Finish the story
I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t writing something. As a child, I wrote constantly. I kept a diary. I built worlds, thought up ideas and kept on scribbling away. My favourite possessions were notebooks. Later, in my teens I spent a lot of time promising myself that one day I would publish a novel. And for years after that I continued to write – generating lots and lots of beginnings. But you see – and I know this is going to sound obvious – if you want to publish a novel, first you have to finish the story, and that is where I seemed always to fall down.
I know now that there are lots of reasons why I failed to finish: Life and uncertainty got in the way. I felt that writing stories was not really serious, I worried that there was something outlandish and wasteful about it, but worse than that, I began to feel that maybe I just wasn’t good enough. This is the terrible trick novices play on themselves: Presuming you can’t do it leads to sabotaging your efforts which leads to that awful, self-defeating, self-fulfilling prophecy of failure. Years later, my husband suggested that I get over myself, reminding me that my doubts were just like everyone else’s, and that I should give one of my stories at least enough attention for me to get to the end of it. Once I committed, gradually the story did take shape in that magical way stories do when you quieten the voices of hesitation and of criticism, and make the decision to believe.
Now that I am a published novelist, lots of lovely things have happened. I have been invited to speak at the Edinburgh Book Festival where I sat in the writers’ yurt sipping tea beside Germaine Greer. I’ve visited libraries and schools in Limerick and Dublin and London where groups of children and young adults who have read my books have asked me intelligent, interesting questions about stories which not long before had resided only inside my head. Last year, during a publishing dinner at the London book fair I made a speech after Michael Palin, an exhilarating, if humbling, experience. And not long ago, I received a package of letters from a teacher in an English school who had read my first novel aloud in her class. Each of her students had drawn a picture of their favourite scene and each of them had written lovely things about how much my book had meant to them.
These have been wonderful experiences and they have generated in me a delight from which I may never recover. But in case anyone thinks that getting published creates a permanent whirlwind of literary-related excitement, can I also say that most of the time life as I’ve known it has gone on pretty much as it did before. There are still piles of laundry to be washed, work deadlines, reports and meetings, a family who needs to be fed and all the other stuff of life. ‘But wait! I’m a published novelist!’ is an exclamation that cuts no ice with anyone. And so alas, I don’t sashay around the place – as I had planned to do – in a silk dressing gown thoughtfully sipping champagne and gazing upon golden mountains.
But it turns out that doesn’t matter. I’ve come to realise that the pleasure and purpose that I associate with writing hasn’t got as much to do with being published as it does with being creative. Writing is work – and like all work, sometimes it’s very hard. But it’s play too, and there are thrilling moments. Sometimes they present themselves just at the time when you think you’re about to give up.
I write because stories help me to make sense of the world. I write because I can get my characters to do the things that I don’t have the courage to do in real life. I write to find out secrets that I’ve never told myself. I write because in this world, writing is the closest thing to magic that I’ve found.