How long have I been writing? It’s a simple question, but the answer is… not. In fact, far from being simple, the answer isn’t singular. There are a number of equally accurate responses, depending on what kind of writing you’re talking about.
In the bio that I share about myself all around the internet, I say I’ve “been writing poetry and short stories since primary school and been blogging for over ten years.” Which is true and works well as a summary but, by its very nature of being a summary, leaves out some pretty key details.
I mean, everyone writes stories and poems in primary school, right? For class assignments if nothing else. It was just that I never really stopped.
I focused on poetry in high school. In the five years I was there (2000-2005), I think I wrote about 100 poems total. Some might consider that not many, some might count it as a lot. I guess it doesn’t matter either way because most of them have been lost (some intentionally and some inadvertently) in the years since.
In college (2005-2007 | ages 16-18), I don’t think I wrote anything other than a metric shit-ton of coursework.
My very first ever blog was made in February 2007, but I only got a couple of hundred words on there before I swiftly forgot about it. It was 2015 that I found it again, during a random Google search.
My time at university (2007-2010) was when I really got into blogging regularly (if not all in the same place).
2009 was the year I first attempted National Novel Writing Month, for which I completed a grand total of 216 words.
In 2011 I started writing posts for other blogs for free. (I mean – ahem – exposure.) And had my first ever poem published in an anthology – which turned out to be by a vanity publisher (not that I knew what that was).
I also signed up for a workshop with Nicola Morgan. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was a real turning point for me.
March 2011, at age twenty-two (actually on my twenty-second birthday itself), I flew from Belfast to Edinburgh for Nicola’s workshop. She was promoting her forthcoming book, ‘Write to be Published‘ off the back of her ‘Help, I Need a Publisher!‘ blog that I had been reading religiously for months.
I was actually telling my husband this the other day – about how, for my first couple years of ‘trying to write a novel’, I spent most of my writing time actually reading posts about grammar, punctuation, and the publishing process instead.
Following my research, I was feeling pretty confident in my abilities. I expected Nicola to be wowed by both my talent and the novel I was working on.
Boy, was I in for a shock.
My submission (synopsis and first three chapters, I believe it was) needed to be sent to Nicola in advance so that she could have a chance to read everyone’s work and tailor her workshop to the needs of her attendees. This excited the life out of me. A published writer was going to be reading my words! Eagerly, I opened the email containing her initial thoughts. I can’t find that email now, but the essence of it was, “I’m concerned the workshop might be a little beyond you.”
As it turned out, I wasn’t so good at the writing thing.
I’d been all through primary and secondary education – with even some university experience – and I was still pretty clueless about voice, and tone, and point of view. I didn’t know about indenting lines. I didn’t even know you always had to start a new line if someone new started talking, figuring that it was only really necessary if the dialogue switch wasn’t clear.
My dialogue switches were not clear.
I knew when I’d moved into a different character’s head, but anyone else reading my work didn’t. Nicola very delicately had to tell me that what I’d given her was an indecipherable mess. She actually felt so bad, she offered me a one-to-one session instead of going to her workshop.
Still not quite realizing how bad my writing was, or how big an opportunity being offered a one-to-one session was, I replied to say, “Nah, it’s okay. I still just want to take part in the regular workshop.”
I’m still mortified about that to this day and I can only imagine Nicola’s reaction to my response, but she accepted my decision. (And she’s assured me on Twitter since that she doesn’t remember any of this.)
I went to the workshop, and I did learn a lot – mostly that I was way out of my depth.
You see the graph I’ve put in the top left of this blog post, charting experience against confidence? To that point, I was right at the start of it: knowing relatively nothing but believing myself brilliant.
I’ve marked on said graph the where I think I am now, but who’s to say? The whole point of it is to show how clueless we, as a species, are about comprehending our own abilities.
What I can say, objectively, is that I’ve written a hell of a lot more words now than I had back in 2011. I’ve sat with those words for longer. I’ve had more of them published, and the feedback I get these days is mostly positive.
The thing about working in a creative industry is that there isn’t a clear career ladder. Everyone finds their own path in a different way, and everyone’s journey is a different length. So, it’s hard to tell how well you’re really doing, but I still think reflecting on how far you’ve come is important.
What happened for me between 2011 and now? Well, it was 2012 when I joined a writing group and tried NaNo again. And I won, completing 50,000 words in thirty days! That was the same year I self-published my first (and second) collection of poetry and short stories.
I’ve been taking part in NaNoWriMo (and CampNaNo) every year since, sometimes meeting my goals, sometimes not.
July 2013 was when I started writing fanfiction, finding other people’s worlds a really great place to hone my craft.
In 2014 and 2015, I won awards for my fanfiction.
2015 and 2016, I was shortlisted for the Bangor Poetry competition and in 2017 I got a poem in an anthology by Arlen House.
Last year, I got a full bursary to the John Hewitt International Summer School.
These are the milestones by which I measure myself, these days. They won’t be the same milestones as others, and that’s okay. The milestones don’t come up as regularly as I expected, and that’s okay too. I like to think my expectations have got a lot more realistic.
Back in 2011, if you had told me that I still wouldn’t have a novel published eight years later, I would have been devastated. I would have considered myself a failure, and I would have given up there and then. I couldn’t have begun to conceive it taking that long.
Now? I’m mostly relieved it hasn’t taken me longer to get to this point, where I have a pretty solid novel that’s out on submission and funding from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland to write the sequel.
I am almost thirty years old and I know for a fact – because they’ve told me – that some other writers are impressed with what stage I’m at in my writing. Just goes to show, doesn’t it?