This is my first blog post in a while. The last one - which I have just deleted - was written in the approach to Christmas when I was stressing about getting through the festive period with my mum visiting.
My mum could be a difficult person - hard to please at times, and quick to show her displeasure if things weren't right. We did experience that over Christmas, but we also had some joyful times, and created some happy memories for her. I'm extremely grateful for that, because Mum died on 8th March this year.
When I was growing up, I was always extremely close to my mum. From her, I got my love of the countryside and of trees, wild flowers, animals and nature. She taught me the colloquial names of the wild flowers we found, like eggs and bacon and snap dragons, and these captured my imagination.
She made me and my brothers clothes, and said that in one green and white dress she made me, I blended in with the trees and the soft fairy grass that grew in our local wood.
Later, when I began to write, she was thrilled to pieces to receive a signed copy of my first book, and proudly collected copies of all the books that followed. She was my biggest fan, always encouraging me.
Ageing changed her, narrowing her focus to her own life and its slowly diminishing activities. But she loved us still, and I know her grandchildren gave her a huge amount of pleasure.
During the necessary business of sorting out her clothes and belongings I feel I have rediscovered the mother I remember from earlier times - it has been a delight to find our old Mother's Day cards and school projects safely stowed away in drawers and to revisit the love expressed within them.
I found her exam certificates and remembered all the times I helped her to revise - she trained as a primary school teacher in her early forties - and felt proud all over again at her achievements.
Before she died, I spoke to her almost every day at six-thirty in the evening. I know how much these phone calls meant to her because she frequently told me so. Sometimes they were an inconvenience to me, or a source of frustration when it seemed she just moaned and complained about everything, refusing to try to see any positives. Yet even at the time, as I listened to it all, a part of my mind told me that I would miss the calls when they had to end.
When we want to write, a fear of what other people think about us can really hold us back from:
Writing the way we want to write
Showing our writing to others (and therefore missing out on potentially valuable feedback, or even publication).
Writing at all!
I suppose, as human beings, we usually want to be accepted and approved of, even if it’s only because it’s much easier than feeling out of kilter and unaccepted.
So sometimes we hide who we really are in an attempt to fit in better.
You can watch a video of this blog post, or carry on reading!
For many years, while I was building my career as a writer, there were times when I wished with all my heart that I wasn’t a creative person. Yes, really!
I was working thirty-seven hours a week in a college of further education at the time – I’d started there as a temporary typist, then worked my way up to the heady heights of Central Admissions Officer, dealing with hundreds of applications to the college within an office of Examinations Officers.
I expect you get the picture. I was bored out of my mind. Frustrated that I had to work in a job I disliked so much, when all I wanted to do was to write my novels.
I was a fish-out-of-water, and I didn’t want be a fish-out-of-water.
I longed to belong, the way everyone else seemed to belong. I didn’t want to be viewed as a single, ex-art-college oddity, even if that was exactly what I was.
I wanted to be:
A relaxed receptionist.
An elated examinations officer.
A contented catering assistant.
I was convinced that people who didn’t experience a compelling need to produce art or literature found life amuch simpler. That they didn’t feel constantly torn and dissatisfied the way I did, and that it was much easier for them to feel contended.
I thought they could just be in a way I often couldn’t. (Even at my father’s funeral, there was a part of me – the writer part – that stood at a distance from events, observing everything and everyone. I loathed it, but was powerless to stop it.)
Back then, I thought everyone but me was content to live in the moment, without constantly wanting to submerge themselves in make-believe or to use their experiences to produce something. That they just were.
I also believed they were critical of me because I wasn't like them.
It was complete rubbish, of course.
I imagine the rest of the college staff mostly fitted in better than I did because they made more effort that I did. That at work, their creativity, or their focus, went into doing a good job, and not into getting by grudgingly until five o’clock.
And far from being judgemental or critical about little old self-conscious me and my way of life, I don't suppose they gave me very much thought at all!
I didn’t really stop worrying about what people thought of me until I was older, and had learnt to accept myself.
And getting consistently published was a large part of that, because with several books under my belt, at least I could think to myself, OK, I may be different, but at least I’m getting paid for it. People are buying my books. Enjoying them too, hopefully.
But the point is, if I’d allowed my fear of what other people thought of me - or in my case perhaps what I thought people thought of me - to completely destroy my spirit, then I might never have written my books. Or, even if I had written them, I may never have found the courage to show them to anybody. Or to take the initiative to ask for opportunities, or to pitch ideas, or any of the other things that can lead to success as an author.
When we first set out on our writing journey, the company and encouragement of other writers and would-be writers who understand can be a vital boost to our self-confidence.
As we start to trust other writers, we feel able to take that first frightening step of letting them read our work. And as with anything that’s frightening or challenging, every time you share your writing with other people, it gets easier to do. Your comfort zone expands, almost without you being aware of it doing so.
So, if you're holding back from writing or showing your writing out of a fear of what other people will think of you, try to take some action to break through that barrier, a little at a time.
Write exactly as you want to write.
Do something that could lead to you finding someone to share your writing with, like joining a writing group, class or forum.
And gradually, gradually, start to belive in yourself and your dreams.
As you do so, your horizons will expand almost without you realising it.
