Why I Write: Francesca Haig

When I was a child, my babysitter used to offer me fifty cents for each half hour that I’d manage not to talk. Not once did I manage to earn a cent. That love of language, and of the transporting pleasure of storytelling, made me pretty unbearable as a child – but it’s the same reason that I’ve always been an avid reader, and it’s also the same reason that I write.

As both a reader and a writer, the thing that always fascinates me more than anything is the9780007563050 function of metaphor – its ability to transform, and to make you see something in an entirely new light. When I read a really striking metaphor, it has such an odd double impact. On the one hand, there’s the sense of shock, the jolt provided when a metaphor’s utterly fresh and unexpected: I never would have thought of that. And, on the other hand, the recognition that makes you smile and nod to yourself, because even though the metaphor is entirely new, it also has a sense of accuracy: that’s exactly right.

That kind of precision is what Flaubert was talking about when he said that ‘Poetry is as exact a science is geometry.’ I’m far too much of a wuss to get a tattoo, but if I were braver, Flaubert’s quote is what I’d choose to inscribe on my flesh. The ability of brilliant metaphors to combine innovation and recognition creates such a frisson, and for me that’s what I’m always searching for as a reader, and aiming for as a writer.

And because the writer is always present in me, even when I’m just reading for pleasure, when I encounter a wonderful metaphor my joy is accompanied by a stab of envy: I wish I’d come up with that. It’s probably my competitive streak, as much as any idea of ‘vocation.’ But there are few satisfactions greater that the feeling when the metaphor that clicks into place is one of your own.

Each metaphor is a risk: will this work? Have I gone too far/not far enough? When you know that you’ve nailed a metaphor, it’s a real sense of exhilaration. I used to do a lot of rock-climbing. Now I just write, but I think it fills the same desire for risk. If your writing doesn’t involve risk, then what’s the point?

There’s a particular pleasure in writing poetry, for me, because the focus is so entirely on the language. The big-picture things that have to be juggled so carefully in a novel – plot, character, structure, pacing – fall out of view, and instead the language itself dominates. Of course there are other things at play in poetry – plot, character, structure and pacing can all be present, but they turn on a comma, or a carefully executed line-break. There’s a kind of purity in that, and a singularity of focus, which draws me back to poetry again and again. Writing novels has its own pleasures and challenges, of course – a novel is expansive and one can live in it for so long, and develop things that a poem doesn’t permit. But the purest form of writing pleasure, for me, whether in a novel or a poem, is that single line or image that snatches the familiar away while at once making it clearer than ever before.

Francesca Haig

Francesca Haig is an author and academic. Her first novel, The Fire Sermon, was published by Harper Voyager this year and is being translated into over twenty languages. Film rights have been optioned by DreamWorks. Her poetry has been published in literary journals and anthologies in both Australia and England, and her first collection of poetry, Bodies of Water, was published in 2006.

Buy The Fire Sermon here, and say hi to her on Twitter.

Why I Write: Alex Christofi

I can’t say when or why I started writing. The truth is that I have always written. I wrote before I had any interest in why I wrote or what its purpose might be. I felt instinctively that words were the only way to arrange a thought, and arranging my thoughts became a kind of game. It is a kind of compulsion, which, since I am doing it anyway, I may as well use to understand and resolve the world around me. At a certain point I decided that I wanted to write for other people, to tell them stories, arrange their thoughts, and writing became a little less about me, but there is still a paradox at the heart of it: I have to think I am writing something that is worth other people’s time.

When writers write about writing, there is a common idea that they are doing so for posterity. Some of us have a romantic idea of writing as a kind of continuance, a way of persisting in the world after you die. Books become almost like the children of a mind, living on in the world after their parent is gone. My novel will be lodged with the copyright libraries, my name on record. Yet there are 14 million books in the British Library. It is a vast mausoleum of thoughts, the older names fading from view like weathered headstones. I recently borrowed a book published in 1976, and it still had the return card lodged in the front from its previous borrower in 1988.

