On Being a Writer in Wales: Jasmine Donahaye
Like any writer I’ve grappled with rejection and doubt, but in 2021 I felt like a failure.
Rejection is part of being a writer – rejection by magazine editors, book publishers and literary agents, but also commissioners for radio and TV, festival committees, grant committees and literary organisations (and, of course, employers, because very few writers are able to make a living out of writing). Despite rejections you keep going because here and there gleams of light keep your writing hopes alive.
Twenty years ago I had one of those gleams of light when my first article was published in Planet and won the Attitude Award. That article, commissioned by editor John Barnie when I was a mature student in Celtic Studies at UC Berkeley, set me going as a writer in Wales. But in 2021, with five books behind me, my writing seemed to have stalled.
A long series of failures had undermined my confidence: rejection after rejection for a book I’d completed, despite the efforts of my agent; the rejection of multiple grant applications, which meant I could not complete research for my next book; the sudden unexplained withdrawal of support for a film based on my previous book; silence about radio proposals that had been initially enthusiastically received…
It seemed I’d been following one deceptive light after another, only to find each was a brief flare of methane from rotting vegetation.
When Covid arrived, and everything still under consideration was shelved, I found myself in a dark and treacherous bog. Maybe I was past it, I thought. Maybe this was what people meant by the invisibility of being a woman in middle age. Maybe my writing was just crap after all.
With the Doubt came its corrosive companions – Envy and Covetousness, Resentment and Sour Grapes, with their mean down-turned mouths.
How shrivelled I felt, when some writer jauntily declared they’d got a book coming out, or a grant to develop new work, or a publishing deal. It’s not that I didn’t want any fellow writer to have that opportunity; it’s just that their having it drove home that I didn’t, and couldn’t.
It seemed that I was having to start from scratch again, and I was afraid that I’d always be starting from scratch, going door to door with a (metaphorically) crumpled, many-times-rejected manuscript.
I had nothing to show for years of work, and couldn’t face trying again with something new.
What could I turn to? What was the point? I watched my writing riding away from me through the mist, like Rhiannon on her pale mare: no matter how I chased her, I would not be able to catch up (how adaptable the Mabinogi seems, full as it is of elusive quarry).
Writers don’t tend to share news of failure and disappointment, so perhaps there can be something hectic in the news of success. I know now that during 2020 and 2021, much of the public jauntiness on the part of writers was determined optimism.
Like all self-employed artists, writers struggled through the early part of the pandemic as paid work dried up, events were cancelled, new books appeared without gaining needed attention, publishers delayed or contracted or withdrew, and readers took refuge in old classics.
But in the self-involvement of my overwhelming doubt, other writers’ successes just reinforced my sense of personal failure.
They seemed to be moving on, developing, excited, engaged, and I was being left behind. It’s a particular form of doom-scrolling, that – it doesn’t tell you that the world has gone to pieces, but that you have.
I could not bear those success stories, and I withdrew much more than the lockdowns required, cutting myself off from fellow writers in real life, and cutting myself off from them online.
But late in the year, hurriedly scrolling past all literary news on Twitter, I glimpsed an announcement about the New Welsh Writing Awards. I stopped and scrolled back up. The competition, run by New Welsh Review, called for long-form prose on a Welsh theme, or set in Wales. The deadline was four months away.
Maybe it was worth a try, I thought. Maybe it could be the impetus to write something new, something which, importantly, I wouldn’t have to sell. There’d be no trying to persuade an editor to read it, no trying to persuade someone that it was worthy of their attention, that I was worthy of their attention: my work would be read, and it would be anonymous.
By the end of December I had drafted a good chunk, and began to rework it. By early March, I thought it was coming together. On the day before the deadline, I read it over, and Doubt, so insecurely shackled, did a Houdini and clambered back out of its hole. It was just noise, this writing. Who would want to read it?
I decided not to enter the competition. What was the point? My writing was crap. Then I considered all the time that I’d already put into it, and how it would cost me nothing except the competition fee. Screw it, I thought, and submitted it anyway.
It wasn’t winning the competition that restored me. It wasn’t even the extraordinarily generous adjudication (although that certainly helped).
It was the warm embrace of fellow writers, who publicly expressed delight on my behalf, and got in touch privately to congratulate me, who celebrated with me, and praised my work, and expressed excited anticipation of the book that was to come out of it.
In that embrace I felt not only restored to myself as a writer, but restored to the community of writers.
We are so fortunate to have that here in Wales. Yes, there are petty squabbles, griping, and sometimes resentment, and a perception (and on occasion a reality) of privileged access, hostile gatekeepers and self-sustaining cliques. That’s true of any community, particularly any diverse group of opinionated and rather sensitive creative people.
But in my experience, the opposite is usually true: writers in Wales create opportunities for one another, and celebrate and support one another. They provide critical feedback, public endorsements, private encouragement, and letters of recommendation.
They introduce fellow writers to agents or commissioning editors or media contacts; they share events and platforms, and they mentor and promote one another and new and emerging writers – and they do so unpaid, out of generosity, knowing only too well that they have themselves benefited from the generosity of other writers.
Resources for writers are finite, and shrinking, as in so many aspects of our lives in recent years, but despite that, writers seem more generous with one another than ever. It’s a precious community.
That community is also part of a precious literary and publishing culture, which, supported by the Books Council of Wales in an ever more challenging public funding environment, in turn supports writers.
Despite suffering depredations, publishers like New Welsh Review (which includes its online and print journals, the New Welsh Writing Awards, and the book imprint New Welsh Rarebyte), manage to enrich our society immeasurably.
I wish I had remembered that when I was squelching about in my Slough of Despond. I wish we all could, when we get lost. Being a writer is by its nature a solitary thing, but that doesn’t mean that when it goes wrong we have to suffer alone.
As Rhiannon said to Pwyll, when at last instead of chasing her hopelessly he begged her to wait: ‘It would have been better for the horse if you’d asked that a while ago.’
The essay collection Birdsplaining: A Natural History by Jasmine Donahaye is published by New Welsh Rarebyte in paperback at £9.99 on 26 January 2023 and can be pre-ordered here.
You can discover other installments of ‘On Being a Writer in Wales’ and more of Jasmine’s work on Nation.Cymru by following the links on this map
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