9th December

Taking the plunge

A bit of my book collection

I’ve thought quite a lot about how I became a writer, because it wasn’t something I aspired to be for a long time.  I had quite a lot of jobs, not loads, but a few.  After leaving school, I worked in a hospital preparing microfiche and locating medical records. It was pretty soul destroying.  Then I worked in Pathology.  Lunchtimes are never that pleasant when you work in Pathology (believe me, you deal with some grotty stuff!)  After that,  I worked in a counselling centre for people with alcohol and drug problems.  It was interesting, rewarding, and at times a tad hair-raising.  Then I worked in a University arranging reunions for graduates and deputy-editing two magazines – the first time writing had been a part of any of my jobs.  I also worked for a while in an Italian restaurant as a waitress.  Then sixteen years ago, having finished a part-time degree in history and literature, and having cemented my love of literature and books, I gave up my full-time University job, gave up my house, and moved with my hubby to Yorkshire, three hours drive away from family and friends, with this idea that I wanted be a writer.  It had been niggling away at me and I felt I had to do it.  I’m not sure why I felt I needed to move location to do this, but I did.  It was a big step.  I needed to move on, and I suppose it was my way of saying that I meant it.

Hewenden Viaduct, Cullingworth

We moved to a small, run down, terraced cottage in a West Yorkshire village, Cullingworth, close to Howarth – Bronte country – moors dancing with purple heather, cobbled lanes that the Bronte sisters would have walked along to get to church.  We had our son and I researched writing children’s picture books and had a go at one or two stories.  I temped for a while, and worked part-time in a garden centre.  I still didn’t feel like a real writer.  I wasn’t trying hard enough and I wasn’t spending enough time at it.

Then we moved to Derbyshire, had my daughter, I trained as a teacher, taught adults English, but I still continued to write.  Somehow, in the spaces between family stuff and teaching, I had my first two children’s picture books published.   This might sound strange, but even when Piccadilly Press published my next two books,  Ruby and Grub, and Grub in Love, I STILL didn’t really think of myself as a writer, not really.  I felt like I was just playing at it and getting lucky.  Everyone else who wrote a book seemed to be a proper writer.  I was just doing it in the spaces between everything else and I felt as if my luck would run out.

Then earlier this year something changed all of that and made me finally take the plunge.

Comedien, John Bishop

The jolt happened when I overheard a radio interview with comedian John Bishop.  John used to be a pharmacist and was talking about his decision to give this up to do stand up comedy ‘as a job’ not just on a part-time basis, as he had been.  He said that he knew he’d never really make it in comedy if he didn’t put all his time and energy into it and that he realised he had to take the risk.  I held my breath as I listened.  He was talking about me!.. of course, he wasn’t really talking about me – heavens, I’m not that self-absorbed – but it could have been me.  Something in my head clicked and I knew he was right.  I knew that he had done the right thing – he had followed his dream.

Me tweeting... I mean, writing!

I knew then that I had to take the plunge – not just stick my toe in the water, but dive in.  So I halved the time I taught, cutting down to just three classes a week, and gave up teaching GCSE English, which I loved, but which was very time-consuming and involved a lot of marking.  It was very scary!  But then I really started writing, or that was how it felt, and in three months I wrote a manuscript for 6-9 years, one for 9-11 years, re-wrote two old picture book stories, re-wrote a lot of poems, and wrote the first quarter of my first YA novel.  I was also working on Buttercup Magic: A Mystery for Megan, which Piccadilly Press had said they wanted to publish, but which needed a lot of editing.  Of the poems I re-wrote, one of these, Buried Treasures, was published last month (see blogpost 11th November), and one was commended in this year’s Thynks poetry competition. Scary as the decision had been, I knew then that I had made the right decision.  I had known that I couldn’t write as hard or as much as I wanted to unless I had more time and energy for it.  It was the difference between saying “I’m a teacher and I write a bit,” to saying, “I’m a writer, but I also teach English.”  In my head, that made a big difference!

