Since my first agent and I went our separate ways back in 2013, my novel unsold, I’ve been drifting a bit in terms of my writing. My confidence had taken a huge knock, and I’d just had Joseph, so there wasn’t much time to write anyway. Last year, I started a new novel (my third) and I’d written about 30,000 words when I received my breast cancer diagnosis and just stopped, there and then. That’s when I turned to blogging, because I feel strange if I’m not writing anything. Then in November last year, I took part in NaNoWriMo, writing 50,000 words in thirty days, and I remembered that fiction is my first love.
A few months ago, Paul suggested that I do another MA in creative writing. I know why he did it. It’s because every time we talk about what we’d do if money wasn’t an issue, I say that I would repeat my Creative Writing MA over and over again. I loved it. I loved meeting other writers, being in an environment where writing was taken seriously, workshopping my pieces. I loved it all. ‘Doesn’t Jon McGregor teach at Nottingham?’ Paul asked. ‘You should do it there.’ Jon McGregor has been one of my favourite authors since I read his first novel, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, about ten years ago. And he does teach at Nottingham, which is half an hour from where we live.
I didn’t take it too seriously at first. It seemed self-indulgent to consider paying a big chunk of money to undertake a qualification that I don’t need. And yet. I wanted to be back in that world, I wanted to learn more, to get better. Why not? I’d had a hell of a year. Why not do something I really wanted? I arranged a visit to Nottingham, met one of the academics there, wandered around the campus in the sunshine. Came away wanting it more than ever. I applied.
Meanwhile, I came across The Womentoring Project on Twitter. It’s an organisation that allows fledgling writers to apply for mentoring from professional authors, agents and editors, who generously volunteer their time. I applied to Gillian McAllister, author of Everything But The Truth. She told me that she’d read my blog and liked my writing. I bought her book, listened to her podcast, and enjoyed them both enormously. A few weeks later, she let me know that she’d chosen me. Being chosen is hugely important when you’re a writer. It’s such a solitary endeavour, and you never know whether what you’re doing is any good. So if someone judging a competition, running a literary agency or offering mentoring tells you they like what you’ve written, it’s a big deal. Even before the mentoring began, Gillian had done me a huge favour by bolstering my self-belief.
Since then, I’ve composed an outline for a new novel, written the first 15,000 words, realised I need to pretty much start again and written a new outline. I feel more confident about this novel than I have about previous ones. The idea for it has been with me for years, but I’ve never known quite how to tackle it. With a few very insightful emails, Gillian has assisted me in knocking it into shape. Now I just have to write the thing.
Last week, I received an offer from the University of Nottingham. I’ve ordered some of the books I’ll need. All being well, I’ll be a student again next month. It feels strange to admit it, but it’s cancer that’s got me here. There’s no way I’d have applied for this course without my diagnosis. It seems a shame that I had to have the worst year of my life to give myself permission to do something great. I probably wouldn’t have Gillian as a mentor without the cancer, either. She read my blog, which I wouldn’t have written if things had been different. Every cloud, and all that.
I can’t quite bring myself to be thankful for having had cancer, but all of this is a positive bi-product, nonetheless. I don’t know how many years I have ahead of me (no-one does, of course, but I’ve become more painfully aware of it than I was) and I want them to be happy and productive. I want to do the thing I love and be successful at it. And I feel like I’m in a good position to get started.