We all have passions and we all have fears. You might love being active, but never join the gym because you’re afraid you can’t compare with the gym bunnies. You might come alive every time you sing, but never join the choir in case the local soprano thinks your tuning is off. You might be a closet tap dancer but never step out in your tap shoes because you think you’re too old. You might want to write the next great novel, but never make a start because you are worried you are not good enough.
So what should you do? Stay scared and stay home? Or do you go out and give it a go anyway?
When I first decided (and actually meant it) that I was going to write a novel I was terrified. I had made a living from writing in one form or another for almost 20 years but I had never attempted a novel. I was uneducated, stupid, talentless, unworthy, a procrastinator, not as good as…. Blah, blah, blah. And in part, I was right. I was stupid. Stupid to deny myself the opportunity for far too long.
I had been telling myself for years that my lack of university education and even worse, my failure to study A-levels and my poor GCSE results meant that I wasn’t even qualified to start. Who did I think I was? A writer?! No, I told myself, that’s for them. All the clever people who are better than me. So I did nothing. Well, that’s not actually true. I made several half-hearted attempts at writing a novel and then a few chapters in would inevitably give up having convinced myself that every word was tripe (it may well have been, but that’s not my point).
I whined and moaned and flailed around restlessly as I watched new and high profile authors celebrating their successes and grew more resentful. ‘Why them and not me?’ I would ask, whilst sitting there adding zero words to my non-existent manuscript. Why them and not me indeed.
For me, there was no overnight revelation. There was a gentle sigh of ‘Enough now Vanessa.You’re getting on my nerves.’ followed by a slow and steady one foot in front of the other approach to change.
Firstly, I stopped making (or at least started questioning) those negative statements I used so regularly against myself. I called each one out and held it up to the light to see if there was any real substance in it.
Was I really stupid? Er, no. Maybe I had chosen a more vocational rather than academic route through life, but I don’t put my clothes on back to front in the morning and I’ve managed to carve out a career and raise a family so I can’t be doing too bad.
Was I talentless? Well, that’s anyone’s guess and certainly not for me to judge. The decision about who has talent and who doesn’t is totally objective and often entirely arbitrary. You only have to watch reality TV to understand that. So I could let that one go.
Was I unworthy? Regardless of what I had repeatedly told myself, I decided that in reality I was as worthy as anyone. There are plenty of people some might consider ‘unworthy’ who are going about their business and getting along just fine, maybe even doing exceptionally well in some cases.
Was I a procrastinator? Erm, yes. There was some truth in this. I was always the girl at school with the unfinished project. I once half-made a top and skirt in my textiles class. White lace over cotton, peplum waist – challenging beyond my capabilities. I had designed it, bought the material and had sewn most of it together, but eventually I decided I wasn’t up to the challenge and it remained in a carrier bag never to be draped around my or anyone else’s body. A shame really. So, yes, procrastination and I go way back. We’ve got history. But I’ve also finished plenty too. When I was pregnant with my first child I spent months studying for a number of professional qualifications and sat my exams whilst 37 weeks pregnant. I passed. I repeated this process when I was heavily pregnant with my second child, and completed a full on degree level course whilst caring for her as a newborn. Turns out I can be a completer finisher too, it just depends which way you look at it.
Was I as good as (insert the name of every other author I’ve ever been jealous of here)? I believed I wasn’t, but I’d never tried. And what would it mean to be as good as them anyway? Surely that is just a matter of personal opinion and is no business of mine to decide?
After I was done questioning self-talk, I stopped trying to dodge the difficulty of it all and started writing. Just one word, then another and another until one day I reached the last of more than 80,000 words. At that point I cried, opened a bottle of prosecco and gave myself a little pat on the back.
Since then, I’ve published my first novel. I’ve read wonderful reader reviews of MY BOOK!! My book! Can you believe it? I’ve also read a couple of tricky reviews of MY BOOK!! Yes, it’s also my book when things aren’t going so well. I’ve given a talk at a literary festival, I’ve given radio interviews, I’ve been interviewed for glossy magazines, I’ve seen my book on the shelf in Waterstones and in the library. I’ve had readers come and tell me how moved they were by my words. I’ve even been shortlisted for a writing prize. And recently, I’ve started my own business coaching other writers through workshops and writing retreats. I did all of that for myself, by myself (though with the unending support and kindness of my much-loved friends and family).
Have I learned anything? So much I don’t know where to begin. So much, I want to share it with anyone who will listen. So much, I want anyone reading this to make a change and start. It’s a long and winding path, but you’ve got to put a foot down if you want to follow it.
Let them laugh, let them judge, let them sit agape at your audacity. It’s okay, you won’t see or hear any of them. You’ll be too busy moving on with your next exciting, life enriching experience whilst they wait for the world to come to them.
Vanessa Matthews is a novelist, poet, and creative consultant. Her debut novel The Doctor’s Daughter is available on Amazon. For information about Vanessa’s new venture ‘Writing Retreats Cornwall’ click here. Follow her on Twitter @VanessaMatthews or find her on Facebook.com/vanessamatthewswriter