After a couple of difficult years I was determined, on 1st January 2011, that 2011 would be my year. I would really work on my writing, get fit and lose the extra weight which not so much crept on as leapt on after my return from Peru, and get started on my life’s goal: to earn a living from writing books. It doesn’t have to be a grand living, I just need to be able to eat and pay the bills, with a little extra for chocolate. That’s fine by me.
So far, I am in two minds about how this is working out for me. So I’m not going to talk about me. I’m going to talk about my grandmother. It’s relevant, I promise.
My grandmother, Joan Mary Barnes, was born on 12th September 1918. She got a scholarship to study at Queen Mary College in London, beginning her course there in 1936. I would later, in 1997, apply and be accepted to the same university, not knowing at the time that it was where both she and my grandfather studied and where they met. She lied about her age in order to marry him before he was called up in September, 1939.
She went on to become a biochemist and worked for a while at a hospital in London where Sir Alexander Fleming was based (Penicillin, anyone?). He encouraged her to do a PhD as it would allow her to do research and she went on to work with Wellcome and Glaxo (heard of them?). When my grandfather was posted to the United States (he was in the RAF) she went with him and got a job with a guy working on the new polio vaccine. She was then headhunted back to the UK to work for Glaxo, developing the polio vaccine she had been working on in the States.
When she and my grandfather retired, he had already spent his spare time over the previous seven years building a yacht which they then spent ten years in, sailing around the Mediterranean Sea. I wish I had a scanner so that I could show you the only photo I have of that yacht. She was called Aurora Mare and she was breathtakingly beautiful. White hull, two wooden masts, gleaming wooden cabin and a low curving line.
Please bear in mind that, in the 50s and 60s, by far the majority of women in the workforce were secretaries and/or receptionists. My grandmother was a biochemist, and usually head of her department. She was also a good person – in Cincinnati a black member of her team was surprised beyond words when she invited him to bring his wife round for dinner.
Now, I’m not telling you this to big up my grandmother… ok, I am, just a bit, and I’ll tell you why. She died just over two weeks ago, at the age of 92, following a stroke last August which I think was just one in a series. But she had led a wonderful life and never let anyone or anything stand in her way. She chose to take the encouragement she received and work with it and ignore those who thought she shouldn’t be in her job – “men’s work”, etc.
As writers we can all apply this to our lives and goals as writers. She told me once “D [my grandfather] always used to tease me that I always had some project on the go. We would no sooner finish one than I was planning the next one.” There will always be people who think we are insane (most of my immediate family can be taken as examples) for thinking we can get published and worse for thinking we can earn a living at it. There will always be people who try to drag us down, back into the “real” world, either deliberately or unconsciously, through jealousy or genuine concern. To give my family credit, I think it’s concern and not jealousy that motivates their behaviour.
As writers we shouldn’t pay them any attention. These are our lives and no one else can live them for us. No one else will achieve our dreams for us. And the most important thing is that, at the end of our lives, no one will look back through our eyes and say “Damn, what a ride!”. Life is too short to hold back or be afraid of what might be. Everyone is ready to congratulate you when you make it, but the only person that will get you there is yourself.