Nell Stevens is the go-to writer for accounts of not getting on with writing, a state with which many writers will be excruciatingly familiar. Fresh from a creative writing degree, she published her first book, Bleaker House, in 2017. It is a chronicle of spending three months in the Falklands on a generously funded Boston University fellowship and there failing to write a novel. Instead she wrote about her daily life on the fretful edges of the writing process: the distractions, the frustrations, the finding things to do, absolutely anything at all, that would prevent her getting down to the book.
Her second book, Mrs Gaskell and Me, takes up the theme again. This time, however, she hasn’t the wild isolation of a South Atlantic island to provide descriptive detail but is back in London, at the beginning of another degree – this time a PhD in English literature. She can’t get down to this project either, for the most part because she is in love with Max, a fellow creative writing student who is far away, first in Paris, then in Boston. The reader may begin to smell a rat. All this mooching about and procrastinating looks disingenuous: with her notebook always at the ready, Stevens is more on the ball than she is prepared to let on. Two books published in two years and a thesis to boot: she sounds like a workhorse to me.
But in her account she mopes about, thinking about Max, emailing, texting and wondering how she can get some academic conference to pay for her to go to the United States. She doesn’t seem very committed to academic life, however: for ages she can’t decide what to write her thesis