Every writer needs an origin story. It just so happens that mine includes La La Land.
Let’s go from the beginning. When I was a child, I loved reading, and I burned through a lot of Enid Blyton, Nancy Drew, Sweet Valley High, Babysitters’ Club, Point Crime… Anyone remember these? It was quite natural to want to write my own stories too, being so saturated in them. We did lots of creative writing at school, and I found it easy to write many pages, freshly inspired by my latest book haul at the library. When my Nan gave me her electric typewriter, I was ecstatic! I absolutely loved that thing.
By the time I was in secondary school, my family had a PC with Word on it, so I worked on my first novel, saving each chapter in a separate document, onto a floppy disk. Remember those? The premise was this: teenage girl gets hired as a dancer in a music video with her favourite (my favourite) band. Teenage girl falls in love with lead singer in her favourite band (my favourite member of said band). A summer of happy romance ensues. The title? One Summer in Oklahoma.
Yes, it was truly terrible. But the (one) good thing about it was that I got into a habit of writing a little bit each day, and I proved to myself that with discipline and commitment, I could finish at least a first draft of something. That actually helped me later on, but I’ll get to that…
So at 14, I had this novel-in-progress. Impressive? Perhaps. But then I didn’t really write anything. For over ten years.
What happened? Well, I had a great English teacher who (perhaps with some justification) told me I ought to read more classics. He gave me a reading list: Lord of the Flies, 1984, Flowers for Algernon. It was a depressing summer, but the broadening of my literary horizons was definitely a good thing. I found more of my niche with Dickens, Austen, George Eliot, and with studying for exams, I didn’t have much time to write anymore. Having outgrown teen fiction (which back then, wasn’t called YA, and wasn’t really very good, with a few exceptions like the amazing Berlie Doherty), I mostly read things I thought I should read, rather than things I actually enjoyed reading. It set me up well for university, where I studied English, and by the time I graduated, a swoony romance novel by Georgette Heyer was a secret, guilty pleasure, when really I wanted my bookshelves to be packed with Keats and Shelley. If anything was going to be modern, it had to be Virago or Ian McEwan. I don’t think I can blame anyone for this literary snobbery except myself!
Fast forward to La La Land. I watched this film with my husband, unsuspecting that it would cause me to wail, in tears at the end, that I had abandoned my dream. He looked at me in astonishment. “But you’ve achieved your dream,” he said. “You’re a teacher.”
“That’s not my dream!” I sobbed.
I realised that I had given up on writing because I felt that nothing I could write would ever reach the heights of Shakespeare, and every time I had tried to write something of ‘literary worth’, it was not an enjoyable process and there was never anything good at the end of it. So in my La La lightbulb moment, I decided it was time to pursue my writing dream, but this time, to write something I actually wanted to read.
That was a few years ago now. I’d love to tell you more about how I started writing again, but this post is already long enough. Suffice to say, I now bring home a healthy diet of YA, romcoms, and anything else I fancy from the library. I might use my Kindle for the occasional dip into other romance genres like Amish or American small-town romance. And I’m glad I spent so many hours of my formative teenage years reading Sweet Valley High and bashing out a terrible romance story of my own, because it gave me confidence when I finally started writing again. I knew I could do it. After all, if I wrote a complete manuscript at 14, surely something I did as an adult would be better? What if, instead of trying to be the next Shakespeare, I was just happy to write a bit better than before?
So often, we’re held back by our fears of what other people think about us, or our own expectations of ourselves. We don’t give ourselves permission to fail. I haven’t ‘made it’ as a writer or sold millions of books – yet – but that doesn’t matter so much to me anymore. I’m writing because I want to, because I enjoy it, and because each day, I’m slowly getting better.