A couple of months into my RLF Fellowship at the London College of Fashion, I mentioned to a friend how much I was enjoying it. It reminded me of how much I love teaching – the chance to make a difference in a pupil or student’s life, to share in their learning and help them reach their full potential. Teaching, I declared, was my vocation. She was surprised. To be honest, I surprised myself. Where does my writing fit into this? Is it just a job; another career I’ve moved into or is it something else entirely? I’ve been thinking about the answer to this question – a lot.
As a bossy little girl, press-ganging my friends into an audience to listen to the poems and stories I’d written, I was often told by adults that I would probably grow up to be a teacher. There was certainly never any mention that I might grow up to be a writer. I don’t think that early ‘encouragement’ pushed me towards a teaching career, but I did train and work as a teacher for many years. The genuine encouragement came from a careers advice teacher at the FE college where I was hurtling towards a job as a shorthand-typist or, at best, a private secretary. She stood over me while I filled in the university clearing house forms and – by happy accident – found my vocation as well as a fulfilling and relatively well-paid career with great holidays. She was everything a good teacher should be – inspiring, challenging, supportive – and she made a huge impact on my life. I owe her a huge debt of gratitude, although to my sadness and shame, I no longer remember her name.
At the risk of sounding conceited, I believe I was a good teacher too. I honed my bossiness into the ability to encourage – OK, push – my students to be the best they could be and I hope some of them remember me positively. I remained in education until I was eventually promoted to a job for which I was not suited and which I loathed. Budget management just wasn’t my thing – and I bolted.
Although I had always written in my spare time, I came to writing for children as the result of another great teacher and another happy accident. I was enrolling for an adult education class in French when I saw a noticeboard covered with the cover proofs of the books published by authors and illustrators who had attended Elizabeth Hawkins’ Writing for Children course. I enrolled for both classes, but ditched French by half-term. Over the next two years, first in the class and then in the follow-up workshop, I wrote my first published children’s book, Man Hunt. I love writing – I love inventing and spending time with my imaginary friends, the heart-pounding unpredictability and sense of surprise, the independence and freedom to do anything and go anywhere, all while I’m still in my pyjamas.
Gradually though, despite all these attractions, I found myself drawn back to the ‘classroom’ – tutoring, training, special needs support – until serious problems with my health eventually forced me out again. Since then, I believe I have established the ideal balance for me. I write full-time but I still teach when I can – through school visits, workshops, etc – and yes, most recently, that RLF gig...
So – back to my original question – if teaching is my vocation, where does that leave writing?
The words vocation and passion both have religious connotations. Vocation comes from the Latin word vocare, meaning ‘to call’ and refers to an occupation to which a person is drawn or for which they are particularly suited, trained or qualified. Passion comes from the Ancient Greek verb πάσχω (pascho/pas'-kho) meaning ‘to suffer’ and is the term for a very strong feeling or affinity towards someone or something – an intense emotion of enthusiasm and desire.
I certainly have huge enthusiasm and a strong desire and I feel incredibly fortunate to have found such a rewarding second career – but I still wonder if it’s that element of ‘suffering’ that clarifies what writing means for me. I barely scrape a living, so it’s definitely all about the love rather than the money and the writing I’m most proud of has often been fuelled by past wounds and tragedies and emotional pain. Even on a practical, day-to-day level, I am sometimes so fearful and obsessed with whether I’m doing it right or doing it well enough or with just getting something down on the page that I forget to eat or take a walk and I neglect my relationships. It’s a glorious cliché, but I suffer for my art like every other writer, perhaps – maybe like you – and l still feel compelled to keep on doing it.
Spike and Ali in Space will be published in September 2012 by Tamarind and Dance Dreams will follow in February 2013.