So if I accept that my writing is not about me – that the part tied up with my ego is not going to last very well whichever way you look at it – it becomes about the story itself and what it can do in the present. There are a few particular characteristics of the novel, which set it apart from other media, and which make it quite a unique way to tell stories.

Firstly, a novel makes humans out of us. The form by its nature doesn’t just show us people who don’t share our life experience, it forces us to imagine what it is like to be them. So many of the world’s problems arise from a lack of empathy with others. We feel that some others are not like us, can’t understand us, don’t have the same needs as we do or, perhaps, in less generous moments, that our concerns are really more important. Reading novels forces me to imagine what it must be like to be someone else: young, old, an outsider, deaf, gay, female, religious. Novels help me to see how different life is across decades or on the other side of the world. And spanning all that difference, there is always something uniting about our shared needs for love, purpose, dignity and food. (Yes, food. Who doesn’t love food?)

glassThe novel may not always shout loudest, but it stays with you in your bag and by your bed, insistent and persuasive. In the shouting match of modern media, the novel is a fireside chat, a weekend away in a country B&B. Under its influence, you start to look at trees for what seems like the first time in a month, you talk about the things that have been bothering you for a while, and you realise that this, here, now, is life.

A novel is pretty much the only chance that a person gets to speak to a stranger, without interruption, for ten hours. To arrange a few thoughts with them. It’s a fantastical, terrifying opportunity. What would you say? Perhaps you are afraid they will walk away, so you focus on holding their attention. Perhaps you want to make a point about politics or society. Maybe your priority is to show them that, if things always seem to go wrong, at least they get better in the end. I suppose if you’re very good at it, you could do any number of things at once. For me, I think the most important thing is to reach out, to lend my hand like Larkin’s old toad. If I could only impress one thought on a stranger, I would tell them that, if all of us sometimes feel like we are struggling through life alone, at least we are alone together.

Alex Christofi

alexchristofiAlex Christofi was born and grew up in Dorset. After reading English at the University of Oxford, he moved to London to work in publishing. He has written a number of short pieces for theatre, and blogs about arts and culture for Prospect magazine. Glass is his first novel, and you can buy it here. Say hi to him on Twitter.

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Why I Write: Stark Holborn

I write because I’m not sure I could ever do anything else.

Even if I was never to have another book published, I don’t think I’d be able to hold back the ideas, the odd fascinations, the bones of new characters that are always lurking and coalescing in my mind. If I couldn’t get them down on a page or a keyboard, or a phone screen, I’d start piecing them together in my imagination. Then I’d spend even longer than I already do staring down strangers in the street without realising it, because I’m locked into some made-up conversation.

So in one sense, I write because I’m unable not to write. The impulse usually starts with something small, an image, a phrase, a sentence that will revolve and revolve and will not leave me alone until I write it down.

It’s an addictive feeling, and it’s simultaneously a joy and a frustration when writing a novel to a deadline. Some days, that compelling, whispering kernel will appear, and I’ll grab it and disappear into the zone for a few hours; that place of intense concentration where you forget to drink, or eat or take toilet breaks. Other days, it won’t and there’s no use faffing about on the Internet waiting for inspiration. I just try to get on with it and hack out the words, letter by letter, in the hope that I can make some progress.

Saying that, it’s often the laborious, hacked-out, oh-god-these-are-shit pages that turn out the best. Probably because they’re more exacting. Self-belief is important, but if you love your own work too much, there’s no drive to improve. I think it’s okay to be proud of something as an accomplishment and simultaneously aware of its flaws.

NunslingerWhich leads me on to the second facet of why I write. I write because I want to get better at writing. And the only way to do that is to write. I try to keep my eyes and ears open too, to read and watch and listen not just widely but well. Overall, I hope that if I keep writing as much as I can, I might start to learn what it means to be a good writer.

My debut novel, Nunslinger, began life as one of the kernels. A silly joke, a pun that got me thinking. I was actually working on a completely different novel then, but I started writing what is now Book One of Nunslinger because… well, I wanted to. I didn’t even consider that it might be publishable at the time, let alone that it would turn into a twelve-book behemoth. It was a story I wanted to tell, and so I simply set out to tell it, to the best of my ability.

