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.
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.
So 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.