How I became a writer (and maybe how you can too)

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When I started Our Story Time eight months ago, I kept avoiding writing my blog for as long as I could. I had told my coach that my past career as an author and journalist was behind me; that I was drawing a line and starting afresh. "I'm not the person I used to be," I remember telling her. "It's not about writing."

And yet, truly, it is so much about the writing. Starting my blog here and writing these weekly long reads has become one of my favourite parts of Our Story Time - even more so than the joy in discovering something rare and wonderful for the shop. For me, it feels like each week I can talk to you through my long reads. It feels like I'm getting to know you. Like you're getting to know me. It feels like a real connection, a real spark, something special happening in this big deep sea of vastness and the unknown. That's what happens when you speak your truth with words. You reach out, empathise, connect, form friendships with strangers from far-off lands.

I haven't really told you all that much about my being a writer, my relationship with writing. It's a huge part of me. I make reference to it here and there, but I have always tended to shy away from talking about it. It's a bit like having a beautiful dress that you're too scared to wear. Instead of putting it on, you just look at it, marvel at it, from time to time. Then you fold it up carefully and put it back in a box on a shelf in a cupboard somewhere. You tell yourself you don't deserve something so beautiful. You have nowhere to wear it too anyway. Yes, it's a bit like that - writing and me. 

From time to time, people respond to my Instagram captions; they ask if I'm a writer, they tell me I express myself beautifully. And it fills my heart with joy, more so than likes and follows. Because that's what means the most to me. Honest-to-god, hands-down. Writing feels most natural to me and when people respond to it; well, it's thrilling.

For those of you that only know me as Our Story Time, a shop owner, then this might seem like it's all a bit disjointed and strange. But far from it. All the different things I love, from sourcing products for my shop to writing this blog, are coming together. Different parts of me are winding together inseparably, like thick thirds of dark hair weaving in and out of each other to form a beautiful yet unruly braid. It's all beginning to fit.

So this is the story of how I became a writer, hid from it for a short while and then discovered it again. This is the story of how, in a roundabout way, I am right back to where I've always been. Writing, again.  I am sharing this story because so many of us hide away, shy away, from parts of us that we think no longer make sense because of day jobs or family roles and the expectations of others. So many of us keep beautiful dresses hidden at the back of dark cupboards. But I found my creativity again, and I hope that in some way I can help you find yours too.

Like all writers, my story starts in childhood. I was a precocious and ferocious reader - storming every book that was ever available to me. I remember reading all of Jane Austen's novels the year before I started secondary school. My father was always reading too and so I grew up with his books all over the house. He read just about everything, from books on American politics and Pakistani cricket to Dickens, Hardy and airport thrillers. He wrote inside the cover of each one in pencil, scribbling down the date when and the place where it was bought. This is a trait I inherited. I still love looking back inside the covers of my most cherished books; each date marking a moment in my life which led me to choose that particular book at that particular time. Each book a marker, a reflection of my state of mind, my likes, my dislikes.

My father and I used to swap books, share reads. He successfully steered me away from a mild obsession with Regency romances (fuelled by my English literature teacher who gave me a box of hardback Georgette Heyer novels that were about to be thrown out of the school library) and instead left copies of brutal, challenging books upon my desk in my bedroom, books like Catch-22 and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Sometimes he'd leave a note with his recommendations, the paper torn from his medical pad, his doctor's scrawl emphatically and simply saying: "Read this! It's good!"

I always knew I wanted to write. I loved losing myself in all these different worlds. A good book made me feel something, left me slightly dizzy, my heart pounding, alive and real. I wished desperately to know how writers could do this. I wanted so much to do it too. I remember having a conversation with a best friend at school, both of us discussing in earnest what it must feel like to actually be as brilliant as JD Salinger. To know that you could move someone so much (we were both a little bit in love with Holden Caulfield, as every single teenage girl before us and since has been too). I wondered what it must be like to have such magic in you; the magic to create whole entire lands and worlds and people that aren't even real but feel real. I wondered what it would take to be able to write beautifully.

