The story of what made me become a writer is, like most things in real life, not really a proper story at all. It doesn’t have much of a narrative arc, and has few original twists and turns, no high drama or farcical bathos, exciting characters or poignant moments – and it hasn’t yet reached a satisfying conclusion (and probably never will).
It is, in fact, almost certainly very similar to the autobiographical ‘stories’ other people who write tell.
People need certain things to become that strange creature, the writer. One is the sort of brain that finds reading and writing easy and enjoyable. Not everyone has this. In fact, many people actively dislike reading and writing, which is one reason why there is so much more writing in the world than there are people willing to read it. But I was lucky enough to be born one of the ‘reading and writing’ people, though my interest fluctuated. My mother has long claimed that I could recite nursery rhymes before age one, and could read long before I started school. I have no way of confirming this as she never recorded my precocious verbal performances. I do know, however, that whatever my toddlerish skills were, I had lost my interest in books by the time I was six or seven. I enjoyed having stories read to me, and I loved TV, particularly cartoons, but my own reading actually declined after I started school and I ended up having remedial reading lessons when I was seven. The reality was that I could read but I was simply too lazy and lacking in interest to be bothered. I’d rather watch a cartoon on TV.
Another factor that many potential writers seem to have is some sort of dysfunctional family situation. You rarely hear about writers who came from perfectly average, perfectly happy, conventional, stable families, do you? My parents divorced when I was seven, and I’ve hardly seen my father since. In those days, divorce was still fairly uncommon and I think adults expected it would have some major detrimental impact on my development. In reality, I can’t remember ever missing my dad or being upset about the divorce. In fact, I quite enjoyed the attention I got for a while, as a result. However, the divorce did mean we were very poor (my dad never paid maintenance) and my mum had to work, so I was something of a latch-key child who looked after my little sister, who was five years my junior. This sounds much more violin-inducing than it actually was. In fact, it meant I had a lot of freedom as a child, something else which is useful to a quiet introvert who enjoys her own company (ie, typical writer!).
Aged seven, I was introduced to Enid Blyton by a friend and, from then onwards, I transformed into an avid reader. I adored Blyton, and her novels inspired me to want to write myself – an ambition which was made miraculously possible when, on my eighth birthday, my mum bought me a Brother typewriter. This was one of the best presents I’ve ever had and I have no idea why she thought of it. I suspect my teacher put the idea into her head.
I wrote my first novel when I was eight. It was called ‘Brownies Go To Camp’, and was, predictably, the story of a Brownie pack who face multiple outlandish crises while camping, such as almost drowning, escaping from a forest fire, and being attacked by a rabid dog. The Risk Assessment forms for that trip must have been very long. I remember the brownies all had names reminiscent of the 1950s – Pamela, Valerie, Sylvia, etc – and my spelling was atrocious. BUT I have to say that, having seen the written work of many eight year olds since then, I can see now that my writing a ten-chapter-long novel at all, however dreadful, was exceptional. I have noticed that many writers report writing their first novel around that age, and, if you happen to be born with the potential to be a writer, this is probably the time when it first starts manifesting itself.
Another factor that I think is helpful, if not actually crucial, for the budding writer is an adult mentor. One such person was my fourth year junior school teacher, Mrs Burgess. She was a woman who bore an unfortunate physical resemblance to Margaret Thatcher, and had something of her manner and way of speaking too. She was a formidable woman, and not universally popular, BUT, for whatever reason, she spotted something worthwhile in me and did all she could to bring it out, and for that I will always be grateful to her. She chose my poems to display on the walls, read out my long stories in school assemblies, chose me and my friend to be ‘editors’ of the class newsletter, and – most importantly, in some ways – finally helped me to move on from reading only Enid Blyton by introducing me to the Narnia books, and the joy of libraries. Whatever happened to Mrs Burgess? She is probably dead now, though I’m hoping she was much younger than her dress sense and hair-do suggested.
In secondary school, I was – like many people who become writers – a quiet subversive. I hated my comprehensive and skipped school a lot of the time. I also missed a lot of school due to illness (another common trope in writers’ biographies). I might have learned some maths if I hadn’t been allowed to write stories in my maths book (which my maths teacher, the widely-adored Mr Dodd, good-naturedly marked). But the sheer incompetence of the school I attended gave me the space to write. I started up a school magazine with my friends in the Art Club, run by one of the few excellent teachers there, Mr Edwards. I wrote copious comic stories about Andy Dodd, Detective (based on the previously-mentioned maths teacher), which entertained a small audience of pupils. I had a dry sense of humour which helped me avoid the worst of the bullying. And, because the teachers were too frazzled to set the large quantities of homework kids get these days, I had time to write.
