I always knew I could write, well enough to impress a teacher anyway, and I always had a desire to write. But in a world where most girls wanted to be hairdressers or work in a nice office, doing typing and shorthand, writing seemed extraordinarily other worldly. And I wasn’t incredibly ambitious.
How many times have you read accounts of published authors who spent their childhood scribbling stories from the age of two, laying the foundations of a career that seemed destined for them? That wasn’t me. My early years were spent in my own head, living out fantasies of my own making, the youngest in a big family of eleven kids. As a teenager, all ambition was abandoned in the pursuit of boys. The extent of my writing career as a child was having the nun who taught me English, read my homework to the old people in the care home she visited, because she thought they were good. Sister Rose, bless her - she saw potential. But I was not a scribbler.
Things changed as an adult. By my early twenties I began to feel that I had an unused resource, like a muscle that I never got to flex. If ever anyone asked me what I would love to do, given a chance, my answer was always, to write. So why didn’t I start in my then? I could say an early marriage and three kids by the time I was thirty, stopped me, but they didn’t. I wrote short journalistic pieces for the socialist paper, The Militant, and occasional articles for publication in the local paper, to publicise local campaigns. Writing fiction, that seemed impossible to me - not the impossible task of getting published (which came later) - but writing fiction itself, the making stuff up part. I didn’t believe I had the skill.
By 2013, when Derry was the UK City of Culture, I had a manuscript - a short family memoir about how we cared for our mother as she succumbed to dementia. I hadn’t the guts to do anything with it, believing it was either not good enough, or it would meet with disapproval. Then, one afternoon, while standing with a crowd in the street, during the All Ireland Feile, watching a group of children perform, I realised I was envious of them. They were playing the fiddle, a family group. It didn’t matter that they made mistakes, or weren’t the best. They had a talent and they were using it, and it was wonderful to see. So I published my short book, online. It wasn’t brilliant, but it was out there. Yes, there was disapproval, but I made a decision that such disapproval would not put limits on my life and what I did with it. That decision changed everything.
I began my first novel. The mystery of fiction revealed itself to me, like the third secret of Fatima: it is what you write about, that is crucial. I write about things that drive me, make me angry, make me laugh. And it seems I am good at it. More than that, it is good for me.
When I heard about WriteNow, I was working in a dreadful place: 10 hour shifts, four days a week, on minimum wage, with, seemingly, no way out. On my days off, I wrote short fiction, and helped edit a local litzine called ‘Shift’. And of course, I was working my way through my first draft of ‘Music Love Drugs War’.
There were days when I walked into work repeating, This is not my life - this is not what I do, reminding myself that I wasn’t just a bum on a seat in the call centre. It got me, physically, through the door, and through another day. Writing held me together, gave my life value and worth. I was more than the job I did, more than what people thought I should be. It would have been easy to give up, to think, ‘Why are you doing this? No one is ever going to read it’, and I did have plenty of those moments. But I kept going because it empowered me, because I allowed myself to write.
When I was sent the link for the WriteNow Project by a friend, I read the criteria and thought, I have all that, and it’s free! So much of being an emerging writer is about contests and competitions, literary festivals and fees that I could not afford. Here was Penguin, offering an incredible opportunity that was actually accessible. Not even a broken laptop could stop me from getting my application in. I wrote it out in a fit a rage, on a cobbled together PC, using my television as a monitor. I think the anger helped!
The fact that I got to the Manchester event was life changing. Everything else, to be shortlisted and then chosen as one of the twelve mentees, has been nothing short of miraculous. Penguin Random House have told me I am a writer. And they will do their utmost to make me a better writer. That’s what I want from this year. I want to write better and I want to be published.
If there is one thing I want to say to anyone reading this and thinking about entering WriteNow 2017, it is this: I went to the Manchester event with no more expectation than to be near the touchstone of international publishing and maybe learn something of value. Every other person I spoke to that day, seemed so much cleverer, talented, younger and with a better book idea than me. And they were all going to be selected - I was sure of it. I sat beside a woman who told me she had almost walked away from the building that morning, so sure was she that she didn’t have what it took to succeed. But I got through to the final twelve, and so did she. And so can you.