This is the page where most people say ‘I always wanted to write’ or ‘I always knew I′d be an author‘ and then they tell you how they used to gaze up at the sky and dream about the day they would be a famous writer. Well, I didn’t. Not really.
I always thought it would be really exciting and rewarding to write a book, but I never seriously believed I would. Until recently I didn’t have the confidence to try. The fact that I have now written a book is more of a surprise to me than to most of the people who know me.
What school was like
At school I was, frankly, a geek. I was rubbish at sports but really good at everything else. One of my earliest memories of school is from Dumfries. I had just moved from Australia to Scotland and joined a new school – I was seven. I had a broad Australian accent, apparently, so how anyone understood me is a miracle. Anyway, on my first day the teacher made me stand up in front of the whole class and read aloud. After about two sentences she said ‘Oh, stop! Stop!’ and I sat down in a complete panic, wondering what I had done wrong. Then the teacher proceeded to tell the class that I was the most amazing reader she had ever come across. Quite why everyone didn’t hate me on the spot is a mystery to me.
That’s pretty much how school was for me. I was the person who always got top marks in tests (or nearly top), and who always turned in A-grade pieces of homework or coursework. The teachers quickly came to take it for granted that I would do well. But I never really understood what I was doing to get these good marks – I worked hard, but I was lucky enough to find maths and science and English and French and all the rest of it fairly straightforward. I didn’t get why all the teachers thought I was so wonderful. So, weirdly, I never felt safe. I always worried that the next bit of work I handed in would be awful.
And sometimes it was awful. Sometimes, like everyone else, I had a bad day. And I remember those bad days vividly. Like the time I got 65% in a history test and the teacher handed the paper back to me and said ‘65%? Whatever happened to you?’ Or the time I misunderstood a piece of English homework, and made such a mess of it that the teacher didn’t even give me a grade. Instead she wrote a page and a half in red pen telling me exactly how bad it was. I was so upset and angry I went home and burnt the exercise book. Or the time a teacher said in exasperation that I had ‘’the mind of a literary critic’, which was her way of saying that she thought I had no imagination whatsoever.
My mum and dad were lovely and never put any pressure on me. They were pleased when I did well, but really they just wanted me to be happy. The problem was that I’d got myself stuck – I needed to do well so that the teachers would be pleased with me, but all the time I was scared to death of failing and being found out as a fraud. All of this meant that when I finished my school and university career I felt like a train running off the rails. I didn’t know how to do anything except write essays and get good marks in exams. I really wasn’t very grown-up. I started to suffer quite badly from anxiety. I did try to write stories and poems, but mostly I didn’t show them to anyone because I was too frightened of what they would say – I couldn’t cope with the idea that my writing might not be ‘good enough’.
Becoming a teacher instead of a writer
When I left university I got a job teaching adults who had ‘failed’ at school – people who found reading, writing and maths difficult, who had left school without any qualifications. They were the exact opposite of me in many ways, but I loved the job because I understood just how they felt about school. I was good at teaching and did it for over twenty years. I think I helped a lot of people to develop confidence in themselves and learn things they never believed they could learn.
But ironically, even though I spent my working life encouraging people to have confidence in themselves, I didn’t have much confidence in myself. In particular I couldn’t deal very well with criticism, which is a disaster if you want to be a writer, because there will always be people who don’t like what you write. You just have to be able to shrug it off.
Doing what I really wanted
It’s taken me a long, long time to get over these feelings. So what changed? The starting point was doing a course with Korky Paul – a book illustration course, not a writing course, because Korky Paul is an illustrator not an author (look up ‘Winnie the Witch’ and you will probably remember who he is). Korky was a great teacher and he really encouraged us to do homework. As part of the course I wrote a short story that I’d been thinking about for ages, with the idea that I would illustrate it. Korky was very positive about this story and told me I should think seriously about writing. By the end of the course I knew I didn’t have what it takes to be an illustrator, but it had dawned on me that I might be able to write for children.
After that, almost by accident, I wrote some short stories for children that other people seemed to like a lot (see Something different). I wrote them just for fun, for children I knew and liked. I wasn’t trying to impress or please anyone except myself. And I think that was important. After that several more people said I should write, and I made a deliberate decision to leave my job. That felt very scary, like stepping off a cliff. What if I never found another job? What if all my ideas dried up and I couldn’t think of anything else to write? What if I wrote something and everybody hated it?
I was lucky. Phil, my husband, supported me 200%. He’s always believed in me anyway, and he had complete confidence that I would succeed. And as soon as I stopped pouring all my energy into my job I found I had loads of ideas. I wrote and wrote and wrote. I drove my family crazy by getting up in the middle of the night because I needed to jot something down, or forcing them to repeat things five times because I was thinking about my book and not really listening. I think when I started to shout at Phil for breathing too loudly when I was trying to concentrate he might have had second thoughts about encouraging me to write.
Still, it took another three years before Piccadilly Press liked ‘Fifty Fifty’ enough to want to publish it, and during that time I just had to keep going. I had to believe in myself. But the key thing was discovering that I really enjoyed the process of writing. I love the way I can sit down in front of a blank screen (I do almost all my writing on a computer) and create something out of thin air. I love the way I can go out for a walk without a thought in my head, and twenty minutes later a whole story has fallen out of the sky – a story that just wasn’t there before. It feels like magic, and perhaps it is. You can see why the old poets used to believe in the ‘Muse’, the spiritual being who sent them their ideas.
So that’s how I became a writer, and why it took me so long. If I could give you one piece of advice, it would be this: don’t spend so much time and energy trying to please other people that you completely lose sight of what you want. After all, you have to live with yourself for the rest of your life. And it’s much better if the you that you live with is happy.