A writer’s life can be highly rewarding, but rarely in a financial way. Creative highs balance the financial lows, but ultimately we must earn a crust. The question is: ‘To what extent should we compromise our creative happiness in exchange for money?’
I’m writing this at 3am. I’m leaning against a tree, looking out across a motionless lake. Normally I’d be asleep at this time, tucked up in bed and dreaming of the day to come. But I’m wide awake and doing my best to stay warm as I gaze out across a mirrored pool. The moon is full and the sky clear, so I can see perfectly well to write.
This moonlight perspective provides the clarity I need to share some developments with you. So, friend to friend, here’s an update on some big changes that have challenged me but ultimately increased my writing output.
We do what we need to do
Recently I’ve had to confront the biggest personal challenge in my life. I’ve had to choose between security for others and happiness for myself. Why? Because my earnings were not enough to keep my family in the manner to which they are accustomed.
Previously I’d built a successful ten-year career in the corporate world, working mostly overseas helping salespeople pitch for and negotiate the world’s largest telecommunications contracts. I was the guy they called in to secure things when the pressue was on. I protected them by putting myself in the firing line, enduring intense psychological and physical torture from buyers seeking to get a better deal. I never publically buckled, instead winning many billions of pounds for my clients, but it gave me three breakdowns (due to working 90-120 hours a week for ten years), a knackered prostrate (due to being locked in rooms without toilet facilities all day), nerve-damaged hands (due to typing 42,000 words a week), an anxiety disorder (due to 'excellent' results being unsatisfactory), and – worst of all – the shame of missing the first five years of my daughter’s life.
Last year I triumphantly escaped that world in exchange for a quiet life in North Wales with my family, fulfilling my dreams of being a stay-at-home husband and father and, of course, a writer.
I was immensely happy, taking Little Lady to school, going for meals with Mrs H, relaunching the Fennel’s Priory website, launching a podcast and YouTube channel, blogging every week, and publishing two books. Book sales covered their marketing and production costs, but were insufficient for me to draw a wage. So I lived off my savings, planning to add money into the kitty as my writing income increased.
I was just about to send the press releases for my books when Mrs H took me to one side and showed me our bank statement. Ouch. In fact, ouch times ten. We had enough money to last another month. No more. After that, we’d be in serious trouble. Something had to be done. Panic-stricken and dazed by my abrupt departure from creativeland, I realised that I would have to do the one thing I swore I’d never do: go back to employment.
The biggest sacrifice, for others?
Returning to the ‘suited world’ was something I never predicted or wanted. I really thought I’d ‘got out’ and had definitely found freedom through my writing. But family obligations come first. So I made calls to recruitment friends and influencers, informing them that ‘Nigel Hudson’ was back on the market. This ‘other guy’ who goes by the ‘other name’ was coming out of retirement. 'One of the world’s most successful bid management professionals' would be available to the highest bidder.
Job opportunities came in from Canada, US, Ireland and Norway. But I didn’t want to work overseas again. Little Lady had only just got to know me, and I was deeply in love with the green mountains, blue rivers and pure air of North Wales.
Sadly the North Wales job market just doesn’t compare to the international one, so I accepted fate knowing that I would have to look further afield – but only in the UK. Finally I received three offers for UK-based jobs. All of them were ‘down south’. Two in London and one in Dorset. I accepted the one with the greener surroundings and better fishing. Dorset it would be. But Mrs H and Little Lady wouldn’t be coming with me. This would be a lone journey, made with the sole objective of providing money for my family.
The new job was 250 miles away from home. With favourable traffic it would take me six hours to drive there, longer if I attempted to use public transport. I wasn’t prepared to commute that far every day. Instead, I’d drive down in the early hours of Monday morning, and return on Friday evening.
What quality of life for the lifestyle author who seeks to ‘Stop – Unplug – Escape – Enjoy’?
As I signed the contract I felt mixed emotions of excitement for the role and despair that I’d be losing everything I hold precious. Daddy would be going away again, the prospect of a quiet family life in the hills was over and, worst of all, I was the only one in my immediate family still believing in me as a writer. I trod the darkest path I’ve experienced in recent years, questioning everything I hold dear and becoming emotionally unstable. Fennel would have to fight for consciousness as the ‘other guy’ took over. Never happy bedfellows, the split personality clashes would happen all over again. Like Gollum and Smeagol in their cave, Nigel would endure the darkness while Fennel searched for the light.
Or would they? Perhaps I just needed to view things from a different perspective.
It's all in the angle and intensity of light
Reality is a matter of perspective. This I believe, as do countless writers, photographers, artists, scientists, and cognitive behavioural therapists. We choose our reality, at least how we perceive it. Life can be good or bad, beautiful or ugly, tranquil or stressful, depending on how we interpret things. We can choose to be happy or sad. ‘We perceive therefore we are.’
Mrs H and Little Lady’s lives would mostly be unaffected by my being away. They were used to me not being at home, and Nana and Grandad would be keeping them company anyway. Their routine and house-proud tidiness would be better without my creative chaos and mess, so they’d be more settled without me. And as long as I sent home a regular pay cheque, then I’d still have a home and wife waiting for me when I made it back to Wales. So, in short, I would miss them more than they would miss me. My time away, therefore, was more like being set free. I would have all the time to do whatever I wanted. My weekday life really would be my own.
Where, though, would I live? Where would I write? Would I be able to set up a Fennel’s Priory Field HQ? Could I keep things going so that nobody would notice my change of circumstance?
