For anyone who ever planned on doing something new, something unprecedented (at least in your world), something you have nurtured as a dream and then thought, I can’t…in all likelihood, you probably can. If you had told me, just over six years ago that I would write a book, start a blog, start two blogs, get my book published – after many rejections – and then get that book made into a play, as I sat staring into the middle distance at my rather unfulfilling day job, I would have said you were a fantasist. But I started small and I kept going.
It helped that I was enthusiastic. When I first had the idea to interview people about virginity loss, I felt sure I was onto a winner. It wasn’t really ‘the moment’ I was interested in; it was The Story. Who were the characters involved? How did the plot build? And what inspires us to make such a big change in our lives? I set myself the task of interviewing as many different types of people as I could. Religious people, the older generation, those with physical disabilities, gay, straight, male and female, they were all fair game as far as I was concerned. I could barely get started fast enough. I worked my job during the day and snatched every spare moment I could to interview, cajole and extract the most diverse selection of stories that I could get out of people by night.
A year later, I got my first bite of the cherry when the sister of a friend set me up a meeting with Virago Publishing. She sent some of my stories ahead, they liked them and I was in. I had very little comprehension of just how important Lennie Goodings was as I climbed the stairs to her book filled office but that probably helped. I wasn’t overwhelmed. I took the experience in my stride. She was utterly charming. In the end, it didn’t lead to anything but ironically, it changed everything. The fact that Lennie Goodings was interested enough to look at my collection of stories was enough, in turn, for other people to be interested in me. By Christmas I had myself a bona fide literary agent and my dream was becoming increasingly real.
The next part of the journey was interesting….and harsh at the same time. My agent sent my book out on submission and it was roundly rejected. Looking back, this experience was the making of me. This was the moment when I toughened up and realised that if you really want to do something, be prepared to deal with disappointment. If at first you don’t succeed, cry by all means but for goodness sakes, don’t take it personally. Stand up, brush yourself off and keep moving forward. Every single cliché in the book was true. Rejection is part of the process. Deal with it. I didn’t find this experience easy though. I was like a bruised peach in those days. I’d just broken up with my boyfriend too, the one person who had encouraged me every step of the way. Without him by my side and a stack of rejection letters on the other, I found it difficult to see a way forward. My saving grace was that my book had been rejected nicely. ‘Cheer up’ my agent said. ‘Usually they don’t bother writing back when they don’t want to publish it’. They had all written and said encouraging things.
The days were dark but I had enough savings in the bank to take a few months off so I ditched the day job, got my head down and started a blog. Partly because I wanted to claim ownership over my idea, partly because I wanted to show publishers that my idea had legs but mostly because I realised that my life was weird. Who else goes around asking people to tell them about virginity loss? I wanted to share my odd adventures with the world at large.
Predictably, I was petrified when I began. I could barely press the ‘send’ button, so nervous was I about exposing myself but once again, it was one of the best things I could have done. I was lonely at home with my stack of rejection letters but those early months of blogging were a revelation to me. I was astonished at what a friendly place the blogosphere is. How people you have never met before are quite prepared to give you a digital ‘leg up’ over a metaphorical wall. Shel Israel writes a blog about social media and technology. He doesn’t know me from Adam but he liked my idea and he wrote about it. Bingo! Traffic came my way. I caught on quickly and I kept going, kept pressing the send button despite having limited confidence in my voice. Day by day, as winter turned to spring; people began to engage with the material, and, joy of joys; they began sending in their own stories. In April of that year, I scored a full page of editorial in the Sunday Times News Review. (Which I would link to if it weren’t for that PESKY pay wall).
Fast forward almost four winters and I found myself finally finishing that book. Icon Books had commissioned me…and they wanted the manuscript in 3 months’ time. Yikes. Time and again as I rose in the dark last winter, and it was a literal darkness this time, not metaphorical, I realised that coming to the page each day is an act of faith. You have no idea if something will come out. Deadlines don’t care whether or not you’re feeling inspired but the only way to find out is to try. Sometimes nothing happens. Sometimes it feels really uncomfortable but you have to keep going, however mind crushingly painful it may feel and eventually, something pops out. A spark of an idea comes. Pursue that spark, hunt it down, keep chasing that idea and watch it open like a flower.
