In less than a month, I read my story at the Book Festival, so I thought I’d write a little bit about myself. That little bit grew into something longer and angstier, and was inspired by a couple of other Story Shop writers opening up about identity, belonging and comfort zones. So, here goes my attempt. Warning: contains Pokemon GIFs.
Here’s a list of things that I am:
- A Cambridge graduate
- An 80s throwback
- An OCD sufferer
- A weightlifter
- A gamer
- A writer
I put writer last, because it’s the label I’ve struggled with the most. That’s weird, because writing has been part of me for as long as any of the other things. But it’s only this year that I’ve been able to shake the dreaded impostor syndrome, and it’s all down to finding just where I fit in. Which has only taken me, y’know, several decades.
Back in the mists of time, I was your standard shy kid. I read voraciously, maxing out my library card every week. I wrote little stories, when I wasn’t being bullied by the teachers. When I was ten, we had to do a show-and-tell of our hobbies, and because I thought gaming was a bit too nerdy (I know, right?) I decided to talk about a story I’d written, possibly about some kind of anthropomorphic lion. Nobody cared, especially as public speaking gave me The Fear then, and most people laughed at me. I went back to sticking my nose in books for a few years, and bingeing on 80s music videos. That was the sum of my juvenile writing, apart from odd satirical skits penned with a classmate when we thought we’d do a Fringe show, and a majestic short story based on the Duran Duran Save A Prayer video (yes, really), which made me pass Standard Grade English with flying colours. Almost as if there’s an 80s theme about to develop.
Uni came and went, in all its rarified glory. I didn’t fit in any boxes. I didn’t want to spend all my time studying, so I’d never be a scholar. I wasn’t swimming in cash like everyone else. I had to soften my accent, and so part of my identity, because I had so much grief. (‘You could’ve at least learned English before you came here’ was actually said to me in a class. Yep.) I wasn’t a writer then, but I threw myself into Classics because I loved the myths and the epic stories. There was the highbrow Aeneid, the tale of a young refugee from a war-torn country fighting baddies, crying at murals, having ill-advised affairs and then founding Rome, as you do. And there was my finest hour, getting a First in the paper on The Golden Ass, a picaresque rammed to the gills with sex and violence, and an inter-species love scene that made Victorian translators keel over and die. As transferable skills go, I can’t say I aimed to leave Cambridge with a BA in donkey porn, but hey ho. Maybe my degree would be useful someday. I never thought of it that way – I did it for love of the subject.
I didn’t write for eight years after my degree. It didn’t pay the bills. It was pointless. I’d got a second degree by then, and IT lured me in. Having a demanding job meant zero brainpower left for creativity. Mentally, I was fried. I took a year off between jobs, working in academic publishing for a time even though the pay was measly, because it gave me time to do other arty, ‘pointless’ things like make music and draw. It wasn’t until I won a place on a creative writing evening class in 2012 that I carved out time for fiction. Sitting in a room, having to read my work out loud to my peers, was like being back in that classroom aged ten. The teacher was pleased with my progress, but I still didn’t feel like a proper writer. It was just a hobby, right?
The Fens were dragging me down, and I had to haul myself out. We’d discussed moving to Scotland, and in autumn of 2013 I made a second attempt at NaNoWriMo, previously scuppered by exhaustion. My contract job had ended, I was facing months of ‘funemployment’, and there was an itch I had to scratch. I didn’t want an IT career after all, so what the hell did I want? After spending a rainy day listening to prog and reading a book on Scottish myths, I sat down and wrote… something. It was a love letter to Edinburgh. It was set three decades ago. It was about an immigrant teenager fleeing a war-torn country looking for his brother, and mostly finding kelpies and selkies instead. It was dark as fuck and full of adjectives. And I didn’t even know what urban fantasy was back then. I was all for putting it in a drawer, until a friend looked at it, said ‘there’s a book in there’, and offered to help edit it. Maybe I could be a writer after all, with a tiny piece of home and a lot of raw feelings on the page.
Then, as we were making the big move north, this helpful friend stopped speaking to me. A few months later, another friend of over ten years did the same. It was the same thing each time. You’ll be getting a proper job when you move, though? It isn’t fair for one partner to finance the other. Have you asked your OH about the writing thing? Suddenly, being a writer felt like I’d just declared I was going to be a criminal for the rest of my days, and it stung. It stung worse than our mortgage adviser replying to my ‘I’ve been working in publishing and was looking at writing jobs’ with ‘I’ll just put “homemaker” on the form’. Two friendships lost though, because I decided to put words on virtual paper. Maybe I didn’t want to be a writer. Maybe it was just a hobby.
But I was home at last. And then the Scottish Book Trust asked for stories of home. It was, I decided, a good omen. I sat down and told my story, not thinking it’d get anywhere. And it was picked for the anthology. My first published work. After it was launched, I decided to check out Edinburgh’s literary scene, where the real actual writers go. I started going to the Literary Salon every month, which was terrifying because everyone else was a writer and I was just this anxious, fake-extrovert gal with an increasing number of ideas for Things, and time on my hands to do it with a freelance job. I joined 26, and a small piece was displayed in a museum. Two published works, another scary public reading and a brief TV appearance, and oh god what if everyone finds out I’m just this anxious girl writing about funny creatures and downtrodden kids?
I dealt with that by keeping on writing. I travelled as much as I could, spending a week in the Highlands and nearly a month in South America. I took lots of pictures. I filled up a whole notebook. I probably ‘found myself’ in a really wanky, late gap year kind of way.
The key, it turns out, is to slow down, step back, have a little confidence and realise what you’ve achieved. These days, my social life revolves almost entirely round writing. I go to book launches and Book Festival parties, and know a good chunk of people there because the scene is so small and friendly, so it’s not nearly as scary anymore. I’ve got another 26 project and a story in an anthology on the horizon. And because of the writing group I’ve been going to for the past year, I got the email saying I got into Story Shop, with a story born in the Highland cottage. And here’s the thing: my writer friends were all pleased for me. No sour grapes or unwanted life advice. Just too much beer and celebration. Hey, I have writer friends now. I guess I’m a writer.
And so it goes. I’ve now written half a dozen novels, and while the first is looking for its home, the rest get extensive renovations or at least sit in a virtual drawer waiting to be poked. I didn’t jack it in at the first sign of the haters. In fact, last night I went to a concert at the Storytelling Centre where a band member was a schoolfriend of mine I hadn’t seen for 15 years. The interval basically consisted of me going ‘oh wow, you’re a famous musician!’ and her going ‘oh wow, you’re an actual writer!’ then promising to come and see me perform. Us arty types have to look out for each other, after all.
2016 may have been shitty on the news front, but it’s been so lucky for me. I’m so grateful and humbled by all the chances I’ve been given, and judging by previous Story Shop writers, there could be more in the future. But you know what? When I rock up at the Author Yurt (oh yes indeed!), pick up my lanyard that says ‘Author’ on it and walk onto the Spiegeltent stage to read my story, I’ll be home. And I’ll definitely be a writer.