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Turning Points: Guest Post by Karen Mahoney (+Giveaway)

This guest post is part of the Turning Points blog series here on distraction no. 99—in which I asked authors the question: What was your turning point as a writer? I’m honored and excited to host their stories. Read on as Karen Mahoney reveals the hurtful moment that kept her from showing her writing to anyone for years…

I am going to talk about two turning points in my writing life.

The first was when I was about twelve. I knew, even then, that I wanted to be an author. I wanted to write books, just like the books I read by the many writers that I loved. I had no idea how I would go about this seemingly impossible task, but I figured that it would involve hard work, determination, lots of reading, and lots of writing. I also hoped there would be some encouragement along the way—perhaps somebody could take me under their wing and tell me that I wasn’t crazy to want this. Maybe I’d find someone who would nurture the tiny spark of talent that I hoped I possessed.

So at twelve years old, I sat in my form room (like the US homeroom) surrounded by my classmates and took part in a Q&A session the teacher was running. We were talking “Careers.” You know, like… What do you want to be when you grow up? There were a few questions, but that was the biggie.

My turn came around too quickly, and I had to push back my chair and stand to answer the miniature questionnaire. My legs were shaking, and even now I remember how nervous I felt being looked at by so many people. (I still feel this way, and am not a natural public speaker.) My teacher came to the question: “So, Karen, what would you like to do when you finally leave school and education behind? What do you want to be?”

I replied: “A writer!” I was very enthusiastic about this, despite my nerves.

My teacher frowned. “You mean, like a reporter? A journalist?”

“No, no.” I shook my head. “Someone who writes books. A fantasy author, actually.”

The entire class (or that’s how it felt to me at the time) burst out laughing.

My teacher joined in. She laughed at my deepest, most cherished dream.

I felt hot and sick. My stomach flipped over and I wondered if I might faint. I remember wishing that the ground really could do that thing where it swallows you up, just so you don’t have to face the people laughing at you for saying something that you can’t even see the humor in. I was stunned. What was so funny? I didn’t get it. To be honest, I still don’t understand what my teacher found so funny about my aspirations. Children will be children, and I don’t blame them for laughing. They probably forgot all about it by the end of the day.

I, on the other hand, had just had my first ever panic attack. The first of many.

Whether I understood the laughter or not, that didn’t really matter. Instead of holding more tightly to my dream, I let it crawl into a dark space and hide away for fear of being mocked by my peers—and by the authority figure who I was supposed to respect.

I did write, throughout my teens, but it was always in secret. I never showed my work to anybody. I didn’t tell people that I was seriously writing stories.

In my twenties I wrote quietly for myself and I started many things, but I never actually finished them. Especially not the longer pieces of work. At the age of 27, I decided that I couldn’t be a writer if I was never willing to share my writing with others. It sounds silly now, perhaps, but I was afraid of being laughed at. I know that’s a big part of what held me back, even 15 years after that stomach-turning morning at school. I asked myself: If I can never talk about this—really talk about it—and I’m never going to show my work, how can I ever be a published writer?

So I gave up. I stopped writing for five years. Well, apart from keeping a journal about my “inner world.” I still have those journals, and most of them talk about my frustration due to my seeming inability to write fiction. Here’s an actual sample (from 2002—please forgive how totally emo I was!):

It is not enough to merely dream about expressing myself without fear, or shame, or limits. It’s not enough to want to find grace and beauty in this chaotic world. I must actually do it, or all this means nothing. There are enough censors in the world, without me joining them and censoring myself. Fear has always been my greatest enemy, but it is a terror that must not be allowed to stop me from being creative.

Being creative is one of the only true freedoms we possess in life. Well, in our society, anyway. It is both a privilege and a freedom. No other person can have quite the same view of things as me. We are individuals, and that fact can be celebrated when we create something that belongs to us. Surely that is something worth pursuing?

Honestly, I have volumes of this stuff! (*grin*)

Five years of this was enough to lead me into a state of total despair that I would ever write fiction again—let along get published. By this time, I’d met someone who I was sort of living with (on and off), and who was getting fed up with my often proclaimed: “Woe! I have wasted my life! I am 32 years old and I work in crappy jobs that don’t make me happy. Whatever shall I dooo?!”

Luckily for me, he (let’s call him “V” for the purpose of this post) didn’t let my whining put him off. Nor did he let it stop him from digging deep and trying to help me pull myself out of my Endless Cycle of Creative Doom. In January 2007, he marched me to the nearest cafe—with my notebook and pen—and sat me down with a coffee. He searched my bag for anything that might distract me (seriously), confiscating a couple of novels and my phone. V told me that I must sit and write for two hours before coming home again.

He left me there to face the blank page—and a ton of fear.

But he was right. He’d been telling me for weeks: “Don’t just cry over spilt milk. So what that you didn’t write for so many years? Who cares? Will continuing to not write help in any way? You have to put that behind you and move forward. Are you going to let your fear hold you back forever?”

