In the busiest year of my writing life so far, I have embarked on a strange project. For 365 days, I am taking one photograph a day and uploading it to Instagram. These photos are my attempt to tell a story about what it’s like to be a writer. So far, the story has featured pizza, immigration offices, insomnia, going back to night school to learn Italian, the challenges of historical research, and an exhaustive collection of photographs of my desk. Looking back over my first two months of posts, I can see patterns starting to emerge about what it’s like to be a writer.
I initially started the project because it was the one project I wanted to follow on social media myself but couldn’t find. Photographers have been using social media this way for years, gathering around shared hashtags like #project365 to tell stories about everyday experiences. But as writers, I think we’re sometimes reluctant to share the details of our work openly for fear that it might appear too ordinary.
The writing process is surrounded with an aura of mystery at the best of times; everybody does it differently and nobody finds it easy to explain to others.
We’re all familiar with the way a brief check of Facebook can convince us that everybody but us is perpetually on holiday, at expensive restaurants, surrounded by friends, while we sit alone in front of our computers. Social media encourages us to share only those aspects of our lives that are social, photogenic, out of the ordinary. As writers we spend most days alone at our desks surrounded by books and paper. So often, we hold back, working for most of the year in obscurity, emerging only to broadcast those moments that seem worth sharing – book launches, press appearances, parties. Over time, this can obscure everybody’s picture of what a writing life is like. The writing process is surrounded with an aura of mystery at the best of times; everybody does it differently and nobody finds it easy to explain to others. But when I started using social media as a writer a year or two ago, I was fascinated by the way people were using it to find new ways to tell stories. I began to think about how we as writers could do this, and project #yearinthelifeofawriter was born.
When I started the project, I was wary of sharing photographs so publicly; writers are, after all, notoriously private and solitary. But in the last month, a strange and heartening thing has happened. Several people – readers, aspiring writers and others – have contacted me to tell me that they welcome the idea of using social media to tell honest stories about writing and have asked how they can join in. Project #yearinthelifeofawriter, it seems, is turning into something more interesting than the original project I started. It’s becoming a conversation. What I hope is that over the coming year, my story will become just one of many possible accounts of what it means to be a writer.
Five days in the writing life of Catherine Banner:
I started the project on the 5th of April 2016, without a fixed idea of what it would include. What I knew was that I wanted to use 365 photos to tell an honest story about being a writer, so each day I would also write a caption, however brief, about the writing process. The first photograph I shared was suitably ordinary: my notice board with its half-empty year planner. The year ahead was somewhat unknown at this moment in my writing life, and that was part of the reason I wanted to chronicle it.
This picture pretty much sums up what it’s like to be a writer. I drafted a blog post, wrote a few hundred words, and ate takeaway pizza at my desk. So it was a very ordinary writing day, except that I also received my ID card from the immigration office, and when I came to upload this photo I saw that I had captured it in the background. As writers, the concerns of our personal life inevitably come through in our work, so I decided to leave it in. That day I wrote about writing between two cultures, British and Italian.
Here’s a photo I took before starting the project, and another of the same scene two weeks later. This is my walk to the library, and the changes in the seasons make me aware of just how incrementally slow writing is as a job. A year is probably the only realistic unit by which you can measure a writer’s life.
Something that’s common to many writers’ daily work: the challenges and fascinations of historical research. On this particular day, I went to an exhibition on Turin and the First World War. When I came out, carrying the museum guide with its wartime photographs, I was oddly aware of the historical traces lying beneath the surface of the modern city. History is full of the untold stories of other lives, and often the job of the writer is to bring them to the light.
Here’s one I felt compelled to share in the spirit of honesty. In fact, this one word represents a lot of careful editing and cutting, and several paragraphs of rewriting. Many writing days, rather than being a burst of creative achievement, are filled with persistent, careful effort, which is hard to document. When Oscar Wilde talked about spending the whole morning putting in a comma and the whole afternoon taking it out again, I don’t think he was joking.