I put this question to my daughters the other day. My eight year old wants to be an astrophysicist. Or an alchemist (because obviously, they are so similar). My three year old’s answer? A princess. Their friend, rather intriguingly, wants to be a retired dentist.
I spent years thinking I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I started a psychology degree, only to switch to English literature after having an Emily Dickinson moment walking home from a lecture. After I’d finished, homesickness drew me back to Edinburgh, where I went back to university to study law, and then entered the world of work as a commercial lawyer.
Several years later, I was on maternity leave when I discovered a Primary Two homework jotter in which I’d written: ‘I want to be an AUTHOR when I grow up.’ The word ‘author’ had been rubbed out and written in again, in wobbly, smudged letters. Aged six, I’d been quite clear about what I wanted to do, even if I couldn’t spell it myself. But I hadn’t admitted it again for nearly thirty years.
Even after I started my novel, people were only told on a need-to-know basis. And if I did tell anyone, I downplayed my writing, saying it was just something to keep my brain ticking over while looking after young children. Meanwhile, my six-year-old self was looking on, rolling her eyes.
So why the big secret? If you ask a room full of young children if any of them are good at writing – or painting, or singing, or dancing - nearly all of them will raise their hands. If you ask a room full of adults, the majority of arms will remain firmly glued to sides. I wasted so much time worrying about whether I was good at writing, when I should have simply been doing it. It took me ages to realise that writing is about jumping right in, getting messy, making mistakes, doing it for the fun of seeing what will happen next. Being a mother to two wild, wonderful girls gave me back the freedom I’d lost somewhere along the way.
It doesn’t end there, though. If you’re aiming to get published, you must learn to step outside of your work and take feedback on board, to edit, refine and polish. You need to accept that some ideas are marketable and some aren’t. Your work will be rejected, repeatedly. All of this hurts. There are many, many reality checks along the way. But every time, you need to find your way back to the imaginary world you’ve created, and learn how to play there again. There’ll be a spark there, which is the reason you became a writer, and everything you do needs to come from that.
Now I’m lucky enough to have a publishing deal and my first novel is about to make its way into the world. It is an amazing feeling to be sure, finally, of what I want to do, and to be in a position to give it everything I’ve got.
And if it doesn’t work out, well maybe it’s not too late to retrain as a retired dentist.