Stark Holborn

Stark Holborn is the pseudonym of a thrilling new voice in fiction. But he – or she – knows to keep enemies close… and secrets closer. Check out Nunslinger here, and say hi to Stark on Twitter.

Why I Write: P. C. Dettman

Writing about writing, and in particular about why I do it, is the hardest topic of them all. It involves the kind of introversion which comes naturally to writers, but multiplied and distilled. It is turning the tool, or the weapon, on yourself. If I think back in time to why I originally wrote stories, I find it easier.

When I wrote my very first short story that was not part of some school assignment, it came from a simple place. I had some time, I had an idea for a story, and do not remember where it came from, but I enjoyed the thrill of developing a plot and some characters and seeing what happened to them. At the time, Ian Livingstone’s Fighting Fantasy series was all the rage with my classmates. It was a set of ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ books with a dice and some clever role play ideas. This was the mid 1980s and I was 9 or so. I enjoyed reading, yes, but the experience of making your own story was massively more satisfying. And the internet didn’t exist.

By the time I wrote my first novel during my second year at university, the internet had barely begun to exist. I still got a lot of fun from writing, but there was a new motive. It was a very clear one to a student in a grey northern city. The motive was money. Michael Ridpath had, unusually for a writer, made almost as much money writing books as he did as a trader in the City. Or a stockbroker, or whatever it was he did. He wrote a couple of thrillers about high finance, and they sold unbelievably well. He did the foreword to some Writer’s Digest books with titles like How To Write a Mi££ion.

Time passed. I graduated and got a real job. I moved to London. I moved back away from London. I moved jobs. But eventually I started writing again, and I feel like I have a healthier set of reasons to write, and a lot more experience of both life and the writing craft. I’m writing my first literary novel, which to me means it is not high concept, or plot-driven, or too unbelievable. It’s not about spies or space aliens. It’s about two people, professional musicians, following their dreams. I’m not writing for money any more. I learned the truth behind that pretty quickly. I feel like I’m doing it because I want to. The initial thrill is still there: to write captivating stories involving believable, realistic people. The more you do it, the better you get. And the better you get, you realise there is so much more to this than ever meets the eye to a reader, even an avid reader. Only the writer knows the terror emitted from a blank page.

I do it because it puts me in good company. Even if I’m just doing a diary each day, or a few days a week, I’m in there with Hemingway and Orwell and Greene. If I write a couple of letters (and apologies to the random assortment of strangers who have received one from me) then that’s even better. These things, this writing practice, helps me to understand the world and my place in it. No, really. I do a blog post here, a tweet there. Anything is easier than working on the current book. But the fascination is still there, the love of solitude, the freedom it gives you to think profoundly about almost any topic that draws your eye. The skill of making plain your ideas to a wide range of unseen readers. English, or any other language, is never as precise as your true internal thought.

And now that I’m back in London, or near enough, I have started rubbing shoulders with real writers. Ones with real publishers. And they’re not as different from me as my younger self ever imagined. They work hard, they worry, they see it for what it is, and still they persevere, but they’re only human. Almost nothing else offers you a chance of immortality as writing does. And as you approach middle age, mortality starts to become a topic to write about in a totally new way.

Paul DettmanP. C. Dettman

P. C. Dettman publishes speculative fiction as Paul Charles, and is currently writing a novel about a drug dealing pianist and the best tenor sax player in England. You can find his books here, or say hi to him on Twitter

Why I Write: Rebecca Perry

If I’m honest, the question of why I write is one I tend to avoid thinking about, probably because I’m worried that the answer is just vanity or self-indulgence. I have written poetry for as long as I can remember, so it’s always been a part of how I navigate my experience of the world, and I’ve rarely given it much more consideration than why it is I like potato so much. I also used to write prose as a child, until I realised that I had neither that particular skill nor the attention span for it. But I suppose why I continue to write, and why I continue to properly try at it, is a different question altogether.