I know it’s not the same for everybody and that circumstances mean that we can’t always dedicate all our time to our dreams, but for me, it was something I had to do, and now I have to make it work.  I have to write the words, even on the days when it’s hard and I don’t always feel like writing them.

I’ve now sent the two children’s book manuscripts and re-writes of picture books to an agent.  I’ve kind of avoided this in the past and always dealt with publishers direct.  But I felt that now was the right time  – all part of me viewing this as my job I think.  It has been no less scary than any other submission I have ever made.  I had rejections pre-publication, and I still get them, and they still make my heart sink every time.  Each submission is as angst-ridden as the last.  Each book is as hard to write as the one before and as full of moments of self-doubt – but also, as full of joy.

I don’t need to wait to see whether the extra input into my writing will pay off – I am happier, so I already know that it has.  When I made that decision, sixteen years ago, to uproot and ‘be a writer’, based on some whim, little did I know then that I was answering some truth within me, and however hard it’s been, and still is at times, I am doing the thing I am meant to do.

It was the interview with John Bishop that finally made me realise I needed to follow my dream.  Are you following your dream, and if not, what would it take to make you follow it?

About Abi Burlingham

I write children's books and paint pictures inspired by nature, animals, trees etc, mostly in acrylics. I am a crisp addict.
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31 Responses to 9th December

  1. Great post thanks. I really enjoyed it very much.

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  2. I’m trying to follow my dream – but it can be a lonely old life where you feel that everyone else is a ‘serious writer’ and you are a bit of a fraud writing about dummed down rubbish. Thanks for this Abi – it’s a good start to my Friday x

    • Hi Alison, thanks for the comment. This is exactly it isn’t it? I don’t know if that feeling ever goes away. It doesn’t for me anyway. I wonder if writers are always ‘struggling writers’, published or not… I suspect we might be!

  3. Good luck with the books you’ve sent off. It’s always a nerve-wracking time when you’re waiting for responses. I, too, am waiting for something back at the moment, so we can suffer together. In the meantime, keep on writing and . . . hey, wow, you’ve got snow on your blog!!!

    • Ah, thanks Dan. It’s nail biting stuff isn’t it? Really good luck with yours too – we can console ourselves with mince pies! Yes, snow… how on earth did that happen? 😉

  4. Jo Carroll says:

    Go for it, Abi. (As you know, I did some serious dream-following!)

  5. Ha ha! Thank you Jo. Yes, you did, didn’t you? Dreams are always worth following aren’t they?

  6. What a wonderful post (and I loved learning more about you and your writer path, too)…. I know exactly what you mean because I think I’ve spent my life wanting to write fiction, dabbling in fiction and writing whole books… but never taking the plunge. For me, a big part of it was the money: had to work as a technical/business writer to make a living…. but even when I had the opportunity, I had that niggling feeling: I’m a fraud, I can’t really write. And I rarely put my whole heart in. And THAT is the other reason I never took the plunge: fear of never being properly published. Which is why blogging really helped: getting out there, being read, getting comments. And now I hope I’ll make that 100% commitment to being the writer I am…. (sorry for the LONG answer…but this is a great blog subject, and hits so close to home!) p.s. love the snow falling on your blog!

  7. Ah, Julia, we are so alike! Yes, fear of being published and people not liking your book that much, it not selling very well, the publishers being happy, getting overseas co-editions… the anxiety goes on and on! We really MUST love it to keep working at it! You are so right, blogging does help and builds confidence, especially when you get comments, which I still find SO exciting! Loads of luck with your writing – I know you are putting your heart and soul into it and this really will pay off. Can’t wait to hear your progress. I LOVE the blog snow – I am hoping it can rain mini Easter eggs at Easter!

  8. Martin Day says:

    Abi, I love the fact that you know you are doing the right thing because you are happier doing it, even aside from any external recognition. That would be my desire above anything; to be so centred as to have the right sort of confidence (I know from the rest of what you’ve written that you’re not there yet either). I know that I’m not really a writer, heck I’m not even a reader! But I do recognise that I have a creative heart that shows in a variety of ways, writing being one.

