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 on 4th November 2017. I’m leaning against a tree, looking out across a moonlit 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 sky clear, so I can see perfectly well to write.
You might think that I’m continuing my Nature Escape, but I’m not. At least not as completely as I once did. This moonlight perspective provides the clarity I need to share some unexpected developments with you. So, friend to friend, here’s an update on some big changes that have challenged me but ultimately enhanced my worldview and increased my writing output.
We do what we need to do
I spent ten years writing about my quest for a meaningful rural life, completing the task in 2016 with a ‘nature escape’ and move to North Wales. I’ve since lived ‘completely’ as a family man and countryside author. I’ve been immensely happy, taking Little Lady to school, going for lunches with Mrs H, rebuilding the Fennel’s Priory website, launching a podcast and YouTube channel, blogging every week, publishing three books, and spending all my free time outdoors. Alas, I was a little too preoccupied with enjoying myself to worry about whether my lifestyle was sustainable.
Sales of my books covered their marketing and production costs but were insufficient for me to draw a wage. So I lived off my redundancy package, planning to add money into the kitty when my royalties increased. I was just about to send the press release for my new book when Mrs H took me to one side and showed me our bank statement. Ouch. In fact, ‘ouch times ten’. We had enough money left to fund one month’s rent. No more. After that, we’d be in 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. The ‘other guy’ who goes by the ‘other name’ was coming out of retirement. I’d be available to the highest bidder, selling out to help others. All, and only, for money.
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, Mrs H and I were back being a ‘proper’ couple, and I was deeply in love with the green mountains, blue rivers and pure air of North Wales. So I needed a UK-based job.
Sadly, the North Wales job market doesn’t compete with the international one. So I accepted fate knowing that I would have to search throughout the UK. Finally, I received three ‘considerable’ offers. 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 intention of sending money home to my family.
My new job would be 250 miles 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, so I’d drive down to Dorset in the early hours of Monday morning and return home late on Friday evening.
What quality of life for the lifestyle author who seeks to ‘Stop – Unplug – Escape – Enjoy’?
As I signed the employment contract, I felt mixed emotions of anxiety 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, it seemed, I had failed at being a full-time author.
I trod the darkest path I’ve experienced in recent years, questioning the entire Fennel’s Journal story. Indeed, ‘Fennel’ would have to fight for consciousness as the ‘other guy’ took over. Never happy bedfellows, the 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. 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 emotionally crippling, but liberating at the same time. If I maintained an optimistic gaze, I could convince myself that I was being set free. I would have all week to do whatever I wanted each night. All those hours to write, relax, and take in the natural world.
Where, though, would I live? Where would I write? Could I set up a Fennel’s Priory ‘Field HQ’ so that I could maintain my creative output irrespective 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. Being away from loved ones isn’t fun.
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 would be my Tentipi Safir, a Nordic tip 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 day 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 a soaking wet tipi into my car before returning home. 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 walls of the tipi during the middle of the night and then struggle to escape. (I needed a strong cup of tea and change of pyjamas after that incident.) But the best thing that’s come of my outdoor lifestyle is that I’ve spent each evening writing by candlelight. My weekly 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 ‘nine to five’ office time, I’ve been living a very simple rural existence. It’s reminiscent of my Waterside Year in 2005, but unlikely to end so quickly.
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; and 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 always lonely, but I’ve been so productive. It’s been my best-ever writer’s year, even though it’s cost me the close bond I’d forged with my family.
Whist forest life is lovely, it isn’t as compelling as waterside life (at least water that’s next to a wood). So, at the end of October (when the campsite closed) I moved my pitch 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 erect a smaller tent beside the lake. 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 a friend’s phone informs me are pipistrelles, daubentons and brandts); 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 large fish that inhabit the lake.
I’m enjoying this unwanted 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, one word, one night, at a time. So everyone can benefit.
This is a sample chapter from Book of Secrets, Fennel's Journal No. 13. If you like Fennel Hudson's writing, 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.