I was going to be a young author: that was the plan. I was going to be one of those twenty-something publishing sensations, wise far beyond my years, and heartbreakingly talented. They would come, the men who decide such things (publishers? gods?), to the pub where I worked, humble but trusting in my destiny, and they would tell me. They would say it out loud, for all to hear, and I, still humble but vindicated, would take off my apron, slowly, and wash the beer off my hands, and I would follow the men out of the darkness of the pub and into the bright lights of recognition.
I was thirty-six when I published my first book. Not exactly over the hill, but I could see its top and how it sloped downwards on the other side. Young, but not in any sensational way. Nevermind that in my head I was still twenty-two and entirely bewildered when people referred to me, politely, as “that lady”; the world saw a thirty-six-year-old in Converse All Stars standing on a hill of average height, slightly out of breath, clutching a book to her chest and trying not to think about downward slopes. All around me, people were climbing mountains. The men were not impressed.
But it wasn’t my first book. The book I was clutching that made me an author at last, on the wrong side of young, wasn’t my first. I became an author at thirty-six, but I was a writer long before that, and I wrote my first book at twenty-five. It could have been my sensational debut; it could have been my passage to the lights, my recognition. It could have been, but I stumbled as I made my way up the hill, and I lost my balance, and I dropped it. And I didn’t pick it up again. And the years passed and we aged, my book and I.
Perhaps I should have been more careful where I put my feet; perhaps I should have worn better shoes. Perhaps I should have seen that the things I stumbled on I could have just stepped over. Perhaps I should have known that balance is within, not without; perhaps I could have had the strength to pick myself up when I fell, to pick up my book and hold it high above my head, for all to see. Perhaps, but I was young. So I wrote my book, my sensational debut, four hundred and fifty pages full of words and little bits of wisdom far beyond my years. I submitted part of it for my Master’s thesis and I passed; the men, the gods gave a little nod. I walked on: I finished it and called it Common People and printed it out, all four hundred and fifty pages of it, and sent it off to the men: the agents, the publishers, the gods of this realm of bright lights. The gatekeepers, but passage was denied. Thank you, they said, but no. I stumbled. My friends picked me up; they read my book and said carry on. I gave it to my boyfriend, the man who would have smiled and held me and held my hand so I didn’t stumble and fall; the man who would have devoured four hundred and fifty pages of his girlfriend’s inner world, and handled it gently, for the precious, fragile thing that it was – but no: he smashed it with his fists. For all the men and all the gods and the rejections they delivered, it was this man who dealt the fatal blow, because he took my book and never read it. Cruelly, unapologetically, inexplicably: he never read it. And I fell. And I didn’t get up for years.
Never use your writing as therapy they told us at university, and this is therapy – what I’m doing now. But I understand what they meant. We write from experience, but writers take that experience – the personal, the subjective – and turn it universal. We write from our preoccupations, we write to exorcise our demons, but we need to dress those demons in clothes that other people recognise and have them speak in words that can be understood. Self-indulgence has no place in literature: that’s what therapists are for. Write your shit out first, they told us, get it all out – only then can you write a book. I understand. But sometimes there are things that hold us back and we don’t even know it. There are demons that lurk, in disguise. An ageing girl, an ageing book, a sensational young author juggling pint glasses in her apron and looking for recognition in all the wrong places. And publishing, this time, as therapy.
I no longer need recognition; that’s one thing I learned from climbing up the hill, to recognise myself for what I am. I don’t need vindication, because there was never anything to prove. I became an author at thirty-six, but I’ve been a writer all along, and I just want to write. But I published Common People this week, my sensational debut, time-travelling to take its place in a line-up of six. I published it because I could, and because, although it has aged as I have, it’s still a book of this time, and its time has come. I didn’t publish it as therapy but I can see it now, how it was one of my demons, disguised and fooling me all these years. It didn’t sit there quietly, it didn’t sit forgotten; it was heavy and I carried it, it was a thing I stumbled on, over and over again, and it was taking up space inside of me, a space I didn’t even know was occupied. A space that’s opened up now, all of a sudden, endless and clean and inviting, a kaleidoscope of words and colours and the bright lights that were there, all along, if only I’d known where to look. I didn’t publish it as therapy but I can see it now, how it’s cured me of something, a thing that was finished but unfulfilled, the latent dreams of a young author shaping themselves into regret. But regret had no place here, on my hill; it would only obscure the view.
Publishing as therapy and it’s now that I’ve gotten all my shit out; only now can I move on. My twenty-five-year-old self is a published author. I’ve done right by her and her words; I’ve set her free, and she can make her own way in the world, into the space that’s opened up. And I can make mine, at last, without looking back, because I can see it now, from this place I’ve reached in my Converse All Stars at age thirty-eight: that over the hill are other hills, and also valleys and mountains and forests and seas, and we can go to any of those places. Or just stand still for a while and enjoy the view. Waiting for no one and with absolutely nothing to prove. Trusting in our destiny, humble but certain that we can make our own bright lights.