It’s strange how something that can terrify one person can hold no fear for another. You’re probably familiar with the idea that statistically speaking, most people are more afraid of public speaking than they are of death. I still find that incredible, largely because I enjoy public speaking and am used to standing and talking in front of groups.
Consequently, I’m well aware that something I did recently that I found incredibly scary might cause some people to scratch their head and wonder what I’m making such a fuss about. Anyway, what I did was enter the Manchester Fiction Prize.
Even the idea of entering was daunting for me because I’ve never let anyone read my fiction. I have no problem with blog posts or articles or emails, but the idea of sharing my creative writing makes me feel like I’m standing naked in front of people.
I decided I was going to enter around six weeks before the closing date when I saw a poster advertising the competition in a gallery window. I already had a few stories that I thought might be suitable, but as I always intended those to be part of a more integrated collection, I figured the contest might provide a good incentive to write something new. With a deadline and a sense of purpose, I wrote the first draft of a new story within a week. I made a few revisions a week later and was fairly satisfied with it, although I knew parts of it still needed reworking.
Taking advantage of the unexpected momentum I started a second story with about a month to go and quickly wrote about 90% of it. I remember one particularly day being so close to finishing but having to stop writing to leave for work. With just another half hour, I would have been done. Still, I knew exactly how the story should conclude so determined to finish it that evening when I got home.
Except I didn’t. And I didn’t rework the first story either. I don’t know why. And the entry date came closer and closer. And it became more and more real as it approached. And I stopped doing anything and began one of the endless procrastination and guilt cycles I always seem to fall into whenever I get close to actually finishing something.
Deadline day for entries arrived and found me sitting staring at my laptop at 6am, determined to enter something into the contest before leaving for a meeting. I decided it would be safer to send in one of the stories I had originally considered entering — the two new ones were unfinished and at least I had completed second drafts of the older ones.
Unfortunately, it hadn’t occurred to me to check the word counts. Both of the older stories were around 5,000 words. The competition limit was 2,500 words. There was no way I could enter either of those. I had about 90 minutes before I had to leave the house. I read first one story, then the other, and did nothing, and procrastinated, and faffed about on the internet and then it was too late.
It was 4pm before I could get back to the computer. The deadline for competition entries was 5pm. I opened the first of the two new stories I had written. At least I had finished the first draft of this piece and reworked it once. I scanned through it. All my misgivings about it were exactly the same as the last time I’d read it: I saw the same essential weaknesses, the same flaws in the same places. It would take too long to whip it into shape.
I opened the second, unfinished story and sped-read through it. It was OK. There were some issues but generally it was stronger than the first. I looked at the clock. 4.15pm. 45 minutes to go.
I took a breath and started writing from where I’d left off. I recalled how the story should end so I tried to forget about the competition and the deadline and just focus on the writing. I typed. The ending I had envisaged changed itself, turned into a different ending. I liked it better. I typed the final sentence and looked at the clock. 4.33pm. 27 minutes. No time to go back and review the beginning, that would be whatever it was. I went back to the start of the new text I’d written in the last quarter of an hour. I poked and prodded, nudged things around, rewrote the odd sentence, put it back the way it was. I thought I was done. The clock said 4.47pm.
Save. Print. Select printer. Print as PDF. Type filename and press enter. Scramble to the competition website, fill in the registration form, tear downstairs to get my credit card, punch in the numbers, upload the file, hit the button. Watch the spinning cursor, worry about the strength of the internet connection. Look at the clock. 4.53pm.
And then…it had worked. The entry was in. I nervously refreshed my email for a few minutes until the confirmation messages came through and then collapsed back in my chair and took a deep breath. It was in.
I allowed myself a small moment of congratulation before being struck by the realisation that somebody was actually going to read my writing for the first time. Quite a Big Deal.
But I felt good. I was pleased that I’d followed through. I could have made excuses not to enter, I could have said the stories weren’t ready, I could have said I ran out of time, I could have said I didn’t realise the old stories were too long. I could have…but I didn’t, and for that I was proud.
Then I made the mistake of deciding to read the story again now the pressure was off. It wasn’t awful, but it certainly wasn’t great. Sentences I thought were tight and evocative just minutes before now seemed gauche and unwieldy. I made mental notes of a dozen things I wanted to change.It could have been better.
It could have been better, but it wasn’t. I realised that I didn’t actually care. The story didn’t matter in the end. I’ll write other, better stories in the future, but the story I’m telling now isn’t about a story.
This story is about choosing to do something when doing nothing was an option. It’s a story about being brave enough to do something I have wanted to do but shied away from for years. It is a story of taking a first step into the arena. It’s a story of being willing to try.
It goes without saying that I won’t win the contest, or even get shortlisted. There is no feedback given to entrants so I’ll never even know what the person who read it thought of my story. But that doesn’t matter either. Because this isn’t a story about the story, it’s the story of finally finding the courage to see something through.
This is the story of the day I chose to write ‘The End’ and send my story, and my heart, out into the world.
Barry Dallman is a musician, writer and eternal student of the creative process. He is fascinated by the process of personal change and the challenges creative people face in committing to truly meaningful work. He's documenting his own creative struggles in the hopes of inspiring others to pursue what really matters to them.
Why don't we do what we really want to do? Why do we sacrifice our lives to our art - and then hold back from making it? What does it take to make us do the work we were born to do? Why is it so hard to be yourself?
These are the questions I'm trying to answer.
After years of fear and procrastination, I'm on a mission to show my work, fight the little voice that wants to stop me and share what I learn along the way. I'd love you to join me.