Last year, I won a prize. I was, I think, the first prize of my adult life (and I’ve been an adult for quite a while, by the way). Certainly it was the most important prize I’ve ever won and one which has changed my life from top to toe.
It was a prize for writing.
Writing, which I loved as a child. Writing, which I was told would never make a decent career. Writing, which I stopped doing after my literature degree: having studied all those greats, what could I possibly have to say myself?
Yes, of course I wrote in some shape or form, during my PR career and in all my jobs, but I’d lost all confidence and any connection to pure creative writing. I considered it way too late to retrain as a journalist, and impossible to give up my job or reduce my hours to try to write a novel. I felt trapped by my choices.
Ironically, it was having a baby, the life choice most associated with sucking away all available time and energy, that got me writing again. For various reasons I had to give up my job, and the one thing I knew was that I wouldn’t do well as a full-time mother/housewife. I’d also discovered Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way and was on the road to re-engaging with my creativity and tackling my blocks. So I just started writing again. That was it. There was no time for procrastination or soul searching because the only time I had to write was when my daughter was sleeping. As soon as she went down, the computer was booted up. Fortunately, she was a good napper. And soon I had the first draft of a novel that would become Untouchable Things. More importantly, I had rediscovered the pure joy of writing for writing’s sake.
So far, so good. But that was eight years ago. The intervening years were a stop-start process of having another child, redrafting the novel, getting bogged down in other things, redrafting again, applying to agents and getting knocked back.
And then, of course, winning a prize. I saw the call for submissions to the Luke Bitmead Bursary just over a year ago, and something about it resonated with me. Luke Bitmead was a hugely talented young writer who tragically took his own life in 2006, soon after having his first novel published by the newly-formed Legend Press. Luke’s mother, Elaine, set up the Bursary in conjunction with Legend Press to help struggling writers and also challenge stigma around mental health. I was just about to start work in an anti-stigma role at a mental health charity and that synergy felt in some way auspicious.
I was thrilled to be shortlisted, but any feelings of auspiciousness stopped there. I went to the awards night to enjoy the experience of being on the shortlist, but without a single thought, even hope, of winning. I was sure that other novels would be in better shape, other writers would have more interesting things to say and more interesting ways to say them. As the countdown started from ten to one (imagine the Strictly Come Dancing results show: in no particular order…) I was progressively mystified and then stupefied. There must have been a mistake. They’d forgotten to say my name earlier on.
But they hadn’t, and I was announced as the winner of the Luke Bitmead Bursary 2014. The prize was to have my novel published. To. Have. My. Novel. Published. The novel that I’d lived with for eight years and seemed bound for the bottom drawer. The novel that various agents had dallied with and ultimately rejected. The novel that had never even been longlisted for another prize.
Blurred with shock and champagne, I met my publishers, listened to talk of release dates and publicity campaigns. But it wasn’t until my first proper meeting with them, some weeks later, that I began to understand more about Legend Press and why, in the lottery of agents and publishers, I was so lucky to be matched with them. First thing I noticed: they’re all so young! Tom Chalmers, the managing director, set up Legend ten years ago and is still only thirty-five himself. Because they’re an independent publisher they don’t have to be bound to the standard genres and the big sellers: you can tell that Legend will pick a book because they love it. Untouchable Things is a hybrid and it also experiments with form, one of the reasons I think that agents shied away from it: it isn’t how a debut novel for a large publishing house usually looks. It’s also longer than debut novels are “supposed” to be. But Legend loved my book and they wanted to keep its essence, so edits were kept to a minimum. That’s a rare privilege for an author these days.
There’s a buzz in working for a young publishing house with a young team, and I look forward to my trips down to London, knowing that I will always come away energised (if, possibly, slightly tipsy). I’m having to make adjustments to my life to fit everything in, and it’s a constant, clichéd balancing act managing job, kids and book. I feel incredibly lucky that everything has worked out this way, as well as recognising that with a certain amount of courage and conviction, I could have started on this path as a writer so much sooner. Now that I have children, I look back in wonder at how time-rich my twenties and early thirties were, even when I believed myself to be “manic”, and far too busy to fit any writing in. If all I had to manage now was my job and my writing, I’d be laughing.
For most of us it takes time, and a fair amount of it, to make headway as a writer. As far as I see it, the sooner we start on that road, the sooner we’ll start to get somewhere. But, best of all, we can start to enjoy the scenery as soon as we set off. What are we waiting for?
For more information on the Luke Bitmead Bursary go to www.lukebitmead.com.