This happened five months ago. Did you notice anything?
A writer can write anywhere. I could write in the car, at work, or wherever I found myself to be. But where one resides can influence one’s sense of grounding.
It was the prospect of returning to a ‘hotel suitcase’ lifestyle that most upset me. I’d travelled the world almost non-stop for four years, so there was no way I wanted to see another business hotel. I’m an outdoorsman who won't be cooped up with the complimentary tea bags, Corby trouser press and miniature bottles of shampoo. I can do so much better than that. I am, after all, the person who encourages us to ‘never do anything that offends your soul’. If I were going to do this, I’d do it on my terms.
So, on 5th June, I loaded up my car and headed off to face my new future. My new home would be my Tentipi Safir, a Nordic tipi that I would pitch somewhere in the New Forest. I’d use it as my basecamp, from where I would ‘strike out’ to go to work each morning and explore the heathland and ponds of the Forest each evening. Mine would be a life of extremes, living tramp-like at night and as smart executive by day. Plus I’d enjoy seeing the campers’ expressions as I appeared in ‘Mr Ben’ style from my tipi each morning. I’d have gone in dressed in my scruffiest tweeds, and come out dressed in my posh suit and shiny shoes.
How did it go?
‘Ups and downs’ if I’m honest. The first week was a boggy washout, with gale force winds and rain that turned the campsite into a lagoon. In fact, most weeks have seen me battle heavy rain and then load the tipi into my car while soaking wet. But being so close to nature has been wonderful, lifting my spirits to counteract the homesickness that I've inevitably felt. Highlights have been the nightjars and owls calling each evening, and the display of shooting stars in August (when I lay on the ground with just my head sticking out of the tipi, looking up at the meteorites above). My biggest nature shock, however, was having two badgers nudge under the tipi during the middle of the night and then struggle to escape. (I needed a strong cup of tea after that incident.) But the best thing that’s come of the lifestyle is that I’ve spent each evening writing by candlelight. All my blogs have been written there, either in pen or on my laptop computer. (They were later uploaded to the web using the free Wi-Fi in the local coffee shop. God bless the Friday morning espresso.) So, with the exception of my 9-5 office time, I’ve been living a very simple rural existence. It’s reminiscent of my Waterside Year in 2005, but far better because it’s unlikely to end soon.
Man of the woods
After 97 nights outdoors, I’m perfectly in tune with the practicalities of outdoor living – and the lack of an iron for my shirt. I remember to hang my clothes up off the floor (where they won’t get soaked if floodwater comes in). I peg down the tipi on all points and have a stock of candles for light and warmth. I know which foods will keep without refrigeration, and which chip shops to visit when I can’t be bothered to cook (usually on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays).
My new colleagues think I’m bonkers, but I’m proud to be doing things my way. I’ve enjoyed so much freedom and peace. I’ve been alone and sometimes lonely. But I’ve been so very productive. It’s been my best ever writer’s year.
But I wanted more. I wanted more ‘wild’, more woodfire cooking, more foraging, and more enjoyment.
So I moved things up a gear.
Whist Forest life is lovely, it isn’t as compelling as waterside life (at least water that’s next to a wood). So I moved my tent to a copse that fringes a lake in the New Forest. I then went home and collected my fishing tackle (and noted how much Little Lady had grown), returning two days later to camp and fish. This has given me another new perspective, and more things to do.
Camping and fishing for four nights every week has enabled me to get closer to my new environment. I’ve discovered the kingfisher’s hole where it’s rearing a late chick; I’ve watched the long tailed tits grow and flutter about the willows; I’ve identified three different types of bats (which the bat detector app on my phone informs me are pipistrelles, daubentons and brandt’s); I’ve seen a near-white heron and a rat the size of a rottweiler. And, of course, I’m piecing together the movements and feeding habits of the giant carp that inhabit the lake.
The pool is fished intensively at weekends, with every swim taken by angers fishing three rods each and piling in bucket loads of bait. But it’s nearly deserted during the week. From what I can tell, the fish sulk on Mondays (when they’re lying low from the recent barrage), move about in the centre of the lake on Tuesdays, then start hooving up the anglers’ bait on Wednesdays and Thursdays when they leap clear of the water and land with a walloping ‘kaboosh’. So it’s easy to know where they are. If I wanted to catch big numbers of fish, then I’d stroll around the lake at weekends, noting were the anglers were piling in their bait. I’d then fish over this bait during the week. But I’d rather drive home for a few hours with my family than do the weekend reconnaissance.
Always a writer
I remind myself that I’m a writer who fishes, not a fisherman who writes. There’s a big difference and distinct focus. Sure, it’s great to be camping and fishing beside such a beautiful lake. But I don’t ‘write while awaiting a bite’. I await a bite while writing. I could happily sit there with pen in hand or laptop on lap, with no lines in the water.
I’m enjoying this unexpected yet surprisingly delightful existence. It’s a new life, a writing life, done – as always – on my terms.
Where will it lead? I don't know. So long as I pay my bills and publish my books, then my time 'away' will be worth it. One step, and night, at a time...so everyone can benefit.
If you like this blog, you might like the books A Waterside Year, Fennel's Journal No. 2 and A Writer's Year, Fennel's Journal No. 3. Please also subscribe to Fennel on Friday, where you'll receive either a blog, video or podcast sent to you in time for the weekend.