Two things happened this week which made me think about the value of books, the pleasure of writing and inventing new worlds and new characters, and the delights of escaping into the fictional landscapes that other writers have created.
The first was watching a video doing the rounds on Facebook. It dates back a few years, to when JK Rowling made a speech at a Harvard graduation ceremony. The short clip I saw concerned failure. (You can watch the full speech here.) She told her audience about the time she’d reached rock bottom, and was considered, by all conventional measures, a failure. Her marriage had broken up, she was a single parent, unemployed and poor. All she had was an idea. She had no way of knowing how long she would remain in that dark tunnel before she would glimpse some light, and indeed, could only hope that there was some light at the end. There may not have been. Yet, she considers that time a gift. She discovered who her true friends were, learned to treasure the good things she had – not least her precious daughter – and realised that, having faced the worst, she was capable of dealing with anything else that life could, and would, throw at her. She took her idea and went with it, and against all the odds, she turned her life around.
I watched the video, and was moved to tears. I could relate to it so well, as someone who has been at rock bottom on several occasions. There were times in my life when I couldn’t see any way out of the darkness. Times when I felt alone in a crowd of people, knowing that I didn’t belong with them, feeling a failure because I wasn’t like them. I tried desperately hard to fit in, to be what they wanted. It never occurred to me, back then, that maybe I shouldn’t even try to fit in – that I didn’t have to be like them. I was unemployed, my marriage was in tatters, I was a single parent, struggling to cope. I had depression, severe anxiety, social phobia and chronically low self esteem. I was so full of self-hatred that I wouldn’t even step outside into my back garden, in case the neighbours saw me. I felt so ugly, so full of self-loathing. I was completely lost, with no idea of where I belonged, let alone how to get there.
During those times, I would escape into books. They’d always been my consolation. During difficult times in my childhood and adolescence, books kept me sane and safe. Those fictional worlds were my refuge, and I will be forever grateful to the authors who created such reassuring and wonderful places. As a troubled adult, books were no less vital to my sanity. If I hadn’t been able to get away from real life for a few snatched hours every day, what would have become of me? I dread to think.
Throughout my schooldays, I used to write stories of my own, but life had become hectic and scary. I stopped writing. It was something else that I would never be any good at. Something else I would fail at. So I put away the notebooks and pens, and ignored the stories that swirled around my head, for years and years. Until one day, on a journey to Somerset, three characters popped into my mind and absolutely refused to leave. Arriving at our holiday destination, I bought a notebook and began to jot down the people I could see, and what I already knew about them. Those characters became Will Boden-Kean, Lexi Bailey and Joe Hollingsworth, the first characters I created for what would become the Kearton Bay series of novels.
It took me a while to find the courage to start to write. Then much longer to be brave enough to show my writing to anyone. Each step I took gave me a little more faith, and led me a little further along the path to where I find myself now – a published author with three full-length novels, a People’s Friend pocket novel, and two short stories in print. More than that, those steps led me to new friends, a writing group, an online community, a growing belief in myself and a gratitude for everything I’d been through. Because all those awful times led me here, to this point, to a place where I’m happier than I’ve been in decades, and where I can look back and appreciate the people I’ve met along the way, and the lessons I’ve learned from my epic “failure”.
I will never achieve the dizzy heights that JK Rowling has managed, but it doesn’t matter. Through writing, I can heal old wounds, write myself the happy endings that I never got in real life, work out sadness and pain that I never exposed in reality, but can share and cure in the pages of my novels. Writing has given me back my sanity, it’s brought me new friends, new understanding of myself, and self-acceptance. It’s saved me.
The second thing that got me thinking was the tragic murder, on the 16th of June, of Jo Cox, the Labour MP who did so much to try to heal the divisions in our communities. No words can express how horrific this is, nor how desperately sorry I feel for all her friends, family and colleagues – particularly her husband and young children. Her death left me reeling. I was already feeling pretty low about the state of this country. There seems to be so much anger, hatred and bitterness everywhere, and I genuinely fear the direction in which we seem to be heading.
When the world seems too bleak to contemplate, and real life is too much to bear, I need the happy endings I find in books. I need to escape to a place where I know there will be a positive outcome, where good will triumph, and where people are kind and caring and full of love. I once read an article in which a journalist dismissed romance novels as a waste of a good writer’s talent. I strongly disagree. In a world of political mud-slinging, prejudice, ignorance and fear, books that remind us that people are capable of loving one another are more essential than ever. I can’t drown out the negative forces that attack me every single day. I can’t ignore the state of the world. I can’t pretend that things out there aren’t pretty damn dire. But I need to believe that in this world, there is still hope, there is still beauty, there is still kindness, there is still love. The fact that people still write of such things, and that people still want to read them, is proof that we’re not lost yet. There are good people out there. Deep down, I know that. I just need reminding every now and then. That’s why I need those happy endings.
I hope you all have a wonderful week. xxx