And yet, I didn't know where to start - not really. As a girl, I wrote bad poetry which I shared with my best friend but hid from my mother. I wrote the occasional short story about growing up but again, I hid all of this too, inside my huge GCSE art folder where other girls hid copies of Just 17. But even as I grew into adulthood, I still didn't quite know what to do when faced with an empty page. I loved the idea of writing, and I was still an obsessive reader (the kind that would take two books with me on the tube, one as back up just in case I happened to finish the other before I got home). But every time I tried to write, tried to follow through one story idea or another, I got frightened by the blankness.

So instead, I turned another form of writing into a career. As a young twenty-something journalist on a national newspaper, I learnt the craft of news reporting. But I found it dry, awkward. Brevity, as you may have guessed, doesn't exactly come naturally to me. Then one day I pitched a feature to another section of the paper, and all at once I felt I had found my calling. In features, I could find my own voice, offer my own quiet observations, steer stories in my own direction. And so, for the longest time, that was the extent of my writing. I was happy doing it this way. 

And then early one spring morning, my father died. 

And soon after I realised that writing creatively,  the sort of writing that comes from inside of you, was the only way to make sense of it all. 

I started to commit to a writing practice. I attended creative writing classes where the minute my classmates found out I was a journalist, they just assumed I didn't even need to be there. But I did. What I needed was the space to write. The place to write. The gentle encouragement to get started. I enrolled in a course at the Faber Academy. I read books on writing and writerly inspiration all the time. I wanted to do this thing, this writerly thing that I had been feeling inside me since I was a child, justice. I wanted to make it count. 

When I turned thirty, I wrote a short story and entered it into a writing competition run by Psychologies magazine. It was called A Journey and it was about travelling home with my father's body the night before his funeral. It was semi-fictional; it had been years since he died by then. I changed names, and looking back my writing then was starker than it is now, but the sentiment came from a place of truth. It was something I needed to explore and stepping into a character (who was not me) let me do this. The competition was judged by the then-editor (the highly respected Louise Chunn) and a fiction editor from Bloomsbury and both of them read my story. I didn't win, but I was the runner-up, the only one highly commended. A Journey was printed. It was my first published story. 

I learnt, then, that there was value in finding my own truth in my writing. That that was where the magic came from. Taking what was inside of me and making it real, letting unspoken feelings speak. And so I began to write more feature pieces, but this time more about me; my background, my thoughts, my experiences. It was still all for newspapers, so not fictional writing, but it enabled me to find my own style, the voice that would go on to inform my literary writing.

One thing led to another. I had just found out I was pregnant with my first child when a publisher asked to meet; he was in town for the London Book Fair. He asked if I had an idea for a book; I replied I'd always wanted to write short stories. By the end of the meeting, as I sipped sparkling water to keep my secret morning sickness at bay, he offered me a book deal. Soon after, a literary agent got in touch and signed me up. I wrote half of the book. My baby boy was born. I wrote the other half. I dedicated it to my first child (now aged four, he loves to tell people that "Mama wrote a book for me.").

                 Me, at my book launch in 2014 (I didn't realise at the time, but I was pregnant with my second little boy in this photo)

               Me, at my book launch in 2014 (I didn't realise at the time, but I was pregnant with my second little boy in this photo)

My book, called In Spite of Oceans, was a collection of short stories inspired by real lives. My publisher called it a book about "the immigrant experience" but I call it a book about quiet, often heartbreaking family life set to a south Asian cultural background. I wrote about love and loss. I wrote about the burden of expectations that make your heart heavy. In my introduction, this is how I explain the thought behind the stories I wrote: 

"Every story is, in its own way, a story of a journey. Sometimes the journey is literal, moving across oceans. Other times it is intangible, a journey of understanding and, often, coming to terms with what some call circumstance and others call fate. Each of these stories explore, in its own way, the connection to a different land and a different time, place and culture. Sometimes that connection is cherished and celebrated. Other times it is severed with hurt and pain. In some cases, it is simply something that just can't be shaken or thrown away, binding us against our will, or forever in the background, quietly humming. Sometimes the connection is strong and loud, other times it is vague, weak and fading. But no matter how subtle it is, it is always there, a reminder of the past forever present and the journey we make to be who we are, where we are, today."

