Without a Claire in the world
My Why audio version of this blog available here.
[This image sits above my writing desk]
I want to share with you one of the things I believe I was created for, my unique purpose if you will, and I hope it will encourage you to find yours.
Have you ever had something that just keeps calling you back to it? When you’re sat listening to a talk or watching something about your calling, your passion, or your heart and this pops into your head. Art, music, singing, acting, working in a specific field or with a particular age group, gardening, nature, whatever it is, and it’s often something creative, rarely is it maths!
Well mine is writing. No gasp or shock there, it’s a fairly common passion.
My first memories of wanting to write are being in church as a child and deciding I would one day write a famous hymn. I was fascinated by the words, beautifully ordered, carefully chosen, to convey a message that outlasted its author. It was rare in this hymnbook that there wasn’t a death year alongside the birth year, mostly in the 1800’s too. I wanted my name to outlast me on a piece of paper with some poignant writing underneath. It’s also why I want a gravestone one day (after I’m dead). However, I quickly worked out hymns weren’t being written in the same way and that mostly in the 1990’s you needed to be able to write the music as well, not something I was gifted in at all. So I briefly played around with the poetry aspect of writing, but never quite found the love for it and felt restricted with the number of words.
Reading was my other passion, and still is. I have fond memories of sneakily reading books in the summer after I’d been put to bed as a child because it was still light enough. Getting lost in a world of words and being transported anywhere the author wanted to take me. It was a form of magic.
I loved English at school and caught the passion for books and awe of authors who had written something people actually studied. Dissecting books with enthusiastic teachers like Mrs McDonald, who was obsessed with Wuthering Heights, and kooky Mr Wood, who referred to me as Clara or Clarabell, while rolling his r’s.
However, my studying English finished there, as I didn’t want to teach it and I didn’t really know where else an English Degree could take me. So I pursued marketing, a different way of using words. But my love of reading continued and slowly morphed into dreams of writing my own book. A novel. Fiction. I loved the idea that you could write your own stories, make your own worlds, create your own characters.
One day, fifteen years ago, in a not very nice rented house, I sat at the computer and wrote out a scene that had come into my mind. I knew what I wanted to write about. Grief. I wanted to get into the most painful situations that humans go through and write those emotions, the words, the impulses, the pain, but also the hope, strength, joy and triumph.
And so, my female protagonist came into being.
I thought about this scene a lot and when I wasn’t writing I felt like she was sat there waiting for me, her life blurry before and after this one scene.
Then a very creative being stepped into my life in the form of Grace. I don’t mean the concept, I mean an actual female. Grace, who has a natural flair for the creative, especially when it comes to materials and textiles, told me she wished she could spend more time sketching out designs for her textile work, and I told her I’d like to write more, and that’s how Creative Wednesdays were born. At lunchtime on a Wednesday I would leave my office desk and meet Grace at a café in Cheltenham called MooChoos. We would order an Earl Grey and a slice of Courgette Cake (a small taste of heaven) and she would sketch and I’d write on my tiny Acer laptop, and after the hour was up and we had to return to real life, we’d bemoan how short an hour actually was, and Grace would try once more to see if I’d let her read some of what I was writing (I would not). Sometimes we’d take our knitting instead, as we refreshed those skills and gradually inflicted everyone we knew with a scarf. We frequented this café so often we actually made it onto their bespokely painted wall, which was a beautiful design of all their regular customers.
[I think I'm on the right, because I don't remember having a bag like that!]
This boost was enough to have me dreaming of being traditionally published and holding my own book in my hands. The dream was to be on a train or by a pool and I’d glance up, only to see a stranger engrossed in my book.
[Side note: traditional publishing is when your book is published through a traditional publisher rather than being self published.]
It was around then that I started really studying the craft of writing. After racing through ‘On Writing’ by Stephen King, ‘Adventures in the Screen Trade’ by William Goldman, ‘How to Write’ and ‘How to get Published’ by Harry Bingham, ‘Is there a book in you?’ by Alison Baverstock, and ‘Save the Cat: Writes a Novel’ by Jessica Brody, etc etc, I learnt more and more about crafting a story, protagonists, antagonists, the hero’s journey, three act structures, beats, the 5 commandments, subplot, global story, genre, obligatory scenes, b-story, beginning hooks, middle builds and ending payoffs. And I loved it. As I found podcasts I listened to episodes about fiction writing, author interviews, agents, publishers, everything I could find. It was a world I was seduced by. Living within a stone’s throw of the Cheltenham Literature Festival I attended many events to hear debut authors speak, and dared to dream that one day it would be me inspiring others.