    I think that the overblown X-Factor is a good study of the difficulty in assessing self. There are the awful singers who are simply deluded and the great singers who don’t know how good they are. We watch both and ask, “how can they not know?” but that’s certainly my own problem. I got the proof copy of my book yesterday and dutiful read through for errors. I had forgotten about some of the nuances and, as I read, I honestly thought, ‘this is genius!’ But then am I deluded? There don’t seem to be a chorus of other voices to support the claim! Other times I think I have no real skill at all and that a flash of inspiration isn’t even mine but that I am simply putting the work into documenting an idea that has come from somewhere else.

    So yes, the right kind of confidence is elusive and for me there is a tension in ‘following my dream’. The accent is on the ‘my’ and on ownership of that.

  9. Yes, you are so right, Martin. How can we ever know? Even when someone says they’ve read and love my books, or their child does, I am always really surprised and incredibly touched. I had a letter this year from a little girl, Francesca, who’s had all of the Ruby and Grub books. It was the first time a child had written to me and I was so choked. School visits inevitably make me fill up at some point. It is a dream, a very uncertain one, and I think confidence will always elude us, even when a publisher says “yes”, because there’s always ‘the next one’, and the possible rejections that will come with it. All the best with with your book and I hope you do find ownership of your dream at some point.

  10. ALL writers should read this blog post, because ALL writers go through this!

    I went (and still do from time to time) go through the same turmoil myself: what will it take before I feel like a writer? How will I know? Who am I even kidding? All that stuff, and you’re right in everything you say. A true writer is one that sits down at the page even on the days when they don’t want to – that sets the hobbyists and wannabees out from the ones that really mean it – so I think that’s one of the main points for me.

    Brilliant article Abi! A writing magazine might pay well for something this inspirational…

  11. nettiewriter says:

    Great post again, Abi.You are a brave lady – it takes a lot of guts to do what you did and I admire you for it. I remember asking my husband after I was paid for writing for the first time whether that meant I could call myself a writer now, even though I had actually been writing for years. Fear holds me back a lot and I am delighted you are such a success. Good luck with the submissions!

    • Ah, Nettie, thank you so much. I honestly think that doing what we really want to do with our lives is the most scary thing of all – I don’t know why, risk of failure perhaps? I think maybe that’s what you were saying about fear holding you back. Fear really can cripple people, and I only know this because it crippled me for years. Keep your fingers and toes crossed for me, and lots of luck with your writing too.

  12. Ah! Colin, have a hug (( )). Thank you so much for that. It’s especially rewarding to know that you enjoyed this post and can relate to it so well. Writing magazines, here I come… 😉

  13. I left University, where I was doing a degree in genetics (and doing well too!), to follow my writing dreams. Smart move? No. Regret it? Not one bit!

    • Hi Roisin. Yay! Good for you. Not everyone knows what they want to do, do they? It’s so easy to go down the wrong path, so I’m really pleased you knew what you wanted and had the guts to follow your dream. Lots of luck – we’re all in it together eh?

  14. Emma Pass says:

    This has to be my favourite post of yours yet. It’s such a wonderful and inspiring story.

    I knew I wanted to be a writer from a very young age (13). I even remember where I was and what I was doing when I decided it. But I wasn’t sure how to get into writing as a career, and I didn’t want to tell anyone my dream in case they laughed at me, so rather than studying creative writing or english at uni, I ended up doing an art degree. That was the turning point for me. A few weeks into my first year, I realised I’d never be a painter, and although I stuck at it and got my degree, the day I finished, I started writing again. And even though it was a real rollercoaster, and I often wondered if I was doing the right thing or if it was worth carrying on when I didn’t seem to be getting anywhere, I found I *couldn’t* stop – writing was (and still is) something I have to do, no matter what.

    However, I still didn’t feel as if I could call myself a writer until my first novel sold a few months ago – and even now it feels a bit strange, like I’m talking about someone else!