Of course we’re all just floundering around trying to make sense of our lives and our time on earth, so I suppose writing is one of the ways I have of facilitating that. I’ve written in the past because I’ve been incredibly sad or heartbroken and the writing lets that breathe a little. I’ve written because I’ve been overwhelmed by more positive feelings: love, excitement, admiration for the stegosaurus. But that all feels very introspective and self-serving to me.


I hope, much more than that reason, it’s that one thing I get real joy from is the feeling when you read something and it’s like ‘yes!’ or your chest rolls over on itself or you want to cry. Miranda July said recently in an interview that she was reading a Diane Cook story and: ‘I had to put the book down and just sob, and I was thrilled at the same time, thinking: ‘It works! This medium really works!’ So it’s that – something much more intersubjective – wanting to be part of that exchange. If you’re taking something out of the pot you want to put something back in, especially if the pot is something you value so much. We spend our lives trying to connect with one another, and failing or succeeding in that, so when I write a poem it’s a way of saying ‘ . . . anyone else?’


Sometimes I wonder if I write to give shape to my life, to make the passage of time less alarming, to convince myself I’m not just a person who floats along, going swimming, eating, sleeping and not really liking my job. I think there’s real truth in that. Also, I really enjoy the process of writing; the feeling of something taking shape, and the feeling after you’ve written something you think might be in some way successful. It’s fun, basically.



I’m tired of male voices taking up a disproportionate amount of our Beauty-Beauty Cover Imagecollective space, of being louder than women’s, of being taken more seriously. Parity is a real driving force for me, though I am conscious of the fact that I write from a position of considerable privilege. I have a poem in the book called ‘Poem in which the girl has no door on her mouth’, which is a direct response primarily to Anne Carson’s essay ‘The Gender of Sound’ and also to Mary Beard’s LRB lecture ‘The Public Voice of Women’. Both pieces delineate the pervasive and constant examples (mostly in western literature) of women being told to shut up, women being shamed for the noises they make, starting with Telemachus telling his mother, Penelope, in The Odyssey, ‘Mother . . . go back up into your quarters, and take up your own work, the loom and the distaff . . . speech will be the business of men, all men, and of me most of all; for mine is the power in this household.’ The writing of that poem was driven by a very particular purpose, in a way that a lot of my writing isn’t, and it was exciting to me to be, in my own way, making a miniscule contribution to evening out the power in the household.


Rebecca Perry is the author of two poetry publications: Beauty/Beauty from Bloodaxe Books, and a pamphlet, little armoured, published by Seren. Find her on Twitter.

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Why I Write: Joanna Cannon

I called them my Kodak Moments.

The snapshots of my day as a doctor, the patients who managed to creep across the brick wall which medical school had instructed us to build, between our profession and our emotions. The desperate, the alone. The children who would never know a future, the elderly who struggled to search for a past. One day, I stood by the bedside of a woman with metastatic breast cancer, a woman whose birth date was just a few days from my own. We had grown up with the same posters on our walls, we knew the lyrics to the same songs. I watched her for so long, searching for the difference between us, because I knew that if I couldn’t find it, I would never be able to turn away.

These Kodak Moments took over my life. I would pull into my drive at the end of a shift, and not remember how I got there, and I would lie in the dark each night, trying to make sense of what I’d seen that day. I decided I must be too absorbent for medicine, and if I didn’t find a way of dealing with these moments, perhaps I really wasn’t suited to this job after all.

So, I decided to do what I had always done, since I was very small, and I started to write about how I felt. Of course, I didn’t write about the patients themselves. Instead, I wrote about my reactions to the situations in which I found myself. I tried to make sense of them.

When I was a child, I lived for library day. I spent all my time with Meg and Mowgli and Aslan (some of my best friends lived within the pages of a book), because they allowed me to explore a very confusing world, without ever leaving the safety of my own chair. I think of writing in a similar way. I think, at least for me, this is what writing (and reading) is all about. It’s a way of understanding, a way of choosing a new perspective. Without writing, I know I would struggle to process everything around me, and finding the words to explain my experiences leaves me free to absorb a little more of the world.

