How and when does someone become a writer? I have been writing since I could. Handmade, stapled picture books starting in kindergarten, and novels since about the age of eleven. Reams and reams of hand written pages, and later, uncorrected typewritten pages in the days before word processors and computers. (Yes, yes, I am older than the Internet.)
I don’t know where the picture books ended up, but I burned most of the stories when I was about sixteen, mortified by their terribleness. I wish I hadn’t now, but the idea that someone might come across them by accident and read them filled me with dread. Even for years afterwards, the thought would make me flush with embarrassment, which is kind of humorous, given that now I really want people to read what I write! I would love to have those early stories now to reflect back on how much I have grown as a writer and a person over time. I still have my adolescent diaries, and everything else I have written since that first burning ritual. But now I can read the scribbles of that troubled teenager with empathy, and I’m not embarrassed. All I think now is, ‘Jeez, girl – you were real!’
I always saw myself as a writer. I wanted to be the youngest person to ever write a novel. Then when I was about twelve, an eight year old girl somewhere in the world published her first book and I remember thinking, ‘Oh well, I’m too late’ and kind of gave up that dream. It was my very first ‘crisis of confidence’, and definitely not my last! It didn’t stop me writing, but something changed in me that day. Perhaps I only wanted to be a ‘special’ writer.
I always wanted to be a writer, and yet for years, I gave my time and attention to other paths and careers, the things I thought I had to do, while quietly plugging away at writing as a hobby. When I finished school, I went on to university, and pursued another career, while my writing continued as a secret passion.
I came from a conservative family that encouraged practical career pursuits. Even though our mother, and most of my siblings, were avid readers, I didn’t grow up with the belief that creative writing was as real a career as others. Like a musical kid in a garage band, it was expected that we would have a ‘back-up plan’. If I had wanted to be a journalist, my parents would have probably been okay with that, but that was never my writing dream.
So I ended up in a ‘real’ job as a counselling psychologist, eventually settling into a specialisation in youth mental health. I continued to write privately, drawing my inspiration from the strength and resilience and sadness and life and loss that I worked with, sat with, in my work every day.
Although my characters are entirely fictional, I believe that my work with young people – particularly those who have experienced depression, trauma, drug addiction, self-harming, and issues around sex, sexuality and sexual assault – has enabled me to enrich my characters and bring an authenticity which makes them more relatable to young readers. My work also gives me the opportunity to inspire other writers. Young people often tell me they’d ‘like to be’ writers. And I remind them that they already are – they write poetry, they write song lyrics, they write journals, they write fanfic.
A few years ago I was chatting to some other closet writers and realised that what I had was more than a hobby. I have always been a writer, even when I was trying to be something else. I didn’t have to be ‘special’. I didn’t have to be first, or best, or youngest, or best-selling. I just had to be real, to keep being real, and to keep writing what I loved.
For a long time, I saw myself as an aspiring writer, or a would-be writer, or a future writer. And yet, I never stopped writing. A writer is not something you become. It’s not something you want to be. It’s not something you aspire to. A writer is something you simply are, or are not.
If you write, you are a writer.