  15. I know what you mean Emma, it does still feel strange doesn’t it? I think it’s because we hold that dream so close for so long, and there is so much uncertainty involved in what we do, so we kind of feel we need to ‘whisper’ it – that’s how I always felt, and still do feel at times. I’m glad you realised what you wanted to do and didn’t go down the wrong path – it takes a lot longer to make your dreams happen if you take that wrong turning – thank goodness you went back to what you knew was right eh? Lots of luck with ACID too!

  16. Martha says:

    Love this post and the very best of luck with the submissions — it sounds like you’re on the way to all sorts of wonderful things.

  17. Great post and good luck – you can do it! One day I hope I’ll be able to follow my dreams as well 🙂 you are an inspiration xx

  18. What a lovely thing to say, Nicola. Thank you so much for the encouragement. I hope you’ll be able to follow your dreams to – you are starting to and moving in the right direction, which is fab! Thanks again 🙂

  19. Abi, that’s amazing because, just as you felt when you listened to John Bishop, this could be my story I’m reading. I was a teacher who ‘wrote a bit’. I’m now a writer who teaches a bit now and then (more then than now these days!). I had a children’s picture book published first off… and so the similarities continue right down to you living and working in my hometown. I’ll bet I’ve eaten at that Italian restaurant too!

    Great getting to know you. (Who said that Twitter was a waste of time?!?)

    • Wow – the similarities are striking aren’t they? I hadn’t realised you’d had a children’s picture book published. Yes, this is one of the wonderful things about twitter isn’t it? The support, encouragement and friendship are amazing! Thanks Rosalind.

  20. Jenny Alexander says:

    I love this post! Judging by the comments, so do a lot of people. You touch on the courage it takes to go after what you want, to risk failure, to risk success – and that curious thing of moving to a new geographical location in order to make this huge shift in the direction of your life – towards happiness, but also towards uncertainty and all the challenges of writing books for a living. I wrote my first full length novel on a little typewriter my father gave me when I was 16 – I WISH I’d kept the MS! Wrote my second at 20 and my third at 26, so I’ve always had this drive to write. But I didn’t commit and try to sell anything until all my children were in school, and it suddenly seemed important to have a career. That was nearly 20 years ago. I’ve never regretted throwing myself wholeheartedly into this writing career, because it certainly is a happy path for me, and I’m grateful for it every day.

  21. Thanks so much Jenny, really pleased you enjoyed it and feel you can relate to it. You’re right, it does take courage and fear of failure is one of the things that can get in the way. I’m so glad you made the decision to carry on writing once the children were at school. My daughter loves your Peony Pinker book and is after the next one now, so I know one little girl who you’ve made very happy.

  22. wendylyth says:

    Oh Abi what a great post! I think you’ve struck a chord here. From snippets I’ve read here and there I think this fear and self-doubt: am I good enough, can I really write – is within every artist, whatever field they dabble in. Actually I think that’s a good thing. Just as Martin Day said about XFactor contestants – how can some be so deluded and others unaware how good they are! It is fascinating, isn’t it. Thank you for sharing your writer journey with us. Loved it. I completely understand and feel exactly the same. In fact the more I write and chat with writers or wannabe published authors, the more I FEEL like a real writer. If you write all the time you feel you are a writer. I mum all the time therefore I am a mum. That’s my scientific theory! I am really starting to believe I have something. Whether or not that something comes to fruition, funnily enough I’m not that bothered, as long as I am trying. Wendy x

  23. Wendy, I completely agree. When you write you feel like a writer. When you talk about writing to other writers you feel like a writer. The only way to be a writer is to write. Those self-doubts will always rear their ugly heads won’t they, because what we do isn’t measurable, whereas most jobs are. If you mend a boiler and afterwards it’s fixed, you’ve done a good job. So difficult to tell with what we do. I am convinced that you will get published though Wendy, because you truly have a unique voice every time you write a comment or a tweet, and that will shine through in your work. Loads of luck! x

  24. wendylyth says:

    Go hit that nail on the head: NOT MEASURABLE!

    Why thank you so much, Abi. That means a lot to me x (actually I think the word you really meant to say was wacky – but I prefer your word choice!)

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