When I retired I wanted to get published, but without an ongoing project, four years later I was no nearer my goal. I had manuscripts gathering dust and more to say but I couldn’t call myself ‘A Writer’. There is a plethora of discussion on when one can be called this on writing forums.
So at a recent literary lunch, when the author, Sarah Challis, described her route to publication of ten books, all since the age of fifty, I had to ask myself what I’d been doing all these years?
‘It all started,’ she said, ‘when I retired from teaching.’
Well, that made me sit up and take notice. Yes, I’d been retired sixteen years and my aims then were the same as Sarah’s. So what happened after the day I retired and where am I now?
I’ve always had an urge to write and secretly hoped retirement would free me to put words on the page. I was determined that, eventually, I would say whatever it was I had to say.
From the time I could hold a pencil I’ve been writing in one form or another. Someone said that you are a writer if you have to write and if ‘not writing’ causes withdrawal symptoms. That’s me.
Once I’d mastered the alphabet and found letters worked together to give a range of words and that the choice or order of words could change the meaning, I began writing stories. They were lengthy – I never knew when to stop – and they served to save me from outside play on a cold winter day. I made sure ‘finishing my story’, lasted until my red-nosed, blue lipped and frozen classmates returned from the icy wastes of the infant playground before I wrote with abandon – The End.
My creativity had a bad start. After beginning My Life Story, at around seven years of age, my mother discovered my ‘book’ which contained a multitude of family secrets and shocking habits, after which she took me to one side for a ‘talking to’ of the ‘What Would the Neighbours Say?’ type. I was disappointed, having been so pleased with my humorous take on life in our house. My imagination stunted, I realised any talent would have no encouragement from that quarter.
The creative juices were again sorely sapped at Junior School when I came face-to-face with She Who Slaps Legs for every spelling mistake. Such was my fear that every Monday evening was spent preparing twenty spellings for the dreaded Tuesday test. Her regime worked. I was never slapped and became the world’s best speller, especially with family games of Trivial Pursuits, during which my children groaned ‘It’s not fair’. Well, they didn’t have teachers like She Who Slaps in the 1970s, did they?
I didn’t give up entirely, as I had what every writer should have – a den – my own private place. It was made from broken canes – the good ones held up Dad’s runner beans – and hessian sacking which, before the days of plastic bags, came in all shapes and sizes. I created a door with a make-believe lock of string and twigs. In this den I would write – anything. By now, I was more adept at hiding my scribbles in an assortment of tins buried in the mud. So no more ‘what will the neighbours say?’
I continued writing in my teens with classmates taking turns to sit next to me in French to hear the next instalment of my latest novel, usually something fashioned after the Scarlet Pimpernel. I crafted a female character – Adeline – of similar aptitude to Sir Percy, only female, and she aided the escape to England of many. Unlike many authors, whose talks I’ve attended, I don’t have these early masterpieces as at some point these disappeared from our loft, probably to my mother’s waste bin.
The sixties and seventies are a blur of babies, weaning, boiling nappies and the occasional pen in my hand writing a shopping list. But everything changed in the eighties, when, as a single parent with three daughters and a career to nurture, I found time to join a writing group. We read aloud anything we’d written which motivated me to put pen to paper and type drafts on the portable electric typewriter. The result turned out to be the opening of my first novel which was regularly returned from publishers with a large thud on the door mat.
Then my partner bought a computer – an early Amstrad – and I struggled to make sense of it, wasting much continuous stationery and temper in the process. Stimulated by this new experience, I wrote the start of a book about a young mother with toddlers who struggles with a word processor. The plot of the book matched my own tortuous learning curve but adding the toddlers meant I could make bad things happen like jelly tots in the floppy drive. I sent it to an agent whose name I’d been given and she asked for more and then for the whole script. The book went to Headline and Arrow but was not taken up.
My first book was costing me a lot of postage but I didn’t waver. Someone in the group suggested I send it to the then Watson, Little and Brown and they telephoned asking me to come to London. I’m there, I thought. Of course, I wasn’t.
‘It’s not marketable,’ said the person on the line, ‘in its present form, but we would like to see you.’
The meeting was with two of the junior commissioning editors. If I re-wrote the book into articles, perhaps diary pieces, they would market them with newspapers and magazines, after which the articles would be put together in book form. The readership, having been wooed by the diary pieces, would then buy the book. Wow!
I left the office promising I would send the work. I didn’t at the time comprehend the harsh truth that a writer should ALWAYS do what an editor asks. I was about to move house, combining two homes, mine and my partner’s and our seven children. There was much to do, not all of it nice, but worse, once we had a joint household, the freedom to write I’d had when on my own vanished.
Recently I’ve read both manuscripts and am horrified at the sloppy sentence structure, banal clichéd expression and lack of or, worse, abominable punctuation. I broke every rule in the creative writing bible. No wonder they weren’t published.
