On 2nd August 2021 I made my first Etsy shop sale:
I didn’t really have any big expectations for how well the shop would do, but recently I notched up my 34th sale (plus a couple more via Instagram DMs) and I definitely feel I’m where I want to be. I’m in no hurry to ‘make it’ and I’m deliberately playing the long game, enjoying making art without worrying about whether I’m good enough or saleable enough or any of those other ‘enoughs’ that can interfere with creativity.
This might not sound like a big deal, but ever since I was a child I’ve wanted to be a writer. That was my one dream, my only goal. I began my writing ‘career’ as a poet, and my first pamphlet of poetry was shortlisted for Best First Collection in the prestigious Forward Prizes. Alas, I didn’t win (that honour was taken by Don Paterson for Nil Nil), but I did get to hang out at the Groucho Club, where I met Sir Stephen Spender (scary!) and Margaret Drabble (delightful!). I went on to publish three full collections of poetry and two novels, the most recent of which was published in 2021.
The cover of my second published novel
And… Obviously I have failed to become rich and successful, but more importantly the whole landscape of publishing has changed. I read an article via Twitter with the take away message that unless you can write a truly mind-blowing book, forget it. Even in the days when writers stood a chance of being published despite not being a celebrity or a writer of books with obvious commercial potential, I’ve never written the kind of books that were likely to take off and become big hits. I’ve had two literary agents, neither of whom could sell my work, and there comes a point where the “you’re a really good writer but” comments aren’t enough to sustain you.
There was a time when I genuinely loved writing, but if I’m honest I’ve rarely felt the same kind of thrill as I got in the early days from being paid the odd fiver for a poem in a small lit mag. Thirty-odd years later, I’m burned out as a writer and fed up with it all. So, towards the end of 2022, I made the decision to take myself out of the game altogether. Writing no longer brought me joy, and my chances of ever being published again were infinitesimal, so what was the point? It is of course absolutely fine to write purely or mainly for yourself with no intention of publishing, but the point for me was always to share my work with other people, not shut it away in a drawer.
I’ve given writing my best shot. When one novel didn’t work out I’d write another, and another, and another – my hard drive is littered with the damn things. I have a folder on my PC I’ve called called ‘Hopeless Novels’. The subfolders contain all my rejects, the novels that failed to make the grade. There are 18 of them. And if writing still brought me joy I would carry on, regardless of what ‘the market’ wanted. But it doesn’t. Art, on the other hand, does.
I got into making art during the first Covid lockdown. It took many months to find my artistic voice, but when the time felt right I took the plunge and set up an Etsy shop. Unless you choose to self-publish, getting a book out into the world involves a great deal of jumping through hoops to get past all the gatekeepers. With my Etsy shop, there’s no middle man, no endless rejections from agents and publishers (and every single one of those rejections is a body blow, and the older I get the longer it takes me to recover and pick myself up after receiving one). If people like what they see in my shop, they buy, job done. It just felt ‘cleaner’, somehow, and definitely less dispiriting!
Even so, books are still integral to my work. They are a rich source of inspiration and provide physical material for my artworks.
Helen Kitson, 2022. Mixed media artwork using vintage book cover and book spines
And suddenly it struck me – one of those lightbulb moments – that the artwork I’d chosen for the cover of my first full collection of poetry, Love Among the Guilty, was a collage. At that time (1995) I wasn’t really aware of the history and significance of collage in fine art. I’d seen the image, I Was a Rich Man’s Plaything by Eduardo Paolozzi (1947), in a book about modern art. It stayed with me, and seemed the perfect fit for the poems in this collection.
Helen Kitson, 1995 (published by Bloodaxe)
I did carry on writing while I was laying the groundwork for my Etsy shop, so that was all set up and starting to roll by the time I felt ready to tell myself I had formally quit writing. I think I would have persisted with the writing if I didn’t have the art – I need a creative outlet, something that is wholly mine. It was really important for me to have the back-up solidly in place before I quit writing, and by that point I realised that I simply couldn’t juggle writing and art and give them both the time they deserved. I work 4 days a week, so I have to make best use of my one free weekday. Eventually I hope to set up my own website and sell direct, but I need to establish myself first. I was always in too much of a hurry to get where I wanted to be with my writing, always secretly hoping I would have a big success that would enable me to give up my day job, which in hindsight was a huge mistake and as a result I probably wrote far too many novels rather than working steadily, carefully and wholeheartedly on each project.
When I wrote poetry it was for the sheer love of using language to tell miniature stories. I loved poetry for its own sake. I loved words for the simple joy of manipulating language and enjoying the music of words. And it has to be said that even being published was never an unadulterated joy. There will always be people who hate what you write. Just look up your favourite book on Amazon or Goodreads and see how many people hate the book you think is perfect! Which is fine, it’s all subjective, but it’s not something I’ve encountered in the same way with art. If someone likes what they see, great. If they don’t, they move on. Whereas when you pick up a book, you don’t know until you’ve read it if you’re going to like it or hate it. You might love the first three-quarters of it and the ending will spoil it all for you. Art is much more upfront simply because a potential purchaser knows exactly what they’re getting, there’s nothing that will come as a nasty shock like that awkward twist at the end; the saggy bit in the middle where nothing happens; the plot holes that make you question the integrity of the whole story.
Helen Kitson, 2022. One of my recent Etsy sales
And, because I’m cutting out the middle man, I don’t have to worry so much about what ‘the market’ wants. I feel the days are gone when publishers will take a risk on something they love but which they know is highly unlikely to sell in large numbers. The small presses have to a large extent been squeezed out by the major publishers with big marketing budgets. And when people can buy an ebook for 99p (and I’m as guilty as anyone for grabbing a bargain), I think that creates a sense that literature itself has been devalued as an art form.
My decision to stop writing novels wasn’t an easy one and certainly not something I decided on the spur of the moment. There will inevitably be regrets, not least at potential opportunities missed. It’s entirely possible that I will get second wind as a writer when I retire. Nothing is set in stone. But, as is the case for most people, my free time is limited, and it seemed ridiculous to devote so much of it to something that was making me unhappy. If I had written another a novel I really believed in, something I felt a burning need to communicate, I would probably self-publish, but the prospect of writing something new makes me feel queasy, and tired, and just not worth the effort involved. The decision to reinvent myself as an artist was definitely the right one for me that has, in an odd sort of way, re-connected me with the poetry I read and fell in love with, and didn’t always understand (but that didn’t matter), and that sense of delight and wonder at finding so much beauty and joy in fragments and suggestions and moments.
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