When I was a younger I had three ambitions:
- To be a teacher
- To be an author
- To be a Blue Peter presenter
What I like about the ambitions of my 8-year-old self is that they range from very achievable to “highly unlikely.” It’s like I was looking out for my future self by giving myself the best possible chance of achieving at least one of my ambitions. Becoming a teacher was just a case of getting the necessary qualifications and securing a job. Actually staying a teacher proved much harder. And, whilst the Blue Peter dream has yet to come to fruition, last week the advance copies of my book were printed and it’s fair to say I’m feeling pretty proud of myself. I can only assume this is how people must feel when they grow their own carrots* or give birth. It is still really hard to believe that my words have been put into a book that will be sold in actual book shops.
It’s been a long process: by the time the book is published it will be almost two years since I got that first email from Bloomsbury.
There have been a number of barriers to writing this book, none of which were particularly unique but, when facing them for the first time, seemed hugely overwhelming and almost impossible to overcome. First barrier? Finding the time to actually write a book.
Nobody has time to write a book
Some writers have very specific routines and structure their day around writing. Haruki Murakami, for example, gets up at 4am each day and writes for six hours before running 10k or swimming 1,500 metres. Then he reads, listens to music and is in bed by 9pm. Perhaps the only similarity between myself and Murakami is the 9pm bedtime. WH Auden worked best between 7:00 – 11:30am after a strong cup of coffee. He would often continue writing until late in the afternoon but always stopped by 6:30pm for a strong vodka martini followed by a large dinner and copious amounts of wine.
I had no such routine. The first half of this book was written in the first half of 2017 in our attic apartment in Amsterdam. I was writing full time and most days my book was all I had to work on. It was such a luxury: living in one of the most beautiful and inspiring cities in the world with little to do other than research, write and edit. At this point I want to say thank you to Village Bagels on Vijzelstraat. I have some very happy memories of enjoying many a goats’ cheese, walnut and honey on a sesame bagel, starting out at the canal and mulling over my mornings writing. By contrast, the second half of this book was written whilst I had a full time job and at one point, was doing supply and living with my Mum before we moved back into our flat in London. During this time I wrote wherever I could.
I wrote on trains, at my Mum’s kitchen table, in Wood Green library, in classrooms at lunch time whilst doing supply, at any cafe with a power socket in the N22 area and later, having returned to teaching full time, in Zizzi on Finchley Road before the school Christmas concert. I used any window of time available. Because the truth is nobody has the time to write a book and work full time – you have to carve the time out. It means saying no to invitations and not seeing your friends and family as much as you want. It means blocking out days for writing and stubbornly defending that time. It requires a lot of patience and understanding from your friends and family (thankfully mine are wonderful.)
Nobody thinks they’re a brilliant writer
The next barrier to writing a book is a much harder one to overcome: self doubt. That nagging voice that tells you that you’re not good enough, your writing is crap and that writing a book is a complete waste of time because nobody will want to read it. To defeat that voice you need several things: an excellent editor, a supportive family member or friend, techniques for telling that voice to kindly piss off.
Earlier this year I emailed my editor Hannah telling her I couldn’t write my book any more. I was completely stuck and thought it would be best if we pretended none of this had ever happened and I’d just run away and forget all about it (or words to that effect.) She suggested that instead I met her for a coffee and we talked through what I felt I was stuck on. A few months later I emailed her asking her what we’d do if nobody like the book enough to write a testimonial for it. Once again she reassured me that wasn’t something I had to worry about and once again she was right.
If you don’t have an editor find a patient friend who would be willing to take that role. When my editor wasn’t available I was fortunate enough to have a husband who not only is an incredibly skilled writer, but understood the subject matter of the book well enough to make useful suggestions. He was able to be the positive voice that drowned out that nagging negative voice. When he read sections that he thought were good he would say so, when he read parts that needed work he would suggest how I could improve them. Without his reassurance, advice and the many, many cups of coffee he made, this book would never have been finished.
Because one thing I have learnt since I started this blog three years ago is that it doesn’t ever go away – that feeling that your work isn’t good enough. It doesn’t matter how many people read what you write, how many people share it on Twitter or whether you have a contract from a publisher – there is always that feeling it isn’t good enough.
Like my friends and family, my blog has been severely neglected since I started writing this book. Now it’s done my plan is to return to blogging regularly about teaching and education and there may even be another book in the pipeline. But for now we return to Amsterdam, where this journey began, for a much needed half term break.
*I’m told carrots are particularly hard vegetables to grow.