I left university in 1997 with a vague notion that perhaps I wanted to write, into an empty job market – I applied for literally hundreds of graduate jobs and didn’t even get an interview. Nobody, it seemed, wanted to employ a Classics graduate who’d spent two years floating around Australia before finally picking a degree subject. In hindsight of course this lack of job was a good thing but at the time it was, as you can imagine, devastating.
I waited tables for a year for £1. 55 an hour (this was before there was a minimum wage) and survived almost entirely on my tips. I applied for management training at the restaurant chain I was working for – they offered me a job in Haywards Heath. Now, no offence to Haywards Heath at all – I’m sure it’s lovely – but 23-year-old me did not want to live there. So I went back to Cambridge with no job and no clue.
My dad suggested I did a secretarial course. I screwed my nose up at it but my dad is rarely wrong so I did it anyway. Not only was it brilliant fun, not only has it made sure I’ve never been out of work since, but I learned to type at 85 words a minute which, when you have to write and edit two 80,000 words novels a year, is a godsend!
In 1999 after temping for a while, I got a job in a law firm. It paid quite well, I didn’t have to work weekends, deal with drunk people or clean up other people’s vomit. After a year of waiting tables it seemed like a dream job to be honest. I moved to London and I got a job at another law firm, and then another. That one saw some sort of untapped potential in me and slowly over the years I trained on the job until I ran my own files and here we are, nearly 20 years later….I’ve never had my own assistant though, apparently I type too fast to need one…… (every silver lining has a cloud).
Over the years I’ve always had what the kids now call ‘a side hustle’. I did another degree in English, I trained to teach yoga (and subsequently taught it for 8 years) and now I write books.
I’d always had the notion to write in the back of my mind – when I lived in North London I wrote local history articles for a magazine that was edited by Christopher Nolan’s dad. I wrote about Keats for the Ham & High. I wrote for yoga magazines. And I tried multiple times to write a novel – I must have 100 opening chapters stored away somewhere. There was one character though – a woman called Julia – who just wouldn’t get out of my head and in 2016 I sat down at my dining room table and tried to do her story justice. That book became The Many Colours of Us. I sent the finished manuscript out in the October and I had a book deal and an agent by January. By the end of 2017 it had sold over 30,000 copies and I’d signed another book deal. Last week I started writing my seventh book.
On paper it looks like one of those overnight success stories, but it really isn’t. I parted company with my first agent in 2018 and my second agent was a disaster. My third book barely sold at all and I had to change publisher. I found another agent. Things are going OK. And before that “overnight success” there was years of not knowing what I wanted to do or how to do it. Hundreds of opening chapters that went nowhere. Two degrees that I never really used. Years and years of chronic illness.
What’s the point of telling you this? Because I want you to know that it’s never too late and to never give up. If 2020 has taught any of us anything it’s that we literally never know what’s about to happen and we have no control over any of it anyway. Do what you love on the side, take risks, dream. Write the damn book. Everything will unfold when it’s meant to.
Do I have regrets about my life? Of course. I don’t actually believe anybody has a life with no regrets at all. But I do also believe that things happen at the time they are meant to happen, the time when we are able to truly handle them. I’d tried to write a book for years and had given up on my ability to do so. In the end I wrote one in snatched moments of time over six months and it got published (with a lot of editing!). It wasn’t how I imagined it to be, but it happened nonetheless.
In January I am going down to part time at work (hurray and also eeeek!) and next September I am starting the postgrad I’ve been wanting to do for years. My life has not gone the way 18-year-old me had planned (but 18-year-old me had not planned to be diagnosed with M.E right before her A Levels) but I’m getting there.
Sometimes we have to give up our need to control a situation, give up our expectations and the specifics, before we can get the outcome we desire.