Magnificent Midlife Interview (Part one)
Earlier in the summer I was delighted to be interviewed by Rachel Lancaster of The Mutton Club (themuttonclub.com), as I'd made a mid-life decision to change my direction in life to follow my dream of being a writer full-time.
This was originally published on the Mutton Club website and Rachel has kindly allowed me to recreate the interview here (with a few minor tweaks), so you can get to know me a little better.
You can find the Mutton Club on twitter @MagnifMidlife and at magnificantmidlife.com
What made you decide to do what you do?
My midlife change was to take early retirement in my 50s to focus on writing full-time. I was a teenager in the 70s and from a working class background, and frankly there were few career options available. I'd always wanted to write and when I dared to voice this choice to the 'careers advisor' at school, they laughed me out of their office, not before suggesting that nursing would be suitable for a "girl like me." You did what you were told back then, bearing in mind the alternative options were secretarial work or shop work, before "settling down with a nice young man." Don't get me wrong, the NHS has served me well and I was good at what I did. I continued to dabble with writing, not daring to share my dream with anyone else, not least because saying I wanted to write sounded so pretentious. I was shy of sharing my work too.
I worked in the NHS since I was 18, qualifying first as a nurse, then midwife and later as a health visitor (don't get me started on how I feel successive government policies have adversely impacted upon how services are delivered to patients / clients. That's a whole other interview). For many years I was commuting to London from Kent, working very long hours ~ 18 hour days were not unusual. I had to take work home most nights and weekends to meet my 'targets.' I was lucky if I got five hours sleep a night.
Year after year this pattern went on. I felt like I was losing my mind on lack of sleep, and the inevitable poor diet and lack of exercise. One day, I decided enough was enough, there wasn't one trigger moment. I realised I was no longer happy and that lifestyle could not have continued for much longer, I'm certain. I was digging myself an early grave. I wanted, needed, to get off the treadmill and focus on what I really wanted to do, and that was to write. "If not now, when?" I asked myself.
Why did you wait until you did do it?
Life gets in the way. Work takes over and you feel powerless to change anything. Lacking the courage to change lanes and travel a different journey, believing there isn't a safety net to catch you if you fall.
What are you hoping to accomplish?
I'm hoping to publish my novels. Sounds simple doesn't it? The publishing world is so different from what I knew before ~ it's been a steep learning curve. Initially I didn't know anyone like me. or where to start. Slowly but surely I've begun to make inroads into this new world.
How did you make the change? What or who helped you?
Like anyone who is deliberating a change of direction, I don't think you can just stop working (or whatever), not by choice anyway. Do your homework. Can I downsize, for example? Have I got financial matters in order (am I paying out for things I don't / won't need)? Find out what's possible and take the steps you need to reach your aim. Having knowledge to make choices is empowering. Once I realised early retirement was financially viable there was no looking back. I then started to research where might be a good starting point to kick-start my writing mojo.
The internet is a wonderful thing (how did we exist without it)? I'd heard of Faber Academy, based in Bloomsbury London, and applied to do their one-day 'taster' in writing ~ lead by Richard Skinner, writer and poet. The date advertised was for a month after I stopped working. Serendipity! Turned out to be a fabulous day and I knew I had made the right decision. Richard Skinner, as it turned out, is the Director of Faber Academy's six month 'Writing a Novel' course. Serendipity once more! All had to do was submit a thousand words of my best prose and a covering letter as to why they should take on.
There followed a nervous couple of months wait before discovering I was accepted on the course. Starting in the autumn and on through winter into spring, Wednesday evenings and regular all day Saturdays were surrendered to exploring the writing process. With a dozen like minded people, under the guidance of the writer, Joanna Briscoe, I committed to writing 5000 words per week towards completing the first draft of my (novel) manuscript. The course was invaluable in providing the opportunity to have your work scrutinised and formally critiqued twice by Joanna and your peers. A scary but necessary part of the process, and received invaluable and constructive feedback that spurred me on. I'd discovered my 'voice,' the ability to write. The course was also useful in gaining insider tips and advice on the business side of publishing that would otherwise have remained a mystery. I went on to complete that first draft, and many further drafts and edits later, felt my manuscript was polished enough to start sending out to agents ~ hoping to secure a publishing deal (by and large you need an agent to represent you, but there are other routes to being published). I've experience rejection and I'm okay with that, it's a rite of passage. I'm earning my stripes. I've had positive feedback from agents and yet to secure that elusive deal!
When you meet other writers two questions are always asked:
"Are you published yet?" and "How many rejections have you had?"
