‘Was möchten Sie werden, wenn Sie die Schule verlassen?’
My high school German teacher was rehearsing the questions we would be asked in our end of school speaking exams.
What would you like to do, when you leave school?
‘Ich möchte Schriftstellerin werden,’ I answered, confident in my German as well as my career goals. ‘Ich will schreiben!’
I would like to be an author. I want to write!
And when I left school a few months later, this was still my goal. It was my goal when I travelled overseas on youth exchange, and was met with either enthusiasm or raised eyebrows. And when I came back to Australia, I still very much wanted to be a writer. However, I didn’t think I had the skills, and I didn’t know how to begin. Where was the life experience I was supposed to require? So off I went to university to gain it, and there were so many other interesting things to study, weren’t there? And how was I ever going to make a living from writing? Better to find a proper job.
Only, I didn’t. I worked in different stereotypical-for-students jobs, waiting tables, working in retail, cleaning houses, tutoring. I kept going back to uni to do more study, to find another avenue, another qualification which would suit me better. I forgot about the writing for a bit – it obviously wasn’t to be. I wrote the odd poem, but nothing else.
Then, after having finished my education degree and starting work as a teacher, I heard about NaNoWriMo. I think a friend who knew I was into writing sent me the link. What a fantastic idea! To write a novel in a month! Of course, it came at a time when I was preparing tests for the end of year and already exhausted by my first foray into teaching. I didn’t finish the novel, but the experience was tremendous fun.
I then discovered other websites, and other literary-minded friends. Having others read my work was harrowing and stressful to begin with, but everyone, without exception, was supportive. I had found my niche, but it was still just a hobby. I couldn’t consider trying to earn money from this.
My main excuse was that I had three children under five and was pregnant with a fourth. It wasn’t so much that I lacked the time – my children spent a few hours a week in daycare and preschool, time I could have used for writing – but I lacked the energy. I was stretched so emotionally thin, and my mental health was so fragile, that writing, if I could even muster up the will to do it, often took me to difficult places. Children or parents died tragic deaths; grief bubbled into a dark puddle at the bottom of an abyss. Writing split open my worst fears, and I was horrified by the contents.
But I railed against the depressive thoughts and saw them for what they were: evidence of fatigue; of hormonal shifts which came with breastfeeding one baby while gestating another; of struggles to hang onto one’s mental health while caring for other precious, emotional, dependent beings. I looked for the bright points. I tried to turn tales on their heads. I experimented. In the midst of the washing, cooking, and never enough sleep, I held onto writing, and it saved me. I began a blog. I published short stories. I got my first freelance writing job. I took up a position as an editor, and finished a draft of my first novel. As my children so very slowly grew older, it was as if I started shedding my shackles. I felt as if I was stretching out and up, instead of always looking for a horizontal surface on which to lie down. Whether it was just a matter of getting more sleep, or a consequence of being in my late-thirties, I began to feel like I was coming back to me. I could do this writing thing. It could really be my job. I could choose to make a career from it.
When I look over the last twenty years or so since I was that seventeen-year-old, telling people, with conviction, that she was going to be a writer, I wonder: what took me so long? Why did I wait to pursue this? Why wait until I had four young children, any number of pets, and a garden to look after? I think about all those years when it was just me and the Handsome Sidekick, when I had all that leisure time, when I could have been writing.
And I look at others my age, and others ten or fifteen years younger, and it’s easy to compare myself to them, and come out feeling like a bit of a loser. I am constantly frustrated with my lack of proliferation, compared with other writers. Plus I’m nearly forty and I’m just beginning. There was really nothing holding me back except myself. But then, perhaps that’s the whole point. I wasn’t yet ready to take that leap. And I was always writing. I spent ten years at university, I wrote theses, I wrote poetry, I kept journals, I wrote letters. But I wasn’t ready to allow myself to take it seriously, and I think I also had a rather romantic view of what it meant to be a writer. I imagined it would be something I did full time, sitting at my desk, tapping away at a computer for hours, every day. The reality for me now, and for most writers, is that they have to fit their writing in wherever they can: before or after work, on holidays, at night once the children are sleeping. I wasn’t ready to do that, and so I didn’t.
When I first decided I wanted to try and make a living in this industry, I saw all those years spent waiting tables and working in retail and teaching as waste, but of course they weren’t. Without thinking about it, I was banking knowledge, recording personalities, interacting with other humans, deconstructing social norms. When I sit down to write – when I sit down to edit – I call upon all those moments. I remember the office romances, the shared moment of relief when the restaurant door closes for night, the boredom of repetitive supermarket work, and all those threads, tiny strands, I can weave into characters, plot, narrative… and what do you know? I have perhaps gained some insight into the human condition, and my own.
I do still get frustrated with the way time slips away, every day. While no longer babies, my children are young enough to need me for many hours a day, and they have limited patience for closed doors, behind which I’m trying desperately to finish typing out a thought, an email to a client, a story submission. But at the same time, my work is flexible enough to be able to take a break to bake a cake, or to blow bubbles in the garden with them. And in another, deeper sense, having parents who work in the creative industries demonstrates to them that this kind of job is worthwhile and obtainable. It hopefully broadens their scope, inspires them to embrace their own differences, and encourages them to appreciate otherness. And most of all, it promotes a respect for the arts, which is perhaps as important to me as the writing itself. It’s this, along with the urgent need to get the words from my head onto the page, which keeps me going. Despite always wanting more time, and having regret for the many years which passed when I was doing so much, other than writing, I’ve found some kind of contentment. I’m not sure I want for much more than that.
Rebecca Freeman is a writer, editor and parent of four young children. She lives on the south coast of Western Australia with her family and too many pets, where she enjoys baking, running, and gardening in her copious free time. Rebecca can be found on Twitter @path_ethic and she blogs more or less weekly at thisclimbingbean.wordpress.com