Confessions of a College Dropout

My quest for writerdom

Lately, I’ve been wondering… what makes a writer?

Am I still a writer?  Do I still count?

I’ve been calling myself a writer since I was eight years old, and at that age, the title was totally legitimate.  I was finding a home at Hogwarts with Harry and falling in love with the craft that J.K. Rowling brought to my attention.  She was the one who reached out to me with her books and said “Look what I did.  You can do it too.”

Up until that point I was just waiting for grownuphood to land upon me so that I could finally begin living the creative life that filled my head every day; I thought the only way to get my ideas across as I saw them was to produce them in a film format.  At age eight I was quietly waiting to have the means to become a filmmaker, and what a long wait it would have been if J.K. hadn’t stepped in.

I began to write short stories, filling copy books with tales from my daydreams.  The only limit I set myself was that each story had to be at least 20 pages; after all, I was in training to become a writer, wasn’t I?!  I roped in another friend who also aspired to write (a fellow fan of my mentor, J.K.) and so we wrote stories and exchanged them for critique (although at that age, critique really meant just telling each other how great we were.  And we were great.  We were a tiny pair of writers).

My true career as a writer began, I suppose, one day when Denise, my writing companion, and I were supposed to exchange stories in school, but Denise didn’t turn up.  She was sick, so I called her as soon as I was set free from school and we read our stories to each other over the phone.

I could tell my writing was improving; with each read-through I was able to identify mistakes that I would never make again in any stories to follow.  My stories were also growing in length, because I was finding it easier to write.  The words seemed to jump from my brain and onto the page, via my aching but determined left hand.

My mother overheard my reading for Denise and she alerted me to her totally-biased opinion that my story was actually quite good.  She said we should try to get some of my work published, a thought which had never crossed my mind and seemed only slightly implausible.

HP books
The ‘Harry Potter’ collection by J.K. Rowling

It was also my mother who read Harry Potter to me every single night before bed.  The series inspired me with every page and my passion for storytelling was flaring up so brightly, it was a struggle to contain.

Until one day, when I was eleven, I decided not to contain it anymore.  I may not have had the means to produce a film yet, but I had the means to write a book.  I had my imagination, I had access to our family desktop computer and I had two hands which would very quickly learn to touch-type.

And so I just started.  I had a vague notion of what I wanted to write about (a young orphan who is adopted and then sent away to boarding school where he discovers a magical world through a secret passageway.  Carl Cooper and the Secret Behind the Statue… basically a very very poor man’s Harry Potter) and in no time at all I had written several pages.  And those pages grew to chapters.  But before those chapters could grow into a novel, my teacher made an announcement in class.

We were going to be participating in the ‘Write a Book‘ project this year, a project in which students each wrote a book (go figure).  Then all the books would be swapped around so that the participants all read each other’s work and a vote determined the winners, as well as, probably, Terry Hassett Henry, a writer who also read the books and presented the awards.

Once the competition was announced, I knew I had to win.  This was the first opportunity that had just fallen into my lap at the exact right moment.  I couldn’t believe my luck; I had the chance to meet a real author and have her acknowledge my work.  I could ‘network’, my mother informed me.  She tried to explain the importance of ‘networking’ and ‘making contacts’, but I never quite got the significance.  I just knew I had to win, to prove myself as a writer.

And I did.

I couldn’t say for certain how long it took me, but once I had started my book I wrote and wrote and wrote until fairly late the night before the deadline.  My mother stayed up with me and proof-read it; I made my first ever set of edits and then we printed it and she had it bound for me the next day.  We were quite the book-producing team, my mother and I!  About a month later the winners from my school were announced and I was one of them.

I was brimming with pride as I stood on that tiny platform stage, where Terry Hassett Henry presented me with my ribbon and certificate and announced to the room that, coming in at 117 pages, I was the writer of the longest book that she had ever seen come through that competition.  She said she expected to see my name in print someday, and I’ve been waiting for that day ever since.

Me (far right) with Jade Williams, Denise Fitzgerald and Danielle McGlynn, the other three of the Write A Book Project winners from my school (2004)

The following year my class entered the competition again and I won again.  I didn’t beat my previous record for the longest book, but I decided that quality was more important than quantity and I was pretty sure this submission’s quality was superior to that of the previous year.  I even included illustrations in this one!  Like a proper real-life twelve-year-old.

Later that year I entered my first book into an unpublished author’s novel competition run by Trafford Publishing.  They wrote back to say that I had, unfortunately, not won the competition but they were interested in publishing my book anyway.  They sent me a hefty information packet to read through and showed great interest in my story about Carl Cooper.  Of course, I took it with about a handful of salt, as Trafford Publishing are a self-publishing company.  And of course, as a child, I didn’t have the money to self-publish.  Nor do I now, in fact.

So I let it lie and continued submitting elsewhere.  Six months later Trafford wrote back to me one more time expressing interest in my book, but I -ambitious twelve-year-old- decided I wanted to hold out and be traditionally published.

The years went by and my two books both won new awards, Trinity Access Programme awards, which were particularly special to me as my mother is a very proud Trinity graduate, so the achievement carried some extra weight with me.  It wasn’t just another set of certificates.  There was true pride there.