When I travelled to Cuba in 2001, it was with revenge in mind. Don’t worry, I didn’t smuggle any weaponry into the country in my luggage. I simply chose Cuba as a destination because I’d been learning Spanish with my ex-partner, and I knew that Cuba would be a country he’d love to visit. But he wasn’t here. I was. And after I’d got beyond the unbelievable chaos of the arrivals lounge, it was to be a fortnight of amazing experiences and fun.
It was around six months since my relationship had suddenly ended, and I was still feeling very raw. Fortunately, I palled up quickly with Sharon, a fun-loving Londoner I’m still friendly with today. Together we wondered at the near-empty supermarket shelves, gazed in awe at the crumbling buildings and were chauffeured in classic cars.
We visited cigar factories, learned about black magic and the Revolution, and spent a crazy hour making – and wearing – fake Castro beards out of catkin seeds stuck onto double-sided sellotape. We played and we laughed, and we fell in love with Cuba with the ever-present images of Che Guevara looking down on our shenanigans. It was absolutely the best gift I could have given my broken heart.
When I returned to the UK, I was to use Cuba as a setting for scenes in two books. First came Murder Maker, a novella for the TEFL market aimed at people learning to speak English. It’s about woman who becomes a serial killer as a result of being cruelly dumped by her partner. Yes, I admit it, it was my therapy book.
Later, I wrote Taming Tom Jones, which was published by Crooked Cat Publishing last year. In Taming Tom Jones, I wanted to move two of my female characters out of their usual environment to throw a spotlight on the nature of their friendship.
Havana proved to be perfect for this. The rambling, decaying streets of Havana play on your imagination and feel full of mystery and the potential for adventure. Even danger. Just right for the dynamics of a friendship to be exposed. Jen, one of my main characters in Taming Tom Jones, is a bit adrift as a person; carried on the tide of other peoples’ wishes and desires. Her time in Cuba acts as one stepping stone to her taking back control of her life, Just as, I suppose, my time in Cuba did for me.
I went on to get over my heartbreak and to build a much more fulfilled and successful life for myself, but I have never forgotten how it felt to be that broken person who flew into Havana hoping for the forgetfulness of adventures. Cuba and the power of writing brought me through it, and it is for this reason that I have just published my first non-fiction book, The Four Seasons of Breakupvia – A Workbook for Recovery from Relationship Break-up at the end of April.
It is a book of activities and writing exercises designed to take people through the grieving and re-building process following a relationship break-up, and it draws not only on my own experience of recovery, but also on research I have done on the subject, and my experience as a creative writing tutor. I’m extremely proud of it, and really hope it does people good, and that through using it, I can help them to discover the incredible power of the written word in dealing with loss. I secretly hope to turn them all into writers too!
A close friend of mine recently spent four days in Havana and was just as enthralled with it as I was all those years ago. From what she says, it’s hardly changed at all, right down to the near-empty supermarket shelves. Which obviously I realise, can hardly be a good experience for its people. They are extremely resourceful people though; you’d have to be to be able to keep all those amazing classic cars on the road year after year.
So, I want to finish off by thanking them and their country for what they gave me for those two weeks I visited. I arrived feeling completely vulnerable and depleted, and left with a thousand experiences and memories to bring my characters and stories to vibrant life.
It was a magical time, and I shall never forget it.
There can be so many reasons why it's hard to sit down and write.
These can be as varied as the necessity to earn money to eat, or long ago memories of teachers who called you stupid as you struggled with dyslexia. Then there's ill health, low self-belief, or the need to make a perfect cup of coffee or to empty the bins before you start. Not to mention the inconvenient demands of a family, or an non-supportive partner.
In my first years of writing fiction, I had a boyfriend who was driven demented by the sound of me typing.
He would come into the kitchen - which was the only room in our flat where I could have a desk - and read out passages from my current work in progress in a cynical tone of voice.
"He strode off without a backward glance. She turned and walked slowly in the opposite direction, feeling as battered and bruised as if he had hit her physically. They hadn't spoken for more than five minutes, and in that short time he had made it quite clear that he no longer found her attractive. Well, asked a little voice, what did you expect?"
In those days, I wrote romances filled with tall, dark heroes with amazing cheek bones. Was my boyfriend jealous? Maybe. Certainly, those books were written despite him.
Never fear, reader; I dumped him. Not as soon as I ought to have done, but that's a different story.
I have written despite having repetative strain injury in my wrists from a brain-numbing data inputting job at a college. (I wore tubigrip bandages).
I have written despite relationship break-ups and in snatches of time while my baby son napped.
Writing takes time, and it also takes self-discipline, so in a way, all writers Write Despite something.
But some people have to overcome greater challenges than others in order to express themselves on paper, and I thought it would be inspiring and reassuring for us to hear these writers' stories of creation against the odds.
So, from next Thursday, 21st January, I'm introducing a new feature on my blog: Write Despite.
Each week, a writer who has successfully dealt with challenges in order to write will inspire us by answering these 5 questions:
What challenges have you had to overcome or deal with in order to write?
How do you think this challenge has impacted on your writing?
What was your greatest fear when you first started to write?
What advice would you give to someone who wants to write, but who is feeling held back by circumstances and/or challenges?
Tell us a bit about something you've written that you're really proud of, or something you're writing now.