Wobble Three by Emily Morris, Author of My Shitty Twenties
When Emily Morris was 22, she found out that she was pregnant. On receiving the news, the father of her baby told her to, ‘enjoy your impending shitty, snotty, vomitty twenties’. Little did he know that this comment would inspire Emily’s award-winning blog and subsequent memoir, My Shitty Twenties, which documented her life as a single mother, combating the loneliness, isolation and adventure of this life-changing experience.
Emily has a BA (Hons) in History of Art and Design with Practice at Manchester Metropolitan University, and studied MA Writing Studies at Edge Hill University. In 2009, before graduating with her Masters degree, she won an Arvon 41 Grant and in the the same year she won two Manchester Blog Awards and was Keynote Speaker at the launch of the North Manchester Girls’ programme for the Reclaim Project.
Emily talks to Yolklore about the mother of all wobbles, literary comparisons and the value of a relatable protagonist.
Writing is, for the most part, a solitary profession. This means you spend a lot of time inside your own mind, and when your mind is of a creative persuasion, it can be a difficult and even dangerous place to be. You're adept at weaving plots and creating scenes, but you also excel at imagining the worst case scenario (and if, like me, you're prone to anxiety, these scenarios can grow enormously out of proportion very quickly.) All of this means that writers are especially prone to wobbles.
I had very many wobbles when I was writing my first book, certain that it was too personal to share or that people would think it crap. There were more wobbles (in more ways than one) when I discovered that writing is the very opposite of solitary when you stand up and read it out and have no control over the unflattering photographs that people take of you and put on the internet.
My latest wobble was over whether to carry on writing at all.
As an author, I've often been compared to JK Rowling. Not because I am about to pen a globally-bestselling series of books about wizardry (I'm pretty sure I'd be the world's worst fantasy writer), but because I am a single mum.
In the past, Rowling has been very vocal and proud about her experiences of single parenthood. Perhaps the most well-known anecdote is the one about her sitting in that now world-famous Edinburgh cafe, writing Harry Potter while her baby slept in the buggy beside her. There she was, toiling tenaciously over a hot laptop, unaware that her book would be an instant classic, with movies, merchandise and even theme parks happening off the back of it.
“Ooh, you'll be like JK Rowling,” several people said, when they discovered I was writing a book, “when will you be leaving your job?
Most of them were joking but some of them (hi Mum) really believed that being a published author would make me instantly rich. I've never been interested in wealth, but the concept of financial comfort does appeal.
But I was not writing an epic series of relatable and loveable books about a boy wizard; I was writing a memoir about the realities of being a single mum. And no one wants to buy duvet cover sets emblazoned with dirty nappies and sore nipples, or go to theme parks based on the experience of being pregnant and single (although it's a pretty wild and terrifying ride).
There's a common misconception that published authors must be loaded. Some are: the very talented ones whose works are sold internationally and who we see interviewed in their London studies, the walls lined with books. In reality, though, writing in general is not a big earner: a 2018 survey by ALCS (The Authors' Licensing and Collecting Society) found that the average salary of a professional author is way below minimum wage at £10,500, and that female writers typically earn 75% of the wage earned by their male counterparts. That means that unless they've got a working partner who can support them, or family money, pretty much no one can afford to just sit at their desk and write. All of this keeps the publishing industry elitist and means that only certain voices get heard. Most writers need day jobs, and while they're going to work in their day jobs, they're not at their desk producing work.
So why the hell write? This is the question I asked myself recently. It began with a text message inviting me out for a bank holiday drink.
“Sorry, I'd love to but I'm skint,” I replied.
It dawned on me that at 36, I was sending the kind of message I'd have sent when I was 19. And I was sick of it. It wasn't like I wanted to go on a three-day bender, just have a nice pint in the sunshine. Also to leave the house and meet other adults, which is important for your mental health when you're a single parent.
Instead of spending my bank holiday in the sun with friends, I spent it on recruitment websites, low and alone. I adore my current job, working in a school library. It's full-time, but the hours give me a few mornings a week to write. Except I'm very rarely working on my novel in that time, because I need to do freelance work or sell stuff on ebay to top up my income. I'm in sole charge of the (ever-increasing) household bills, and whatever happens, I have to be able to pay them; it's only because of my overdraft that I usually just about manage. According to the recruitment websites, I was qualified to apply for jobs in which I could earn enough to cover the bills and have change, maybe even try to save some money for a deposit on a house. Perhaps it was time to give up the writing dream and start earning enough money to eradicate my longstanding financial anxiety. It was a scary thought, not least because I didn't want to leave my beloved job, but also because I knew that it would mean probably never finishing my work-in-progress.
I've always written to help people, and although that sounds trite and disingenuous, I mean it. When I was pregnant with my son, I couldn't find any single mum stories that didn't end with a man sweeping in at the end and making everything OK. As I wrote my book, I hoped that it would help others as lost and lonely as I'd been as a pregnant 22-year-old. Every time someone emails me to tell me it has, I know I did the right thing battling through the wobbles that almost stopped me. My next book is about the archaic and intense pressure that's still placed on straight women to throw a lavish wedding, get married and have babies before they're thirty-something. It's a novel, so very different to the memoir, but threading truth into fiction feels like some kind of alchemy, and on the rare occasions I do sit down to work on it, I am reminded of how much I enjoy the act of writing.
But writing rarely pays the bills, and even when it does it is a long time after the act. How would it feel to stop being afraid of checking my bank balance? To know that I'd one day I'd have something to leave behind for my son other than a knackered sideboard and a load of debt? Wasn't it time to stop having to ask people for lifts, to learn to drive and be able to run a car? I was pondering all of this when I received an email from Veronika Didusenko. Veronika was stripped of her Miss Ukraine title last year when judges discovered she is a single mum. She'd read a piece I'd written about the negative portrayal of single mums in the press, and it had spoken to her. To receive thanks and recognition from someone so far away reminded me why I wasn't ready to close my laptop just yet.
Yesterday, Veronika sent me a photograph of herself clutching my book. She's reading it and enjoying it and she thanked me for sharing my hopes and fears. When people ask me what my next book is about and I tell them, they almost always have a related anecdote to share. As a reader, the books that really speak to me are those that show me other women in identifiable situations, battling through their own wobbles and making things work. My writing might not have anywhere near the broad appeal of Harry Potter, but if even just a few people recognise what I am trying to say, I'll have done what I set out to do. For now, the money worries continue, but the protagonist in my novel has got them too. Until the next wobble, onwards.