As a teenager, I watched an Alan Bennett series on BBC1 called Talking Heads, and it felt as though someone had opened a door into another room. For the first time, it made me appreciate the power of words. The power to move, distract, and entertain. The power to shift a viewpoint. The power to explain. I decided then that this was what I wanted to do. I wanted to learn how to harness the power of words, and use them to make the world an easier place to understand.

For me, I think life will always require more than a little explaining, and as long as I need those explanations, I will continue to write.

Joanna Cannon graduated from Leicester Medical School and worked as a hospital doctor, before specialising in psychiatry. She was born and raised in the Peak District, where she continues to live with her family and her dog. THE PROBLEM WITH GOATS AND SHEEP is her first novel, and will be published by Borough Press (HarperCollins) in Spring 2016. Say hi to her on Twitter.

Jo was also a student on one of our online novel-writing courses. Writing a Novel Online: The First 15,000 is open for applications now. 

Why I Write: Morgan McCarthy

The short answer is: I don’t know.

Wait! Don’t go away. I haven’t finished. I may not know exactly why I write, but I do have some ideas, and – true to form – I have written them down…

1. Money

Sad and grubby as it is, this has to be acknowledged as a significant spur to my creativity. I may be in the gutter and looking at the stars, but I’m also trying to work out whether my gutter would benefit from faster wi-fi, and whether an open-plan gutter-extension would add value. When it comes to content, I write the books I want to write without – as my readers would no doubt confirm – much consideration for marketability or commercial appeal. But I can’t deny that I daydream sometimes about film adaptations, and not only because I want to brainstorm with Meryl Streep over coffee.

And yet! There was a time when I didn’t have to think about when my next pay-check was coming from – because I already knew: £1 a week, plus 25p sweetie allowance. And back when I was a child, I was at my most prolific. I wrote incessantly, churning out page after page of stories about aliens and time-travel, princesses and monsters, even a (poorly researched) epic about the Aztecs. I didn’t get any money for this, and I certainly didn’t have any readers. One teacher admitted he had no idea how to begin to mark one of my 150-page efforts and gave me 10/10 and a gold star purely on the basis of weight. No – something other than cash compelled me.

2. Praise

This is also, undeniably, one of my motivators. I am an inveterate teacher’s pet (10/10 is still 10/10, after all) and while I no longer crave the approval of my parents and my old English teacher Mr Pepperpot*, this longing has transferred itself onto readers, reviewers, organisations. My wildest dreams basically boil down to a need for the Booker committee to pat me on the head and tell me I’ve done a great job. A gold star wouldn’t go amiss, either.

3. To change the world

Um, nope.

4. Because it’s fun

This is only partly true. I had the most fun writing when I was eight, when it was all about volume and quality control was just a twinkle in my future editor’s eye. As an adult I am a perfectionist, a procrastinator and a self-doubter, and as a consequence, writing can frequently be a fairly un-fun process.

5. Because not many other jobs will let me work in pyjamas

Now, this is undoubtedly a factor.

isbn9781472205810-detailOkay, it’s becoming apparent that I’m no closer to understanding why I write, and quite frankly this analysis of my motivations isn’t making me look great. The truth is, none of these reasons come close to explaining it. It’s more that I find that there are characters I long to write about, and situations I long to explore. I am passionate about capturing the feel of a place that exists only in my head; trying to express an imagined atmosphere, even when I’m not sure it’s even possible. If the prospect of riches and admiration was taken away, I’d still do it.

And I don’t really know what that’s about.
*names have been changed


Morgan McCarthy

Morgan McCarthy is the author of The Other Half of Me, The Outline of Love and Strange Girls and Ordinary Women. Say hi to her on Twitter.

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Why I Write: Sophie Lovett

I write because I dare to.

It’s that simple, really.

For years I had stories burning away inside of me but I never gave them the oxygen they needed to burst into life: I was too afraid.

It seems silly to say that out loud when I live in a time and a place where there really should be nothing holding me back. I know there are people all over the world who genuinely risk their lives when they put pen to paper. That is not the kind of fear that I’ve had to face, but that doesn’t make the prison I constructed in my mind any less real.

