I was raised, like most women, to be a ‘good girl’. This was decades before parents had books like Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls to read to their daughters at bedtime and, although my parents were both feminists, they were steeped in traditional gender values. No children’s books had yet been written to teach me how to rebel against them.
So, growing up, I quickly learnt how to please. I was a good girl at home: quiet and obedient, a good girl at school: diligent and unquestioning, and a good girl with boys: sweet and chaste. Naturally then, I followed the traditional route of a good girl coming of age on the cusp of the new millennium, achieving excellent A Level results and getting a place at Oxford. I also fell in love and, aged twenty, married. By rights, upon graduation, I should have pursued a sensible and prestigious career but, in my first small act of rebellion, I decided to put my degree aside and become a waitress. While at Oxford, I’d started writing short stories and discovered that what I really wanted was to be a writer.
Persuading my husband to postpone such life goals as buying a house and starting a family, I promised him that I’d dedicate the decade of my twenties to writing and, if I hadn’t been published by the time I reached thirty I’d give it up, get a real job and do all the other things good girls are supposed to do.
I began writing in earnest. I worked full time and wrote whenever I could: scribbling story ideas on my orders pad, snatched sentences on napkins, typing up my notes after midnight when I returned to our dingy flat sweaty from the heat of the kitchen and stinking of fried chicken and chips. I worked hard, as all good girls do, striving to be a diligent employee, a loving wife, a dutiful daughter and a loyal friend.
I wrote very slowly because I put everything else first: family, friends, husband, housework. But, little by little, I finally finished something that at least looked a lot like a novel. I sent it out (all by paper and post in those days) to every agent in London and received thirty-three curt rejections. I felt like a failure and cried myself to sleep for a while. After some time, I began again. And again, and again.
At last, three months from my thirtieth birthday and panicking because I really wasn’t ready to give up just yet, I wrote a novella. After the inevitable round of rejections, I decided – on the advice of my mother, who is a life-coach – to self-publish. Cunningly, I had found a loophole in my promise.
In those days self-publishing was not what it is now. Nothing was online, e-books didn’t yet exist, the process was laborious and expensive. I funded it by working harder still and, reaching into hidden and previously untapped reserves of courage, set about hawking my little book around every bookshop in Oxford, Cambridge and London. It was a hard slog, but I made progress; selling copies and bribing booksellers with homemade flapjacks to promote the book and sell a few more. Within a year I’d sold almost a thousand copies and re-submitted to a publisher, who suddenly claimed that perhaps they’d been too hasty in their initial rejection and offered to publish it. Within another year they’d sold the translation rights for my little book in twenty-six languages. At last, I was a published writer; I had fulfilled my promise to my husband and managed to achieve this long-cherished dream. But I was still a good girl.
For the next decade, I applied myself to writing novels, working a part-time job, raising a family and being a dutiful mother, wife, daughter and friend. I wrote nice novels, good girl novels, novels that reflected who I wanted to be and who I hoped I was, at least most of the time. I gradually developed a small following of readers who enjoyed my books, often describing them as ‘the literary equivalent of a warm hug’. Now, of course, there’s nothing wrong with that; we all need a hug from time to time. But, as I reached my fourth decade, I realised I wasn’t satisfied writing books like that any more.
I’d just given birth to my second child and life had suddenly become very difficult indeed. It was one thing to be a good girl when I didn’t have too many things to do or people to support, but now I had two jobs and dozens of people who needed me, people to whom I couldn’t say ‘no’ or even ‘not yet’. Something had to give. That something was me.
It wasn’t long before I was a wreck. I was still being a good mother, a good wife, a good daughter, a good friend. But I wasn’t sleeping, I wasn’t writing, I wasn’t happy. Not only did I no longer have enough time to write, those nice novels didn’t reflect my inner life anymore; they didn’t feel real or true. I was angrier than I wanted to admit, maddened by the gender norms and social values that expect everything from women – that pervasive pernicious notion of ‘having it all’ – while offering virtually no support in return.
I don’t know what would have happened if I hadn’t stumbled upon Mary Oliver’s collection of essays, Upstream. I was browsing the shelves of my beloved local bookshop, Heffers, and the book presented itself to me. There it was, waiting, and there I was, reaching for it, opening it, without any expectation of what lay within. Scanning its magnificent pages I found an essay entitled Of Power and Time. In it Oliver writes of the necessity for writers to be fiercely protective of their writing time and flout social values, for ‘there is no other way work of artistic worth can be done.’ As I read her words – urging me to stop saying ‘yes’, to prioritise writing above social obligations, to put myself and my words first – I felt my heart begin to beat again.
And so, I started doing just that. At first, since I still had an infant daughter, I wrote from 3am to 4am, in the hour when my baby was sleepy and sated after her routine post-midnight marathon milk-guzzling session. After that, whenever I could. I let the housework go, I let certain friendships go, I let the rotating menus go and made sandwiches for dinner. And, whenever people complained or tried to shame me, I remembered Oliver’s words:
I am absent-minded, reckless, heedless of social obligations, etc. It is as it must be. The tire goes flat, the tooth falls out, there will be a hundred meals without mustard. The poem gets written. I have wrestled with the angel and I am stained with light and I have no shame. Neither do I have guilt. My responsibility is not to the ordinary, or the timely […] It does not extend to the lost button, or the beans in the pot. My loyalty is to the inner vision, wherever and howsoever it may arrive. If I have a meeting with you at three o’clock, rejoice if I am late. Rejoice even more if I do not arrive at all.
For someone who had run her life by the dictates of guilt and shame, these words were marvellously heretical. I am (and will no doubt always be) too entrenched in social niceties to ever stand someone up because I’m in the midst of writing. But Oliver’s words did change my life. I stopped saying ‘yes’ to everything, I made time for writing every day, I let my standards drop and I stopped caring quite so much what everybody else thought.
Slowly but surely, I wrote a novel. Curiously, though perhaps unsurprisingly, it was very different to anything I’d written before. It came both from my heart and from the deep, dark depths of my soul. It was more real than any writing I’d ever done. It wasn’t nice; it was true.
The final lines of Oliver’s essay are words I try to live by. One day, when I’ve finally overcome the last vestiges of my good girl past, I’ll get them tattooed on my arm lest they ever, in the inevitable onset of senility, be forgotten: ‘The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave it neither power nor time.’