My writing certs and ribbons

By this point I had also received a lovely rejection letter from Poolbeg Press Limited, telling me that their children’s lists were full for the year but that I showed great potential and should keep writing.  I still cherish that letter, even though I know the writer of it was simply being kind to an enthusiastic child.  Nevertheless, my first experience of being rejected by a publisher was really quite a pleasant one, and since then I have not had much experience of rejection because I haven’t submitted work to any of them.

As I got older, perfectionism became my major downfall.  I was, and still am, so proud of those first two books, but at age fifteen I sat down to write my fourth novel (there’s a third one in there somewhere, but it was basically a repeat of book #1) and by this time I meant business.

This one was different.  It wasn’t a Harry-Potter-wannabe and it wasn’t a biofic (is that a thing?) of my family.  It was a historical fiction; a romance.

In other words, a story which I was entirely unqualified to write.

I wasn’t very into history and I hadn’t read any period pieces.  Essentially this one came about because I was enjoying many a Jane Austen film adaptation and I wanted to explore the genre.  The historical accuracy is, I’m sure, very non-existent and the language used was a total guess.  That book was 420-something pages and there was a lot of good stuff in there, but ultimately, I knew it also was not good enough to send to the almighty-publishers.

Three of my first four novels

So, as it got closer and closer to the dreaded Leaving Cert, my writing was mostly contained to my English class, writing essays and short stories and analyses of texts.  School was my priority, as it had been for basically my entire life, so writing took a backseat.

But then I had graduated, went to college, dropped out after a semester and then, finally, I was mentally free to write again, which is what I did.  I began writing Souterrain,the fantasy novel that all of my previous writing and reading experience had been leading up to.  It was so perfectly me and so much fun to write.  It’s the one that I’m certain is destined for publication someday.  Again though, it’s not ready for the publishers.

My writing, I thought, was as good as it would ever be, but one excellent writing workshop taught me that the structure needed work.  And that’s what I was working on… but then I found myself back in college.

I won’t bore you with the grim details (that’s another story for a different day), but basically, so far, I’ve been in various colleges for the last several years and in all that time in third level, my writing has come to a screeching ear-shattering halt.

My creativity has felt incredibly limited as I’ve tried to claw my way to a degree, most of my mental energy going into, not only college work, but also convincing myself to hang in there until graduation.  I’ve been drained, my brain already expending so much energy to keep me in school that it isn’t willing to attempt anything more.

It’s something that I have fought against, but not hard enough.  I’d lost the enthusiasm and the will to keep writing, but the intention to get back to it always lingered.

My thoughts were always that I would take some time away from writing, focus on getting through school and then, when I was re-entering the real world, my writing and I would reunite (I guess old habits die hard).  In the end it would all have been worth it because I’d have earned my degree and I’d make my way towards a career in writing, I assured myself.

I surrendered to my lack of energy, motivation, enthusiasm and vowed to get back to it once I had dragged myself through college.

Now though, I’m getting close to that finish line.  I have one year left before I graduate and, unsurprisingly, no novel to show for it.  I know that Souterrain is the big one, the one that I’ve been waiting for, but now I’m scared to get back to work.

I’ve abandoned writing for so long, who’s to say that it will still be there for me when I’m ready to get back to it?  Whatever talent I had before could have jumped ship, tired of waiting around for the likes of me.

I also know that I won’t be able to fully dedicate myself to Souterrain until all things college are vanquished from my life, so I decided to start smaller.  A stand-alone novel, to warm me up.

A doodle I did when I was 19; this was what I imagined would be on the cover of ‘Souterrain’

While I knew that I would never really be doing much writing during college, I still aimed to have a novel written and ready to send to publishers by the time I graduate.  That means that my time-frame now (assuming that I’ve passed this year) is one year.

That’s where Blue comes in, and this is a particularly terrifying project, the reasons for which are three-fold.

Firstly, I have five novels under my belt but I haven’t written one since I was nineteen.  I’m rusty.  Secondly, I’ll be writing in the male voice, something which I haven’t attempted since my Carl Cooper days.  Getting it right is going to be a major challenge.  And thirdly, Blue deals with a lot of sensitive issues which are going to be very emotionally demanding to write, especially as a lot of it stems from personal experiences.  But I figure throwing myself in at the deep end and dealing with all of these hurdles at once would be a great way to get back in the game.

The goal is to have a draft of Blue written by the time I head back to college in late September, and Camp NaNoWriMo is going to play a huge part in that goal.  50,000 words in July+another 30-40,000 throughout the rest of the summer=Blue draft #1.

My ‘I’m a writer, I swear!’ wrist tattoo

It’s felt slightly fraudulent to call myself a writer these past few years (even though I have the tattoo to permanently indicate my writerhood), because pen and paper haven’t much been in contact except for note-taking in class.  Sure, I now have six awards for my various writings (in 2013 I was one of several winners in a short story competition and previously my drama group had been awarded ‘most original script’ with a script that I had written about peer pressure), but the certs mean nothing if my career as a writer has already run its course.

So this summer I want to reclaim my title.

I’m off to a good start with the progress on this blog, but it’s not enough.  I was an eleven-year-old award-winning author.  I owe it to that version of myself, that fearless little girl with no limitations, to throw myself back in, even if I come out with a gawd-awful attempt at a book.  It’s all just steps in the right direction.

Today, I proclaim myself a writer.

Now, I’ve just got to earn it.


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