin. Didn’t finish it though: the laptop died half way through and despite my efforts to try and remember the story again by hand, on paper, I couldn’t get through it in time. But I do remember the title: Helga Higgenbottom and the Replicants, about a travelling band. I think that first failure was an important one. It made me realise that I knew I could finish a story. (I just needed reliable technology.)

I’d been starting novels for as long as I could remember. The early ones were about school stuff; boring things about mean girls and cute boys and people driving pickup trucks and finding themselves. (Uh-huh.) Lots of fantasising. There was a sci-fi, one about a waitress in Dublin, another about someone living in the Netherlands… all attempts (apart from the sci-fi) to somehow fictionalise my experience.

I carried on like this for quite a while. The first NaNo I finished was in 2005, and had some real Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World vibes (Haruki Murakami) with parallel worlds. It was weird, but I finished it. An actual, finished, novel.

I had no idea how to edit it though. So I just saved the file, and went about my life… until next November.

This went on and on for quite a few years. I made the decision to quit my job and write for a year. It seemed like a great idea; I was in a job where I spent a lot of time sitting at my desk waiting for work to come along. I felt like my time would be better spent! However once the reality of sitting alone at my desk struck, I found I couldn’t write a thing, no matter how well I’d planned out my year’s programme.” The pressure I’d put on myself was just too great. I picked up some contract work, and getting a bit more of that balance between work and spare time, helped a lot.

I wrote a lot of really bad short stories. Even submitted them, which just makes me cringe. I took some short fiction writing classes though, through Whitireia polytech here in NZ. Studied with Anna Horsley. I think they were a good start to get me going in the right direction. I slowly got used to the idea of finishing.

I think I must have got pregnant somewhere around then, because there’s a big blank spot in my memory :)

When I emerged from the baby-nexus, I signed up for another writing workshop, with Victoria Uni. Found myself sitting next to a really nice lady, Mary. It turned out that she didn’t live too far away from me. She had another friend Gina, who also really liked to write. Somehow we formed a group. We put a wee post in our community noticeboard on Facebook, and a couple more people joined.

I think that’s when I felt like I could really give my writing the attention it deserved. I’d write stories so I could bring them to the group, so I could read them aloud, and hopefully entertain my new friends. All the time I’d been writing in a void, I’d had the sense that what I wrote didn’t really matter. It didn’t matter if I didn’t finish because no-one was going to read it anyway (at least that’s how the reasoning went).

I still really didn’t believe that I could put my writing out there. Sure, I had a blog, but it was anonymous. I felt embarrassed talking about writing in front of my friends; didn’t want to draw attention to it. Whether that was an impostor-syndrome-thing, or something else, I’m still not sure. But in the writing group, I slowly learned that I did have something to offer, and people seemed to like what I was writing. I started submitting again, but stories that felt like stories, not awkward fumblings like my earlier attempts. I felt more confident receiving rejections, felt more confident editing. More confident reading something aloud.

I found a Facebook group that posted submission openings. It seemed incredible to me that there were so many different opportunities. I had a few things accepted; I got paid for something I wrote. That was a huge milestone. Someone thought something I’d written was actually worth something. It was astounding to me.

Anyway. It’s not such a large leap from that point to this one. I guess I consider myself a journeyman writer now. I’ve written all my life but it took me so long to make that mental shift between wanting to write” and finishing things.” And once I started regularly finishing things, everything changed. NaNoWriMo helped. Having to finish something to a schedule helped. It opened my eyes to the potential of a completed object that you can then do something with.

Having a group of like-minded, supportive, writing buddies was invaluable.

I’m still struggling with editing novels. That’s a big hurdle for me (I can finish a draft, no problem, but I’d never inflict one on anyone else in its raw state). But I’m feeling more confident with the stories I write, and I think publishing The Dark Offering and doing the whole author setup” was a way of calling my own bluff. Daring myself to take another step further.

Even if you don’t think you’re quite ready, it’s important to try to keep moving up the staircase, a step at a time. For me, finishing things was a crucial first step that made me realise that I was allowed to move up on to the staircase in the first place. What was more, the only person stopping me was (cliche alert!): me.

Okay so, the staircase analogy is a weird one and I’m not 100% sure where it’s going, but hopefully you get my drift: Kids, finish what you start! Mkay?