Trying to get published is a cruel form of torture and can be a lonely business too. Which is why connecting with other writers is invaluable for moral support, and who 'won't blow smoke,' if you get my drift. Somebody somewhere will take me on, I'm sure. By the way, there's no real money to be made, the JK Rowlings of this world are the exception to the rule. I'll continue to write regardless as it makes me happy (mostly)!
The other thing I'd say about making a midlife change is that having had to work within a stressful working environment for so long, I was 'burnt out.' I had to make myself a priority ~ both mentally and physically. I needed to rediscover who I was and the things that bring me joy and happiness. Good food, being able to sleep as long as I needed rather than rising to an alarm. Going on holiday without having to ask permission. Read. Go to the cinema. Reconnect with old friends you've not seen in a while. Get out into the fresh air and see new places. It takes time. Be kind to yourself.
How did family and friends react?
Not in the least bit surprised. One or two did say that I'd found myself a nice little hobby! Er, no ~ you have to commit to the writing process and all that it entails, applying a strong work ethic to something goes beyond being a pass-time. Family and friends have otherwise been supportive and encouraging.
How has your life changed having gone down this path?
I'm busier than ever ~ how did I find the time to work in the way I did before? Of course, now it's me who sets the pace and my own agenda. I've kept in contact with friends from the Faber course, as I'm discovering my own 'creative space.' I've been to book launches, attended writing festivals and am reading more than ever. I've always loved to read, and doing so inspires and improves your own writing. I also have my own website (writerintheattic.com) where I undertake book reviews (no spoilers), interview fellow writers and blog. This has been the hardest change and initially I felt so self-conscious. After years of being a self-deprecating nurse (it was the 'rule'), to selling myself as a writer ~ even as yet unpublished was a change to grapple with. I'm developing my platform, as they say, and getting more confident in flaunting myself (she laughs).
What advice do you have for women considering a similar life change?
Go for it! Be brave in taking that first step, even if it feels like jumping off a cliff. I now have the freedom of no longer working for a huge organisation and all that entails. I can please myself, and that is so liberating. When you initially start off in a different sphere it takes time to build new networks, but don't be discourage and don't give up. Get tech savvy, or build upon current IT skills. Luckily I have a teenage nephew who is content to advise (and encourage) a new way of doing things ~ extending my level of expertise.
It's not about being ambitious per se, but I really do believe that when you take that midlife change of direction, find something you're passionate about, something to wake up for in the morning, that's beyond four walls of family life (important though they are). Mourn your old life by all means, but move on! Find courage in doing something new. Don't settle for comfort and being cosy as a life change ~ that will age you more than anything! When you dare to open a new door, you'll be surprised what lies on the other side. This year alone, I've met some amazing new people who've brought wonderful opportunities into my life that may never have otherwise happened. I appreciate that.
What are you proud of and what keeps you inspired?
Having a successful career in the NHS, considering it was not my first choice. My career took me to Australia, despite some people thinking I was brave or foolish to go half way round the world on my own. I was in my late twenties and went for a year and stayed three. It changed me as a person. I'd been divorced and felt a failure. By going to Australia I knew then I was independent and capable of achieving what I'd set out to do and more. So glad I didn't listen to those naysayers. Have courage in your character and abilities!
Being a second mum to my teenage nephews and watching them grow into young men. Who make me laugh and see the absurdities in life like I do. Importantly they don't see me as old as, "You laugh a lot and want to have fun." The moral of the story is.....
I place great value on female friendships, including the women I've known since I was eighteen, all my adult life. That fact shocks me for a start, it's not possible to have known them for over 40 years surely? Recently I met up with two long-term friends in London, and we just picked up where we left off a year ago. I like that. I do think you acquire friends for different reasons or maybe diverse facets of your life. Not all my friends know one another, but they all have the ability to make me cry with laughter, as well as sharing support and advice as and when needed. I know I'm very lucky to have such warm, colourful, witty and extraordinary women in my life.
I'm proud of the fact that I've jumped into the deep end of all things to do with writing. The world of publishing is a challenging, crazy one! I know I have a toolbox of skills and attributes to propel me on.
What keeps me inspired? Curiosity about the world around me, keep an open mind, whether it's about people, opinions or the world in general. Don't judge people as you probably have no idea what is going on in their lives. Don't look back, look forward and better still try to live in the moment. I spent far too long in my previous work life with a diary chock full of meetings and appointments documented a year ahead. Such systemic madness when I think of it now! Time blurs the weeks and months and before long you realise you've missed out on so much, and you don't get that time back do you? I'm a people watcher ~ always have been. If you see me in a cafe, or other public space, notebook and pen in hand, you can bet your bottom dollar I'm seeking inspiration. Watching people go about their daily lives and observing interactions. I don't do this 'close to home,' that wouldn't be fair. On the other hand, upset me and you might just end up in my next novel!
Part two coming up!