The catch is that the human mind is forgetful so sometimes you have to go through this process every day. Sometimes it’s really boring. From time to time last winter I thought to myself, you know what? I really don’t feel like doing this today. Then came the awful realisation that if I didn’t do it, no one else would. It was my book, full of my ideas and if you don’t keep writing, there will be nothing to show for your endeavours. So man up, stick yourself in front of the keyboard and keep moving. Pursuing dreams, pursuing creativity, it’s all the same thing. The trick is that you cannot guarantee a return; you have to believe that you will get one. It’s only then, when you’re prepared to take a leap off a creative cliff and find out what’s on the other side that the exciting stuff begins to happen.
My book came out in May. New York, or more to the point, America, was the next step as far as I was concerned. That hasn’t happened (yet). But in June, I was approached by a theatre producer. ‘I’d like to make your book into a play’ he said. He was a Northerner (always a good sign) and he had some adventurous ideas. Once again, I took a detour that I hadn’t intended to take and it turned out to be a wonderful thing.
My life is still weird. Last weekend, I found myself at Cheltenham Literary Festival. I had done an event there on Friday night and the entire Cheltenham experience was a joy from start to finish. I spent Saturday morning watching Arlene Phillips pirouette around the Writers Room and the afternoon chatting with the very affable Roger McGough. By Monday I was back behind my desk, starting a new PA contract. I barely know who I am anymore but I’m not complaining. The day job helps my writing life because I work for really clever, interesting people who inspire me to do better. I learn as much as I can from them whilst hopefully making their lives easier in return.
Where to next? I have no idea. I’ve learnt not to make predictions but I do know this: for every single thing that doesn’t happen, something will happen that you couldn’t have foreseen. You couldn’t make it up. And you don’t have to because it’s going to happen anyway.
In the spirit of today’s post – and all the late bloomers of the world - here is a story that you couldn’t make up. It’s all true.
I am 30 years old and I lost my virginity last night.
I wanted to share my story as it seemed that as I went past the age of 25, I would never lose it. I was slightly obsessed and very ashamed of my virginity and made endless plans to lose it with an escort or a random one night stand. This never happened and would make me feel worse as I couldn't go through with any plans as they always seemed wrong.
I even consulted an intimacy clinic who agreed to carry out sex therapy with me using a surrogate...who was at least fifty years old. They couldn't understand why I was not keen to have sex with a man old enough to be my father and the whole experience made my self-esteem plummet. It seemed that even the 'experts' couldn't help.
All the time I was dating. Meeting guys and then finding a flaw with them so I didn't have to get too close. Nobody was quite right for me and I honestly believed that only Mr Perfect would do. I was convinced everybody could tell I was a virgin and had to watch as my much younger sister got a serious boyfriend and moved in with him. I felt stuck. Not quite an adult, yet in some ways a woman old before my time - a Maiden Aunt.
I had gone to University at 21, as I had been a carer for my mother during part of my teen years, and when she later died I spent my early twenties grieving and trying to get my head around how different my life was to my peers. When I was still a virgin on the final day of University in 2005, I gave up all hope.
A couple of years ago I sought help one last time and went into therapy with a local psychotherapist. I went for eighteen months and the change in my life and mental processes was astonishing. She helped me to feel normal and to see that my family experiences had shaped my life so far and how I could remove this block. I started to meet more men who were attracted to me and I became more open to relationships.
Two months ago I met a guy who is the same age as me and although there were several times that I wanted to end things because of some 'flaw', I recognised what I was doing and kept seeing him. He didn't pressure me and we gradually got closer.
Last night, aided by a couple of bottles of wine, I had sex for the first time. It was in parts awkward, painful, extremely pleasurable and a massive relief! He couldn't enter me all that successfully but said it was because he was nervous. Eventually he started to use his fingers and we got there. All I could think was ' Finally'! Today I have felt sore, I bled a little but thinking about the experience turns me on, rather than off. I can already see how pleasurable sex is going to be. My boyfriend has suggested that we go away for a couple of nights in a few weeks and I feel really close to him. Hopefully things will get better and better.
I regret not having sex sooner as I can see how much I have missed out on, but I realise that this was the right time for me.
I wanted to share my story to show that change is possible with the right help.’