When you’re little, there’s this expectation that you’ll have an array of adorable/ outlandish responses to the question:
“And what are you going to be when you grow up?”
Little kids are meant to want to be TRAIN DRIVERS! or ASTRONAUTS! or GEORGE FROM THE FAMOUS FIVE!
I can’t honestly say I remember having any of these reactions. Apart from a memorable incident at Disneyland where I showed a staff member a drawing I’d done of Thumper and was given an animator application form (yes, really*), I don’t really remember giving much thought to who or what the grown up me was going to be. But if you’d asked me what I liked doing when I was a kid, I’m pretty certain that somewhere high up on my list of preferred activities would have been writing stories.
* And yes – in theory I know that this was one of those hokey-cutesy things that they did to weave their home-spun charm precisely so dorks like me would still be telling this story about how Disney gave me an application form when I was nine. I think part of me knew that even back then. But nevertheless there is still partof me that totally believes in the magic of this and that maybe I’ve made a terrible mistake in not pursuing my obvious artistic talent, and therefore, I like to tell this story.
Can I refer to it as my juvenilia yet?
I don’t remember a time before stories and writing. There was nothing I loved more than roaming round my grandparent’s garden (a kid’s paradise complete with weeping willow, conkers, slopes that seemed like hills) making up stories about the mad adventures of my imaginary friends. My absolute favourite bit of school was getting to write stories and then read them out in class. And best of all, when I was nine years old, I got given an amazing art notebook for christmas with marbled front cover and super thick unlined pages, with a note from my mum in the front telling me that this beautiful book was for writing stories.
As you might expect for a nine year old girl growing up in the 90s there were a fair few stories about being discovered as the next big popstar, and others about miraculous transformations and makeovers, complete with before and after pictures. I’ve also discovered a fair number of stories that border on infringing the copyright of Jacqueline Wilson. But there were also the stories that when I look back now, I marvel at my own inventiveness: sagas set in the year 2050, a story about a Victorian servant girl who is a stowaway on a ship to America, and (my personal favourite) the story of Figment the Dragon who must battle an evil wizard to save imagination.
Skip through my teenage years and a very thinly veiled Jane Eyre knock-off novel (called Audrey Canterbridge and clocking in at a magnificent 15 pages) and I’d probably come to the conclusion that the answer to the question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” was — A writer. Preferably a best-selling award winning one, please.
But, the thing is, somehow the shift in emphasis from doing to being turned out to be one that risked crippling me. You get hung up on the idea of “being a writer,” measuring your own meagre achievements against those gods known as “published authors” and feeling woefully presumptuous to include your small body of words in the same thought as their towering tomes. You stop just writing fearlessly madcap adventure stories, frequently unfinished and rambling, complete with illustrations, just because you love doing them; you start obsessing about how things will look to other people – will they think this is silly, laughable, or just plain bad? You start being afraid that if you tell people you want to be a writer, they’ll laugh, or tell you it’s not very likely, or think you’re a cliche, and so, if you’re naturally shy and conflict-avoidant, you’ll stop admitting this ambition in public. And maybe if you’re really skilled at the whole self-doubt game, you’ll stop admitting it in private too, sitting staring at blank pages, feeling that you really can’t sully these pieces of paper with your terrible writing which no-one would ever possibly want to read anyway. You become paralysed by the fear of failing to match up to your image of what “being a writer” looks like, almost forgetting that the only thing (really) that “being a writer” entails is sitting down and doing some writing.
Well, I’m very almost 24 now, and enough is enough. People have more or less stopped asking me what I want to be when I grow up. But if they were to ask, I might – riffing off one of my current favourite writers and all round amazing woman, Caitlin Moran – inform them that I’m not sure I have to be anything per se – but what I want to do is write, lots, and then to have other people read what I’ve written, and to then talk to them about it, see if it means something to them, in the way it’s meant something to me. And I want to do a lot of reading of other people’s writing too, and tell them (and other readers) what I think about the words I’ve read, and ask them how they’ve done it so I can maybe nab a few new ideas for myself. And so on, and so forth.
So this is it: my blog of doing writing, reading, thinking and getting back to being recklessly convinced you can just write. And maybe, somewhere along the way, I’ll find I’ve magically become a writer anyway. If not, I think I’ve still got that Disney application form knocking about, somewhere…