How I followed my childhood dreams and wrote a novel

Helen Cullen, author of spellbinding debut The Lost Letters of William Woolf, reveals how she answered the 'nagging voice' and wrote a novel

The Lost Letters of William Woolf

Instead of dolls houses, skipping ropes or dressing up boxes, books stole my heart when I was a little girl, and nothing made me happier than reading. I was blessed to have parents who supported me in my obsession; my mother shared the classic children’s novels she had loved with me and my endlessly patient father drove me to the library several times a week and browsed the aisles with me finding my next magical adventure. So in retrospect, I now understand that the foundations for my later writing life were definitely laid as a child; it was in those wonderful works of fiction that I learned about story-telling, world building and the power of words to move, inspire and challenge.

As a child, I always dreamed of being a novelist when I grew up; the instinct stayed with me quietly tugging at my thought-strings throughout my adolescence and my twenties, but I found it all but impossible to start. I think I had convinced myself that real writers didn’t have to try, that writing came completely naturally to them and they were compelled to do it unlike me who was really too scared to try. I was always a letter-writer and journal keeper, and lucky to have work that required creative writing of a different sort; broadcasting, journalism, marketing so looking back I always did have some writing outlets. Over time, however, the nagging voice inside grew louder and I knew I had to at least try to write a novel – and one idea in particular had been percolating for quite a while.

The Lost Letters of William Woolf

I learned that in order to finish the book I would have to carve out time to write even when the circumstances weren’t ideal; in airport departure lounges, in the evenings after long working days, on Sundays when I really wanted to just relax

My partner encouraged me to apply for a six-month creative writing course being run by The Guardian newspaper in conjunction with the University of East Anglia and I was excited but terrified to secure a place. It was essentially a writing workshop with the hugely inspiring novelist Michele Roberts as our mentor rather than taught classes; there were eight students and every week we critiqued the work of four students with very constructive feedback. On my first evening for feedback, I was shaking with trepidation for what my classmates would say – when they were ultimately kind and encouraging I welled up. The very first submission by me was the first chapter of The Lost Letters of William Woolf and today remains largely unchanged – it’s remarkable to me to think that before the day it didn’t exist and may never have if I hadn’t created the opportunity for it to happen by committing to the class. Michele concluded my session by telling me, “what we are trying to tell you, Helen, is that you must keep going.” And so, I did.

I don’t believe in any way that creative writing courses are essential for anyone who would like to write a book. For me personally, however, it was integral to me in persevering to the end of my first draft and in gaining the confidence to keep going. Having a group of fellow writers invested in the work who encouraged me to work through obstacles that may have seemed impossible to overcome otherwise was invaluable – and Michele as our mentor was a source of constant inspiration.

In the end, however, I learned that in order to finish the book I would have to carve out time to write even when the circumstances weren’t ideal; in airport departure lounges, in the evenings after long working days, on Sundays when I really wanted to just relax. I didn’t have the luxury of waiting for moments of inspiration to strike or always finding the perfect place and time to work. I discovered that for me, when I sat in front of the computer, regardless of where I was, or how I felt two minutes before, the opportunity created the inspiration and the story unfolded.

So how I wrote my debut novel in the end was simpler and more difficult than I ever could have imagined; it really just necessitated me to keep going, invest in a little magical thinking when it was hard to have faith, and arm myself with some supporters who believed in me and the book. Every writer’s journey is different, of course. When I speak to writers now of their own experiences I am always amazed by how differently people work, and the different paths to publication. In fact, the only thing they all have in common is that they finished their books! To all aspiring writers out there I say, have faith, keep going and I know you will find what works for you too. Just keep swimming.


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