So, I had all the things an incipient writer needs – a bit of basic ability, time, encouragement from adults, my own bedroom (in our tiny council house) and my own typewriter. While still at school, I wrote large chunks of several unfinished ‘novels’ (mostly school stories along the lines of Enid Blyton’s ‘Malory Towers’), and several complete (though short) novels, usually based on wish-fulfilment fantasies about actors or rock stars I fancied. This was in the days before fan-fiction became a thing, but I suspect a decade or so later, I would have been one of those teenage girls writing frenzied alternative Harry Potter stories where Harry meets a shy young northerner who didn’t realise she had magical powers and falls in love with her…
I did A Levels at my local FE college, and then I worked in a local library for a year before going to university where I got a very average degree in English literature. After this, I worked in the library again for a while, during which time I shared a house with a friend, before we both decided to train to be FE teachers (mainly due to lacking any other realistic ambitions). During these years, I continued writing and joined several local writing groups. I actually got my first ever publication soon after leaving university. It was a poem about the conflict between Iran and Iraq, published in a now defunct magazine called ‘The Wide Skirt’, and I remember being thrilled by this achievement. During my PGCE course, I fell in love and went temporarily insane, as people in love for the first time often do. As a result, the only things I wrote were about The Love Of My Life. I missed so many lectures and tutorials, because I preferred lying in bed with TLOML, that I am amazed that I got the qualification, to be honest. A few months after we graduated, TLOML decided I wasn’t The Love Of His Life and we split up, which felt like the worst tragedy I could ever face. I was working in the Housing Benefits office of my local council at the time, and there was another young woman in the office whose marriage had recently ended in divorce after only eighteen months, and we both used to go to the toilets and weep uncontrollably, often together, at frequent intervals! Despite this, I started seeing someone else six weeks later, though this was a doomed rebound relationship which I ended after a few months. This whole experience did make my poetry much better, however.
During this period, I had a short collection of poems published in a chapbook, along with two other local women poets, and when I started working in the office, my boss congratulated me on this publication (his wife had apparently brought it to his attention). That was quite a thrill and made me a very, very minor celebrity in the office for a week or so. I was also interviewed on Radio Sheffield which was a dire experience – I was so nervous, I sounded like a moron.
The following year, I began my teaching career, first in Northamptonshire and then in London, where I lived for eleven years. While there, I met my current partner, and attended several excellent writing courses run by Goldsmiths and Birkbeck. I started submitting work to literary journals seriously and had the occasional acceptance. I won a few small competitions. I wrote poems and stories and started several novels. Two friends and I wrote a sitcom which we submitted to the BBC. A commissioning editor liked it and told us she would have commissioned it except that they had only recently accepted something on a similar theme. She urged us to write something else and send it to her, but by the time we did, she was no longer working for the BBC and her replacement didn’t like our new script. Writing the sitcom was the best fun I’ve ever had.
We moved back up north soon after that. A year after we moved here, I was given a £10,000 bursary so I could leave my job teaching in a local FE college, for a year, and write a novel. Yes, I can never say I haven’t had every opportunity to become a writer, can I? Sadly, I didn’t finish the novel during that year, but I did start getting more things published. I had a humorous opinion piece published in the Times Educational Supplement. I won several larger competitions. I wrote a lot of educational material. I look back on this time and regret that I didn’t make more of the chances I had, chances which many people don’t get, but there isn’t much point in regretting stuff.
When the year’s sabbatical ended, I had to look for a job again. I did use some of the money to pay for a year of a Masters course in Writing at a local university, which was incredibly stimulating and my poetry improved considerably as a result. I started getting poems accepted much more frequently. However, I couldn’t afford to complete that course. A decade later, I finally did an MA in Creative Writing with the Open University where I focused on prose fiction. I graduated in 2020.
During the last twenty years, I have had around 150 poems published, quite a number of stories too, and I have won or been shortlisted for several competitions, including the Bridport Prize, the National Poetry Prize and the Templar Pamphlet Competition. A couple of my poems appeared in an edition of Agenda which also featured poetry by Seamus Heaney! I’ve had several poems published by Dublin-based mag The Stinging Fly, which writer Sally Rooney edited at one time. I’ve had poems published in both online and print magazines, one or two of which are archived in the National Poetry Library. This year, one of my poems was used in English Review, a journal aimed at A Level English students and teachers where a poem is used in each edition as a practical criticism exercise.
This all looks fabulous, doesn’t it? Laid out on the page like this, it suggests I’m a success as a writer. But in fact, in my most successful years, I’ve had no more than 35-40% of submissions accepted. Most magazines don’t pay for poems and short stories, and most competitions have entry fees, so there has been very little financial reward. In most years, I tend to do just slightly better than breaking even, but I end some years at a loss. Last year, I made a profit because my prize for winning the Arts Quarterly short story prize was £750 – that helped to disguise the number of rejections I’d had, and the number of competitions I’d got nowhere in! This year, so far, I’m definitely operating at a loss. I’ve been sending work to more prestigious journals which are unlikely to accept it, and to US markets, which don’t seem very interested in it. And the fact of the matter is that I’m an unknown writer, despite the publications. Few people read literary journals. I have a blog which gets around 50-60 fairly regular readers, insufficient to impress any potential agent.
And the main reason I don’t consider myself a success as a writer is that I have yet to finish writing a novel, let alone being rejected by agents. I’ve written a large chunk of a fantasy novel called Hollowmouth which has been read by several trusted people who have been very positive and urged me to finish it. I put it on hold while I did the Masters course, but since I graduated in 2020 I haven’t exactly got back to it with any great energy or enthusiasm. I frequently have new, good ideas about it, but I rarely actually do any work on it. Simply completing it, let alone getting it published, now seems like a major achievement.
