Perhaps a self-indulgent post coming up. But on the other hand, I’ve always found it fascinating to learn how writers became writers, and sometimes I’m asked how I got to teach creative writing; so here goes.
I’ve forgotten when I stopped dreaming about being an RAF pilot like my grandad, and started dreaming of being a writer, but I know there was a seminal moment in about 1985. After I’d read out a piece of work in my English class, a friend said, ‘You know, if you ever can’t get a job when you’re grown up, you can always just be a writer.’ I’d never thought of writing in that way – as something you could actually do to make money – but it sounded good. I loved writing, I found it easy to write things that impressed my peers and my teachers, and all the authors I read seemed to sell thousands of books and make pots of money. Writing as a fall-back in case I couldn’t get any more serious employment; that didn’t sound too bad.
The little seed sat there, germinating, for a couple of years. Then something else happened – I suspect it was reading a series of novels that set my imagination on fire: Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Jane Eyre, The Grapes of Wrath. Suddenly the fall-back option took a big step forward. Being a writer was now the very first thing I wanted to do. I wanted to live in glorious imaginative worlds, write pages so beautiful that my readers would cry over them, and (still) make loads of money. And now I dreamed that being a writer would also mean that I would work when and how I wanted to, never having to go into the 9-to-5, living free and unconstrained.
The dream stayed there for a while. I started reading and writing poetry, and somehow still imagined I was going to be both brilliant and rich. I read as widely as I could, and wrote quite a bit, but never quite managed to commit myself fully to the writing life. I did a degree in Maths. I got a job in business that gobbled my time. Even when I quit that and had time to write, I found myself spending more time not writing than doing it. I did manage some poems from that time that I’m proud of, but eventually I realised that as a writer, I was going nowhere.
I’ll spare you the pain that caused: somehow I was forced to acknowledge simultaneously that being a professional writer really was the only thing I wanted to do, and that at the same time I had no clue how to do it. After a bit of time struggling and lost, I decided that the best thing was to begin again by doing another degree, but this time in Creative Writing, which had (in the 10 intervening years) become part of the English BA of several good unis.
That took me to the wonderful BA in English and Creative Writing at Warwick, taught by David Morley, Maureen Freely, Peter Blegvad, and Michael Hulse; a really great 3 years that filled the void I’d fallen into. I started to see how to fix my weaknesses, and also finally got over the teenage dream that a writing career was a way of copping out of real work! (As well as the one about becoming disgustingly wealthy.) The course also added a significant new thread to my dream: to be not just a writer, but someone who also taught creative writing – inspiring and helping budding writers just as I had seen my excellent teachers do.
So I left with new hope; and though initially I had to meet the immediate need to make money, this time I had a plan: I found work as a sixth-form teacher, where I not only learned a great deal about teaching, but also had the chance to start teaching my own creative writing classes. I’d worked with Peter Blegvad on his extraordinary summer schools for Gifted children at Warwick, and I was more than ever determined to make my way into this kind of teaching career. I kept on writing, and found some really good people in Winchester to help me improve my work; and teaching in sixth-form led to teaching for the OU and Winchester Uni, which led to Winchester Discovery Centre, which led to P&G Wells, and so on and so on.
Then last year, I had accumulated enough creative writing teaching to quit sixth-form work. I worked part-time, spending the rest of the working week looking after our new baby while my wife ran her business. In some ways it was great: I loved the teaching, and I’ll always be profoundly grateful for all the hours I spent learning about my daughter, and sharing the world with her. But it was also a hugely frustrating time, when neither of us had enough time to really do our work as we wanted to, and my time to write was nearly non-existent.
So we have come to a decision. My wife is stopping work for a while, and I’m going to be the sole earner. Which means that my dream of the last 22 years has actually become my daily reality: my job now is to write, to get my writing published, and on the strength of that to teach others to write. No longer do I just want to be a writer; now I have to be a writer for my family to have a roof, food, money.
It’s a terrifying prospect for someone who’s not naturally inclined to take risks nor make big commitments. It has kept me awake for a fair new nights, worrying about what I should be writing, how I could get more publications quickly, where the money would come from. But now I realise I know this feeling, or set of feelings. It’s like the panic that sometimes comes when drafting any piece of writing: the moment when the idea you started with has run out, the piece isn’t finished, and you realise that you’ve no idea how to get to the end of the process. I’ve felt that many, many times, and I know how to go past it: I just have to ‘trust the process’: keep trying, keep doing good things right now, and the light will emerge.
So here I am: a professional writer and teacher of writing. Meeting my dream head-on, thinking it’s a bloody great train coming at me, and then realising at the last moment that actually it’s a tunnel, with light already flickering at the other end. I’m looking forward to walking into the dark.
Image by h.koppdelaney http://www.flickr.com/photos/h-k-d/. Used under Creative Commons licence.