I had to smile when I discovered, via Twitter, that a group of writers had set up a website to combat the invisibility of authors publishing their first book over the age of forty. Forty? I thought, echoing one of my characters’ consternation at a friend’s untimely death, But that’s so young!
I’ve been writing and composing stories all my life, but I was a little over forty before I began to take it seriously. While I won’t reveal my age to save my publishers the embarrassment of hosting an elderly prima-authorista, I can admit it’s taken a lot of years to refine my craft. So what’s it like to debut when I’m only a few years short of being eligible for a bus pass? Do I ever wish all this had happened decades before my hair turned grey?
Many of us write to explore alternative possibilities. My novel, Sugar and Snails, featuring a woman who opted for an alternative identity is testament to my personal interest in that theme. Just as my character, Diana, looks back on the life-changing decision she made as a teenager, I can trace my history to an early point where, in choosing one path, I turned my back on another.
As a student at Newcastle University in the late 1970s, I used to love scribbling stories cocooned in the mathematics department library. Although I was far too shy to show them to anyone, I did occasionally submit to competitions and magazines. One morning during Christmas holidays, too long ago now to recall the exact year (and, being pre the digital age, impossible to trace), I received a phone call from one of the Sunday broadsheets to say I’d been shortlisted for their student travel writing competition. Later in the day, they phoned back to say I’d won.
The entire family was excited. As I wondered aloud how I’d spend the generous prize money on another trip abroad, I pondered privately whether this might be a step towards writing as a career.
Like many families, mine had its share of craziness and it just so happened that this craziness erupted quite dramatically the following day. My good news was forgotten as the focus shifted onto the more troubled member of the tribe. While I didn’t make a conscious decision at that point to abandon my barely-articulated dreams of being a writer in favour of a more virtuous career in mental health care, I think I realised, at some level, that my designated role was to serve.
As luck – and hard work – would have it, I had a successful and satisfying career as a clinical psychologist in the NHS. Fiction was forgotten as I absorbed myself in the real-life stories of my clients. My work was emotionally and intellectually stimulating and, unlike writing, financially secure. But it was also draining in a manner it took me a while to acknowledge.
It took me a while to admit what I was missing by spending my time writing case reports instead of ideas for stories. Listening to the real people seated across from me instead of the characters in my head. Publishing papers in academic journals instead of short stories in magazines. If I didn’t make space to indulge my passion for words, I was likely to self-destruct.
Of course, my professional background proved to be useful experience when it came to making the switch. I understood about flawed characters and the lengths to which we go to protect ourselves from uncomfortable truths. I knew how to create a meaningful narrative from the fragments of people’s lives. I was used to the discipline of putting words on the page and working with editors’ feedback to sharpen my prose.
On the other hand, switching to creative writing was like going back to the reception class at school. Or like learning basic skills after suffering a stroke. I was surprised how clumsy I felt, how vulnerable to be a novice once more.
I’d like to pretend that maturity affords me some protection against the inevitable knocks and disappointments on the road to publication, but these hurt at any age. I delude myself that my greater length and depth of life experience puts me ahead of the bright young things, fresh out of university, so much more photogenic than me, until I read their dazzling prose. But I’m not here to compete. I’m simply glad that my story is out there, available to be read.
But there are genuine advantages to being a late starter in the writing business. With no retirement age, one can go on and on, as long as those brain cells keep firing. There’s not enough time for burnout; I envisage continuing my creativity and enthusiasm to my deathbed. I spent twenty-five years in clinical psychology; I hope to match that in my career as a novelist.