I began Open University study and for a few years wrote only coursework but I didn’t give up writing. I sent tongue-in-cheek articles about mature students juggling study and family demands which were published in the OU magazine Sesame. I also took on a Village Voice column in the local paper and I began writing press releases promoting new courses and student achievement in my college of further education.
Around 1999 I worked with Helen, a primary teacher, on the Family Literacy Programme. I taught the mothers and Helen taught their children. Once a week we had a combined session. Email was in its infancy – few of my friends had email but Helen and I did. We liaised and our email exchange was hilarious, as were some sessions. We still want to publish, under pseudonyms of course.
My early manuscripts were now a mere memory, yellowing, fading copies and brittle, stuffed in the loft. My Millennium introduction to grandparenting stimulated the latent writer in me and, inspired me to write poetry. At a poetry group, I read my poem about a deaf girl which was harshly criticised by those with no experience of the disability. It was another example of the ignorance of hearing people with regard to Deaf issues. The seeds were sown for a later book. At last, I had something to say. But the time wasn’t right.
However, there was still email. After 2001, other friends were keen to correspond on a regular basis. I was loath to delete these and for several years selected a few of my wittier sent mails each week to copy and paste into a diary. The joy of this, I thought, was that I could refer to it if my memory failed due to dementia. I also planned a book entitled ‘The E diaries of a Downshifter’ based on the e mails. I just needed to find the right voice and I’d be away.
One turning point was that, after some family history research, I was motivated to write a family memoir for my grandchildren, which still awaits completion but from this I developed the idea for the book about a hearing girl growing up with a deaf sister.
Another turning point was in 2009 when Mslexia, arrived and on tearing it open something fell out. It was a flyer advertising the Winchester Writers Conference. This was within easy reach of where I live and the speakers and topics were just what I needed. Immediately I went online to see what I could find and also wrote away for details. I was too late to enter competitions or send work for appraisal in 1-1s but I put myself down for several useful seminars, one of which was on memoir writing by John Jenkins.
So now I had two books in progress and a poetry collection as well as two older corny novels awaiting major revision.
I was back at Winchester in 2010 and took the first prize for one of the Conference competitions which inspired me to apply myself seriously to my writing. I also had a 1-1 with biographer, Bevis Hillier, who said I showed much promise as a writer and asked me to stay in touch. I felt liberated and energised.
In 2011 I attended a Novel writing weekend run by Winchester Writers’ Conference at Shawford. At the course I met a writer who was organising a competition for entries into an anthology of the Royal Wedding. My contribution was selected and in July the collection was all over Facebook and sold on ebay with half the costs going to UNICEF.
My 1-1s in 2011 were helpful but I had other ideas. As autumn approached I jotted down some sketchy plots for a possible novel to write for the NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) and on 1st November I got cracking. To hit the target of 50,000 words I had to achieve 1700 words a day. It was the most enjoyable month of writing I’d had for a long time. I finished it sketchily and hastily knowing that for acceptance by an agent or publisher, there is much needing development – it has a saggy middle I fear. If I finish the editing before 12 June, I can have six copies self-published, the vouchers for this being part of the prize.
Stephen King says in ‘On Writing’, If God gives you something you can do, why in God’s name wouldn’t you do it? Why wouldn’t I indeed?
I do have to write and I’m not as content if I don’t. I am happiest fiddling with words on the screen, flicking pages of the thesaurus and the slog is always worth it at the ‘eureka’ moment, be it a sentence, phrase or merely an elusive word.
The road to writing has taken many turns, roundabouts and dead ends and I still haven’t had a book traditionally published but I am getting there and now I write every day – another definition of a writer. I have no strict routine of writing 9-1 like some, but I can easily manage 1000-2000 words, usually in the evening.
Since writing this article for a competition at Winchester, I found an illustrator, Denise Horn, whose work delightfully encapsulates my poetry written as a new grandmother. Grandma’s Poetry Book took form. In 2013, my task at Winchester was to trail round the self publishing stands asking for guidance, prices, requirements – anything! Some wanted pdf documents. What was a pdf, I wanted to ask? I found myself, eventually, at the Matador stand and their only requirements – a WORD document and Jpeg files for the illustrations – led me to placing my book with them in the Spring of 2014. Grandma’s Poetry Book was published in October that year and has enjoyed healthy sales. We are now working on a new book of more general humorous poetry, Should I wear Floral? Poems on Life, Love and Leaving, which we hope to have ready later in 2015. The marketing of the first book requires a whole blog post of its own. Green doesn’t even begin to describe me a year ago. Steep learning curve doesn’t go near it; suffice to say that I have gained 1200 Twitter followers in six months!
As for fiction ….. This book about the deaf ………. someone at Winchester once said, ‘it sounds like it would work for the older children’s market.’ You know what? I might just have another go.
It’s been a while coming but I do now call myself a ‘writer’.
Grandma’s Poetry Book was published by Troubador Publishing in November 2014
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