I had a distinguished book launch that felt a little bit like a dream, a speech made by one of my Observer editors. I won an award. My work was well reviewed. A successful and brilliant novelist whose work I loved and looked up to chose my book as her "book of the year" in a newspaper piece. I won a few more awards for new stories published in anthologies and writing publications. I was on my way. 

Or at least I should have been. At the same time, people I knew in writing circles were launching books loudly on Twitter, putting themselves in front of every opportunity to talk - loudly, again - about their books. And I couldn't do it. I lacked confidence. My self-doubt kept reminding me that my publisher was only small, my name so unknown. I started describing my book as "no big deal" to anyone that happened to mention it to me. I hid. 

If you follow my long reads, then you will know a little bit about my story from last year - the manuscript I was supposed to produce for my agent but couldn't (if you don't know this, you can read it all here). I thought that my inability to produce a second book while pregnant and sick must have reflected in some way on me and my lack of "talent" - not the external and difficult circumstances I was in. And so of course, I punished myself for it. Banished my writing into a hidden file on my computer. Told myself it was all over. Cried for all that I had lost, all that I could have been. I mourned (this was the sort of drama I was prone to before I discovered ways to live more mindfully, less intensely).

But a few weeks ago, I uncovered the files I'd hidden in a desktop folder inside another desktop folder. And it made me excited to read words I'd forgotten I'd even written again. Sometimes, you write something and it's good - so good you can't believe that you wrote it. That's a feeling that I don't want to hide away from anymore. I'm not saying this to be boastful or arrogant; I'm saying it because we all hide away from our talents far too often, "no big deal," we say, when they are a big deal. Because they make us who we are. And to ignore them and not give ourselves credit for what we're good at is hurtful and self-destructive and an unkind way to live.

I may not quite be ready to dive back into a manuscript, but I'm writing these long reads now. I'm starting to feel more inspired than I have been in a while. This week, after a pretty tough weekend of  overwhelm (again), I did something I hadn't done in ages - browsed a beautiful bookstore, just because. I picked up fiction, not books on parenting or self care or self help or business. I used to keep an on-going list on my phone of all the fiction books I wanted to read, and I used to love reading book reviews in the paper. I've not done that for a while and if I'm honest, I've lost touch a little with the book scene. But I'm so excited to dive back in again. Read a book for its beauty, not because of its claim to help my business grow or help my children sleep. So, I've come full circle. Ready to embrace the reader in me again, in preparation to write again.

I'd love to help you find your writing voice

I know what it's like to yearn creativity and not know where to find it. I know what it's like to crave a chance to escape from the every day (it is, after all, why I created Our Story Time - as a place to come to to find wonder, magic and inspiration). I know what it's like to be shy, to be scared. I believe listening to our creative voices can free a little bit of that doubt, can lift us lightly into fantastic lands.  

I have some ideas I am working on. I haven't quite figured it all out yet, but I'm hoping to find a way to gently guide you towards tapping into that creative writing voice inside of you, the one that speaks the sort of truth that could help you write something powerful and emotive, words and sentences and stories that could make you, and those that read your words, feel, really feel.

I'd love to know if any of you would want to take this journey with me - maybe we'll do writing work shops, maybe courses - and I'd love to see where your own writing voices might take you too. If any of this has sparked your curiosity then please let me know if you'd be interested in learning more on writing with me. You can write to me using the form below. Let me know what you're thinking, if I've inspired you at all. I can't wait to see - or read - what magic we might create. 

If you'd love to tap into your creativity, then simply fill in the form below. 

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(Please note, this form won't subscribe you to anything, it'll simply mean we can start a conversation about writing and I can keep you posted on my plans to develop this into something more. Click here to read my privacy statement.)

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