[SWP: BEHIND THE BOOK] APPRENTICESHIP
“When did you write your first story?” It’s a standard question for novelists. “As soon as I could hold a pencil” is the right answer.
Not me though. I didn’t even think about writing a novel until I was in my mid-fifties, and didn’t get serious until I retired early a few years later from my university position—so I could concentrate on making stuff up. Five years on I’d ‘completed’ three novels, queried countless agents, and found ways to live on an income barely sufficient to buy one Kindle novel a week.
So, I thought, perhaps I was never meant to write novels. Real novelists nursed a passion for writing stories from babyhood. They wrote in-depth journals, scribbled on the backs of envelopes, filled old exercise books with tales of dragons and fairies and vampires. No wonder I had three novels crying unwanted in the depths of my computer. I hadn’t put in the years of practice, the 10,000 hours plus of sweat and youthful optimism.
But then I thought again. No, I didn’t write stories as a child, but I read everything I could lay my hands on; non-fiction as well as fiction. I was bedridden for a long time when young, and twice a week my father would collect eighteen books for me to devour, chosen by the lovely librarian in our small town.
If I ran out of books before the next box arrived I read Charles Dickens novels— twelve by the time I was twelve. And I didn’t even like his writing all that much, but the leather-bound set was in a bookcase in my bedroom. A Girl of the Limberlost and Anne of Green Gables were more my style.
Then there were the stories in my head. I certainly made stuff up. I just didn’t get around to writing it down. I looked forward to lights out at 9pm because then I had three uninterrupted hours to lose myself in the next episode humming through my head before falling asleep around midnight. After all, I didn’t have to get up in the morning and go to school; I had another day in bed. So my edge-of-the-seat stories, all with me as the central character (and often the only human character!) would continue… My favorites were my life in a circus as an elephant trainer (a shuddering thought today), and as the inheritor (aged twelve) of a vast sheep station. Night after night my horse (my friend Flicker) and I roamed the unfenced paddocks, parrot on my shoulder and German Shepherd by my side.
But what of my adulthood? Well, even there I now see clues. I taught clinical psychology, and my invented case studies of dysfunctional families were legend. Five clinical students would be let in on the family secrets and each would prepare their role based on my written character sketches. One of their peers, not privy to my character sketches or the family dynamics, would then have to interview the desperate family. My invented families made interviewing real families as easy as penning a bodice ripper.
And throughout my academic career I wrote non-fiction case-study books—true stories to be sure, but mirroring some of the glorious mess of fine fictional tales. In the acknowledgments of my first book I even thanked my editor “who took a punt on a new author who wanted to write a novel disguised as a textbook.”
So there is hope yet for a late-life career as a real novelist, with my first novel due out soon. Like many first novels, while my characters really are truly fictional, many of the settings and the fishy stories woven throughout the story are a touch autobiographical. And I figure that although all this making stuff up will never reach or even sniff Dickensian heights, at least it will keep my brain whirring—always a bonus for people my age—and my emotions fully engaged!
I am the author of two nonfiction books, Fractured Minds and Trouble In Mind. My first novel, A Drop In The Ocean, will be published by She Writes Press, May, 2016. Visit my author website and sign up to my monthly e-newsletter.