It all started with an e-mail that dropped into my inbox about four months ago.
Or perhaps it started several years before that, when I wrote a short story called The Glass House, the first half-decent piece of fiction writing – or any kind of writing – I’d completed in a long time. Figuring that I was not, in fact, a total failure and my dream to be a writer was not a complete waste of time, I began to write what would turn into a novella. And so Hell was born. And so Hell never went anywhere because I was too shy to show it to anyone.
It’s not like I didn’t do any writing or wasn’t expected to do any. I was working on my thesis when Hell was conceived, so writing was what I was supposed to do, albeit in a very different format. As the thesis grew fiction was pushed again into the background. I wrote academic articles, conference papers, blogs, and even an entire monograph. Although one of my dreams had come true, and I had a physical book in my hands with my name on it, I didn’t feel I had made it. Perhaps because, months after Extreme States came out, I still can’t believe I’ve actually done it. That the project I’ve been working on for so long is finished. But I’ll save that story for another day.
It wasn’t like I had nothing to do – by now I had a full-time job and was working towards a brown belt in karate, as well as cranking out academic writing at a speed that astonishes me now that I look back at those frantic months. Being somewhat dissatisfied with academia, and quite happy with the situation I found myself in, I began to consider dreams I’d ignored for a long time. I had managed to publish a book. What else did I want to achieve? What else was I capable of? Letting go of other people’s expectations and definitions of success created room for my own beliefs and values. The ones I’d been repressing because they didn’t fit in with the narrative academics are supposed to shape their lives living.
Those who know me well – there are surprisingly few of them – have always known that I like to write as well as read fiction. But fiction was always a hobby, and publishing a distant dream, a bit like wanting to become an astronaut. I was well aware of the competitiveness of the literary landscape, being one of the avid readers publishers try to hook into parting with their hard-earned cash, and was under no illusion that turning my fiction into anything more than a half-secret passion would be easy.
Yet I couldn’t resist. Fame or wealth didn’t interest me, and still don’t. I was simply bothered by the idea that the stories I’d enjoyed writing were sitting in a drawer, virtual or otherwise, with no one but me even knowing they existed. I figured it was time to get over myself and send them out into the world. Fiction competitions seemed an apt way to test the waters: nothing terrible would happen if I wouldn’t win. At least, my entry fee would help support other budding writers.
I entered a few competitions, didn’t win, felt disappointed for about five minutes every time but I kept on writing. I liked having deadlines, something to work towards, something to write for. Sure, I wanted to win, but not winning was not a failure. I was doing something other than just letting stories stack up. I was making progress. And most importantly, I was having fun.
And then, months after I’d submitted Hell to the MsLexia novella competition, I received a message that said it had been shortlisted. I had to read the e-mail several times to ensure I understood what it actually said. Part of the reason why was the strange moment it reached me: someone I loved was in the process of passing away and I was in no mood to celebrate. The shortlisting only added to the dreamlike state I was in at the time, the general sense of confusion, and for a long time it only hovered at the edge of my consciousness as I tried to carry on living a life without the person who had been such a significant part of it.
June came, and of course I didn’t win. Someone else did and I’m looking forward to reading her novella when it comes out later this year. Sure, I was a teeny bit disappointed, but the feeling didn’t last. I got a foot in the door. Someone thought my story was good enough to be shortlisted. It’s only now that I’m beginning to realize what a huge confidence booster the whole experience has been.
You see, English is not my first language, I have no useful connections in the literary scene and it’s no false modesty that motivates me when I say that I have no exceptional talent. I finished my thesis, and the book it became, by working extremely hard and failing rather a lot. Maybe that’s my talent. But what I’m trying to say is, I’m no genius. I’m just passionate. Yet it seems I’m on to something, I am capable of doing something I never thought I’d be able to do, and that feels pretty amazing.
I’m under no illusion that the journey will be easy from now on. I’ve only just started. But I’ve been writing steadily, have submitted my work to other competitions, have tentatively started to call myself a writer. After all, with a book and articles and blogs and a shortlisted novella under my belt, it would be more ridiculous to insist that I’m NOT a writer. Impostor syndrome is real, and I’m definitely suffering badly from it, but the facts clearly demonstrate how stupid I am for not believing that I am capable of at least trying.
People always ask me whether my current job is a long-term thing, where I want to be in five years time, and I don’t have a flippin’ clue. And I like it that way. The idea that wonderful opportunities I haven’t even considered yet may cross my path is exciting. Besides, I’ve learned the hard way that life is unpredictable and plans will only get you so far. There’s definitely a method to the madness, but I’m glad I’m not fully grasping it, and I can’t wait to see what’s just around the corner.
Image my own – The author’s feet resting on Holkham beach, Norfolk