The key to my release came in the smallest of packages.

It’s something of a cliché to say that having a child has given me the freedom to let go of the fear, to focus on what really matters rather than being paralysed by the anticipation of what other people might think. But it’s true.

Quite early on, staring at that tiny ball of potential through the haze of new motherhood, I realised I was going to have to stop being such a coward. How could I honestly claim that he could be anything he wanted to be, do anything he wanted to do, whilst at the same time nurturing inside of myself a growing shadow of regret at dreams unpursued?

I also knew I couldn’t leave him. I couldn’t go back to the career that had swallowed up so much of my time and energy: however much I loved teaching, I loved this baby more. I needed to find something to do that would also allow me to spend as much time with him as possible.

And so I wrote. I had the ideas – that had never been a problem. And in between the feeding and the nappies, whilst my baby slept in the sling or cooed in his bouncer, I finally got the words on to the page. By the time he was six months old I’d finished my first novel.

That was only the beginning, of course. I have yet to crack publication, but that doesn’t matter – yet – because I’m writing. I’ve proved to myself that the world won’t fall apart if I let myself do the one thing I’ve always longed to do. In fact quite the opposite.

Writing gives me a release, a sense of purpose. It stimulates my creativity just as it gives me an outlet for it. I write every day now: whether blog posts, redrafting notes or nascent character studies. It’s just what I do.

Because I dared. And daring made me stronger.

Sophie Lovett

Sophie Lovett is an author and blogger who lives in Devon.  You can find her talking about writing, parenthood and crafting here, or say hi on Twitter

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Why I Write: David Sanger

When speaking about writing, I find that I get embarrassed; worrying with each word that I’m treading in clichés. So I’ll steal from someone else. One of my favourite directors, Michael Powell, once said, ‘I am the teller of the tale, not the creator of the story.’ I like to think he was talking about the pre-existing wonder of life that he drew into his films. He filmed otherworldly romances and scenes of fantasy, but each time he made them from the basic components of life. Things we all have at our disposal in our memories and experiences.

I write because I feel there’s a tale to be told. I feel an excitement from something, be it an event or a character, that needs to be put down. When I started writing what will be my first novel, I didn’t know when or where it would be set. It just started as an image of a girl sat with her uncle, looking out over a canyon. The story grew from there and other characters joined the fray and then finally, and perhaps unconventionally, it gained a setting and a time.

Working in publishing only made me want to write more. At Faber I was lucky enough to meet authors who I had read and admired hugely; even written my dissertation on. It wasn’t that they raved about writing or how it was the best job in the world. It was the worlds they created. The tales they told. It was equally intimidating and inspiring, which is perhaps why I only began writing when I left.

I started writing properly when I lived in Germany. I was holed up (voluntarily) in a spare room, looking out on the woods. As it approached winter, the never-ending German snow started. Despite sounding like the start of The Shining, it was perfect. I would wake up and return to New Georgetown, where the book takes place. I felt like (and here comes one of those clichés) I was returning to a place I belonged. I loved walking into town to witness what the characters were doing. I occasionally went for a cold run to ward off scurvy and in Babelsberg Park there were long stretches of snowy paths before these strange castle-like buildings perched on the hills. Soon, the story had a woods and an ominous building, and the book had an ending.

When I started writing I would find any excuse to give up. I would blame the computer or having to do the washing or the shopping. A month later, I would struggle to stop. Subject matter swelled my brain. It was true hunger and something that hasn’t left me since. There are days when I don’t fancy it, but writing is the only thing that can get me to the library for two hours after a long day at work.

As much as I wrote about a different part of the world in a different time, a lot of the tale I told came from my own life. When I began writing this book, a decent chunk of what I went through at the time found a home in it. People left my life as well as came into it, or rather I left and came into theirs. It’s a tribute to those people and things said or unsaid; both as potent as one another. At one point in the book, my main character stands atop a hill and asks himself, ‘What now?’ I had asked myself that plenty and still do. I guess without sending him down first, I wouldn’t have been able to follow.