In 2018 I signed up to NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) where you aim to write a complete 50,000 word novel in the month of November. Huh, just realised the first three letters of ‘novel’ are in ‘November’, I wonder if that’s why they made it that month? Anyway, I started a different novel, decided on the night before it began, and by 30th November I had a fully formed novella at 50,000 words. Surprisingly, or unsurprisingly, loss was at the heart of it.
Despite a few hard years with my health, which also threw me into brain fog and anxiety and a bunch of things that hindered my writing, I tried hard to keep it going and even went part-time at work to try and write 1-2 days a week. Some days it would flow out of me and I’d feel great, other days no sentences would come and I’d be sat with a cup of tea and a large helping of guilt and disappointment instead, because I couldn’t get my brain to work.
When lockdown hit, just as I was due to be looking for a job after my hysterectomy, I was confined to home like the rest of the world but my head was clearer than ever, so I ploughed on with my book and signed up to a free Screenwriting online course to try out that form of writing too. I then wrote my first ever screenplay for the open month of submissions to the BBC Writersroom Comedy Script 2020. Unfortunately, so did most of the UK, being in lockdown. A couple of months later I received the response that they’d received 3,590 comedy scripts to read and…
“Unfortunately, on this occasion, your script was not selected for the final stages. However, it did progress to a second read for the 30 page sift. This means that your script placed in the top 13% of all eligible scripts received.”
Feeling chuffed with that attempt, I went back to finishing my fiction and in March 2021 I finished my first novel. The one with the scene I’d written 12 years before. It was a strange moment. Just alone in my writing room, typing ‘The End’. I did a small dance, as you do, and then tweeted my achievement on my writing account. Chris and I celebrated that night with a rare takeaway. It was 3 years later than my initial goal I’d set myself but it was done.
So I embarked on the next step that I’d hugely been awaiting, submitting my novel to agents, who would then pitch to publishing houses. I knew this was a tough door to get through because of all the research I’d done, and they have vigorous rules and criteria for your query to meet (a ‘query’ is the letter, synopsis and chapters you submit). You have to make sure everything is perfect basically and I could share my long checklist about what this entails. It’s crazy. Agents can get anything from 20 - 100 manuscripts a week, and might take on 5-6 books a year, so you can see what you’re up against.
They recommend sending your query to 5-10 agents at a time. I sent it out to sixteen. Almost all of them said they aim to reply within 8 weeks, I think one replied in that time frame, five others took 3-4 months and the rest I’m still waiting on 8-9 months later. If they request a full manuscript to read, I’m told you can expect to wait anything up to a year for feedback on that.
The good news is that I received six lovely rejections all saying that it didn’t fit with their list or they didn’t connect with it in the way they’d want to. Which is the best rejection you can receive, I didn’t get any ‘the premise doesn’t work’, ‘this isn’t a subject people will buy’, ‘there are fundamental errors in the writing or story building’ etc.
However, since everyone wrote the book they’d always wanted to write in lockdown, including a lot of out-of-work celebrities, the chances of getting picked up got a whole lot worse in 2020. Agents were flooded with queries and as the emphasis is now on the author to market and sell the book, if you don’t have an audience ready for it, i.e. a big social media following, you’re less likely to get anyone’s attention.
At a Cheltenham Literature event in 2021 I asked a question that I’ve often asked when in front of big authors or those in the publishing world. This time it was two Literary Editors from The Times. I asked if it was possible nowadays for an unknown writer to get published without a significant social following? The answer, for the first time, came back ‘no’.