I’m now wondering whether I am in fact a writer, or simply a person who got it into her head as a child that it would be cool to be an ‘authoress’. I got a Distinction on the Masters course, which in many ways was a great achievement and I certainly worked hard for it, but I know people who achieved marks well below their ability, so it is just as likely that Distinctions are also meaningless. Along with many positive comments, a tutor wrote on my final assignment that my writing was ‘at times rather flat and pedestrian’. This is something that has stayed with me, because it echoes a secret fear I have always had that somehow my writing lacks that indefinable spark that makes people sit up and take notice. Getting older isn’t helping either. I worry that my writing has reached its Best Before date and will no longer improve.
However, I’ve always believed that you have to learn from your failures. When I think about the various setbacks I’ve had in my writing ‘career’, two in particular stand out. One was when I was studying for A Level English and we had the option of writing a short story as part of the exam, rather than writing a discursive essay. In one practice we did, I handed in a short story, but I soon regretted it. The teacher, a man I really liked, admired and respected, thought it was ‘cringeworthy’ and advised that I would be much better sticking to writing discursive essays in future. He suggested we ‘draw a veil’ over the whole episode, and it was never mentioned again. This left me reeling with shock and embarrassment, and I believed him for several months. However, eventually, I realised that the story I had submitted was indeed dreadful – I had been too eager to please and impress the teacher and I had written something deeply pretentious. Though the teacher was undiplomatic, he was correct in his judgement and I learnt from the experience.
Sharp criticism is sometimes difficult to take, however. The other occasion when I received particularly hurtful criticism of my writing was when I was studying for a degree in English with the Open University, in my thirties. I had a fairly pleasant tutor, a young woman, and I decided to give her a few of my poems for her opinion. She told me that she didn’t feel qualified to comment (which was itself nonsense) but she had a friend who was a published poet and who taught creative writing at a northern University. She asked if she could send the poems to him. I agreed and a few weeks later I received his verdict. He had written his comments in the form of a brief letter which he had sent to her – he hadn’t, I think, intended for me to read this letter directly as it was addressed to my tutor, but the tutor (who was actually, I now think, a bit of a bitch) decided to simply pass this note onto me, rather than couching it in diplomatic language. He said that he thought my poems were derivative and old-fashioned, and that I lacked genuine ability and should try reading some contemporary poets. As an A Level Eng Lit teacher, I read loads of contemporary poetry, so this comment was particularly mystifying. The feedback was entirely negative, and completely scathing. I remember being seriously pissed off by it, but also feeling like I’d been punched in the gut. It made me stop writing altogether for several months.
There is a cool addendum to this anecdote, however. About five years later, after we had moved back to Yorkshire, I embarked on the first year of a Masters course in creative writing at a northern university and my poetry tutor turned out to be – guess who? Yes, the bloke who had written that letter! I never told him who I was and he clearly didn’t remember my name. However, he gave me a Distinction for my poetry on his course and was actually a very helpful, supportive and insightful tutor in real life. So, why had his opinion of my poetry changed? I think it was simply because maybe I had taken his earlier comments to heart but, instead of giving up, I had worked harder and my poetry had improved substantially. Tell me I can’t do something and I’m the bloody-minded type who wants to prove you wrong.
I mention these two incidents to show that you should never wholly believe either negative or positive criticism of your writing, but just take from it what is useful.
So, am I a writer? Well, I’m a person who writes (though not much at the moment). Do I feel I have fulfilled my potential as a writer? I have certainly failed to take full advantage of opportunities that have presented themselves, but on the other hand I have written as much as I could within my capabilities. Am I the writer I hoped to become when I was eight and who, when asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, always told people that I intended to be ‘an authoress’? Well, I haven’t had a novel published, or even finished one, which is a disappointment. But I still have time to finish Hollowmouth. And I have produced some poems that I know are very good (alongside many that I know definitely aren’t!). And I’ve written one or two short stories I’m proud of. It’s true that I haven’t made a living through writing, but most writers don’t manage to do this anyway.
The ultimate question is: has trying to be a writer been worthwhile? The thing is, if you are a writer, you can’t help but write. It isn’t so much what you do as who you are. There have been times in my life when I have consciously decided to stop writing for months at a time, but the writing just seeps back into my life. I find myself writing more handouts for students, more social media posts, jotting down lines of poems, random metaphors, jokes. I make up stories on car journeys for my seven year old nephew. I find myself singing as I do the housework and realise that I’m making up the songs as I go along.
A writer, good or bad, just is.
Author biography: Louise Wilford lives in Yorkshire, UK. Her poetry and short stories have been widely published, most recently in Bandit, Failbetter, Jaden, POTB, Makarelle and English Review. In 2020, she won First Prize in the Arts Quarterly Short Story Competition and the Merefest poetry competition, and was awarded a Masters in Creative Writing (Distinction). She is working on a fantasy novel.