Writing, like everything, comes in good and bad swells, but there’s not a better job in the world. Stories exist everywhere and have been told countless times. I write to tell a tale and hope people enjoy listening to it.

In a film of Michael Powell’s – The Red Shoes (my favourite) – Lermontov asks ballet dancer Victoria Page why she dances. ‘Why do you want to live?’ she responds. Surprised, Lermontov muses, ‘Well I don’t know exactly why, but I must.’ ‘That’s my answer too,’ replies Page. And so it goes with writing.

David Sanger

David Sanger is a children’s book publicist who lives and writes in London. Rights to his debut novel has just been sold to a major UK publisher. Say hi to him on Twitter.

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Why I Write: Emma Carroll

I wouldn’t say I was born writing, but I do have an early memory of being asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, and saying: ‘A WRITER!’  (NB: I also said ‘ AN AIR HOSTESS!’ which is another article entirely).

As a kid I was forever writing stories – at weekends, in the school holidays – but always for pleasure. Yet by my late teens, I’d given up. I’d studied enough literature to know bad writing when I saw it, which equipped me well for the profession I did join: teaching.

Though I loved being an English teacher, it always felt like the safer option. I’d often drive to work with the fantasy of being a writer playing out in my head. And when students asked if I’d always wanted to be a teacher, I’d say ‘Umm…not exactly’ – though by now I was too knackered or too busy to even try to write.

What finally got me back into writing many years later was luck. Not good luck, but a big fat slice of the bad stuff.

Aged 34, I was a Head of English in a secondary school, newly married and about to start a family. Life was going to plan. Then, just three weeks after the wedding, I was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer. The experience turned everything on its head. After chemo, I couldn’t have children. I didn’t have the energy or commitment to be a Head of English. There were no guarantees I’d even survive.

Fast forward four years. My cancer treatment was over. Yet the life I’d had before cancer wasn’t there anymore; I wasn’t the same person, either. What I wanted was fulfilment. Experience. Something to fill me up with all that cancer had taken away. Luck, as it happens, played a part in this too.

In the summer of 2009 I took a group of students on an Arvon residential course. I started writing. And writing. When I came home six days later, I couldn’t stop crying. Or writing. It felt like something inside me had shifted or opened up.

22948.books.origjpg I was ready.

At Arvon, I’d met Steve Voake, tutor on the Bath Spa MA in Writing for Young People. If I was serious about writing, I decided, then I needed support and encouragement. And at this point I’d no idea if I was actually any good. At the eleventh hour, I applied for the MA course and got a place.

What started out as a dream grew quickly into something far bigger. By doing the MA, I felt I’d validated my writing, given myself ‘permission’ to take it seriously. I tapped into something long hidden inside of me, and brought it out again, fresh and new. This wasn’t just writing for pleasure now; this was writing to be skilful, to be recognized, to feel satisfied that even under a prolific reader’s gaze my books might hold their own.

I learned that the spark of an idea is just the beginning, that writing takes discipline, time, commitment, energy. It can be awful. Terrifying. Heart-thumpingly painful. Often, it keeps you awake at night. Yet awful is better than having never tried.

22697.books.origjpgSo far, the writing experience has differed with each book. Frost Hollow Hall took two leisurely years to write, The Girl Who Walked On Air ten months, In Darkling Wood about six. I’m not a fast writer so working to shorter and shorter deadlines has been tough. What I love is that I’m still learning my craft, still learning about the industry, and this is all part of the thrill.

Deadlines don’t take away the magic, either. That feeling when the rest of the world disappears and it’s just you and your words is extraordinary. So too is when the story takes control; when you find yourself veering off the path and whole new plotlines reveal themselves like treasure. And that moment when you read what you’ve written as a reader, no longer seeing the mechanisms but the whole.

This is why I write.

Emma Carroll

Emma Carroll is the author of Frost Hollow Hall, The Girl Who Walked on Air, and the forthcoming In Darkling Wood. You can find her here, or say hi on Twitter