I’m currently reading the debut novel by an English comedian, producer and presenter, and now ‘novelist’. I suspect he is just one of many famous faces who fancied writing a novel in lockdown and somehow skipped the usual 18 month wait to get to publication. I also suspect his submission process didn’t take up to an hour for each carefully worded query, and that finding his genre etc didn’t take weeks either. But that might just be my cynicism. So far his book is ok, but it doesn’t feel like the hand of someone who has spent hours pouring over sentences and story structure, but who cares about that when the book is available everywhere, a best-seller, and covered in admiring words from many famous names. As you can tell my love for writing does not spill into love of the industry. Too many stories of hearing agents find amazing books that don’t get published because marketing said ‘no’ to them. It just feels insulting to the craft when celebrities just waltz in. In 2015, Kim Kardashian had a book of her own selfies published, a sign to everyone that this is what sells now. Move over Jane Austen, your Instagram following isn’t big enough. Claudia Winkleman is quoted as saying that during lockdown she wrote something that didn’t turn out like she hoped, so she sent it with a note to her publisher saying ‘Do not publish, but thank you anyway,’ and they published it. Millions of aspiring authors jump through endless hoops only to watch others walk around them.
This is partly why there’s a boom in the self publishing, Indie market (Indie meaning authors who self-publish and retain control on their publishing rights).
Anyway, tiny rant over.
All this to say that writing has always been something I’ve enjoyed, loved, watched and taken a fascination in. However, it’s all well and good writing a book, but you also need an audience for it. So while waiting for responses from agents, I started talking to Chris about other avenues I could pursue for a career, and to merge things I’m passionate about. This was around the same time Murray, our chameleon, died (as we spoke about in this week’s Loss of a Pet episode), and we were weighing up another pet, or a new hobby.
A way I could chat to people in areas of loss and grief, I could write a blog every week (keeping my writing skills going, which you are now very kindly either reading or listening to) and it builds an audience of some kind, so if my book ever does find its way into the printed form, there’s hopefully some people keen to read it.
I always wanted to write inspiring protagonists that have been through loss and grief, the sort we all face, but find a way through it with strength and purpose, and now I’m meeting these people for real through The Silent Why, which is only sharpening and honing my understanding of how people act and respond to life’s tragedies. Plus, quite a few have self-published their stories so I get to watch and ask about that process too.
And one day I want to be sharing with my faithful My Why and Silent Why audience, that I have my first novel out.
Why am I telling you all this? Well, partly because it’s my blog so I like to just write about what’s on my heart, and lately my writing is on my heart, I feel it calling to me as I podcast, and I want it to know it’s not been forgotten or ignored.
But also as a challenge to myself and to you. It’s so easy to let go of things we feel called to do, just because the road is hard, or it doesn’t always bring the success we hope it will.
What’s calling you that you’ve put aside? What does your heart love to do, even if it’s not productive by the world’s standards? What were you created to be in this world? Because there’s only one of you. Of all the billions of people that walk this planet you call home, there isn’t a single other person that’s identical to you. You have a unique code, literally your eye or your fingerprint makes you the only person that can get past a fingerprint or retina scan! So this means you have something to bring to the world that no one else can.
Embrace your uniqueness. Time is much too short to be living someone else's life. Kobi Yamada
There’s a simple pleasure in living a life as you, with your giftings and in your time. Look around you at all the things that wouldn’t happen if you weren’t there. How different would other people’s lives be if you hadn’t had met them, introduced them, married them, conceived them, loved them, served them, helped them.
A human being is a single being. Unique and unrepeatable. Eileen Caddy
And if you get to this point and genuinely hear the thought ‘no one would notice if I wasn’t here’, then I want to gently tell you - you’re wrong. No human comes into this world without leaving a mark, even if you were only a hit on my website, or a download stat on my figures - I see you. And I appreciate you for listening and being here with me today, and I 100% know you have something that only you can do in this world.
You only get one life. One shot. And it might not be what you hoped, few lives are, but I want you to know that without you this world would have been very different, and I’m glad you’re here. You matter. Without you in the world, the world is different. The whole world is different without you. You leave a mark.
Radical Acceptance is the willingness to experience ourselves and our life as it is. A moment of Radical Acceptance is a moment of genuine freedom. Tara Brach
And because you are completely unique, here for a unique reason, to live a unique life, for a unique purpose, make it your goal to find it, and live it. Whatever your circumstances. And I guarantee you one thing, when you find it or accept it, joy will follow.
We cannot cure the world of sorrows, but we can choose to live in joy. Joseph Campbell
So I’m choosing to live in joy, and hope for my book. I’m believing it will see the light one day and as I’ve told others about it, they are hoping for me too.
Lots of people can write, but no one can write the books that I can write.
And, no, Grace never got to read it, neither did my husband. Nobody has read it yet. It’s my own private piece of joy at the moment. All 100,000 words.
But without a Claire in the world, it wouldn’t even exist at all.