I didn’t know what to say, but I wrote for the next two hours. Let that be my answer, I thought.

The Iron Witch

I scribbled the opening pages to an adult urban fantasy novel (that I never actually completed, but still) and I enjoyed the process. I bounced home and typed up what I had written into my laptop. I started a blog and began making connections in the growing urban fantasy community, and also in the wider YA writing world. My next attempt at a novel was YA—because that’s just the way it came out—and it became The Iron Witch, the book that eventually got me an agent and my first book deal. I had stopped myself from writing for so many years that now I couldn’t stop writing. The floodgates had opened.

It took someone close to me, twenty years after that teacher and my classmates had laughed at me, to bring me to my second turning point: Are you going to let your fear hold you back forever?

I’m so glad he asked me that question—and that my writing provided an answer to it.

The Wood Queen

—Karen Mahoney


Karen Mahoney is the author of The Iron Witch, the first book in a trilogy that continues in February 2012 with The Wood Queen. She has also published stories about a kick-ass teen vampire called Moth in various anthologies, and there is a Moth novel coming in September 2012 called Falling to Ash. Karen is British and currently lives near London with way too many books and comics, though she dreams of one day living in Boston. She doesn’t mind if you call her Kaz.

Visit Kaz at www.kazmahoney.com.

Follow @kazmahoney on Twitter.


EDITED FEB. 28: GIVEAWAY WINNER ANNOUNCED!

The Iron WitchThe Wood Queen

Thank you to everyone who entered the giveaway via the entry form—and thank you to the author for donating the prize! I’m happy to announce the winner:

Elain won a signed copy of The Wood Queen! Congrats! I’ll email the winner for her mailing address. Thank you again to everyone who entered!


Want more in this blog series?

The Turning Points series will continue with new guest posts three times a week. Subscribe to distraction no. 99 to keep up with the series, or read all the posts with this tag.

Here are the posts in the series so far:

You can keep up with all the open giveaways on the giveaways page!

Series images by Robert Roxby.
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50 thoughts on “Turning Points: Guest Post by Karen Mahoney (+Giveaway)

  1. I never heard of Kaz’s work before, so like the little strange me I am, I looked her up on goodreads. I am so excited to start reading her work!

  2. Thank you so much for this. I can’t even tell you how much I needed to read it. And, Kaz, congratulations on staring down the fear and finding the courage to share your stories! <3

  3. I think this is such an inspiring story! Like you, for a few years now, I’ve been hesitant to try and write anything. It seems the career of “writer” gets shot down a lot in my world, so I tried to do right by my family and work in a conventional sort of job. I’m really not happy though – and upon realizing that writing makes me happy, I started to slowly get back into it. Thanks for sharing your story!

  4. Thank you so much for sharing that story with us. I think I grew up in a time where creative careers weren’t seen as careers. They were seen more as folly. Your story could very well have been mine. Thank you again!

    What every happened to “V”?

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  6. This was absolutely beautiful. Thank you for this series, Nova–I always love the posts.

    And thank you, Kaz, for sharing something so personal. I really admire your strength!

  7. I loved this interview!

    And it’s awful how writing can be belittled by people so thoughtlessly. I’m so happy you went on to pursue your dream!

  8. Ohhh, that teacher is awful. How horrible.

    (My own teacher story: we did zero creative writing in school, ever, but my 10th grade English teacher promised he would read and talk with me about anything I wrote for fun. So when I was struck by an idea and feverishly wrote the first 30 pages or so of a fantasy novel one month, then printed it out for him, he… proceeded to give it to another student, who I did not even know and had never spoken to, because he liked that kind of fantasy thing. Um. Yeah. You can guess how much confidence that gave me in my teacher. o.O )

  9. Wonderful post. Truly. Thank you for sharing it. This reminded me of something that happened to me — two things, actually. One involved a professor and a short story of mine — my very first one, ever. Another involved someone I admired, someone who had once given me great advice. A few (possibly well-meant) sentences, and it froze me. I got over it, but that’s hardly the point.

    Thank you for this — and I’m glad that you didn’t let the fear win.

  10. This post really resonated with me. I’ve been going through some “emo” stuff lately and reading this post today perked me up. Thank you!!

  11. Karen, thank you so much for sharing your story. I had my writing critiqued harshly years ago and I put it aside. Though sometimes I wish I could change how I let their opinions count for so much, I am happy to be writing again. Posts like yours make me feel like I can be brave too.
    And thank goodness for your V.

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  13. I’m so pleased that I shared this, now. A couple of days before I knew it would go ‘live’ I worried (Nova will tell you!) that maybe I’d been *too* honest, you know? But I am glad that it resonates with people. Not glad that others have suffered similar experiences, of course, but if writing about this helps someone else – even a little – that makes me very happy.

    Kaz <3

  14. I was writing fanfic when I lost heart…and it was my mother, so it was even worse! Fortunately, I have great enablers, er, I mean I have great friends, and now I’m back in the swing!

  15. I’m really looking forward to this sequel. I loved the mythology used in the first and can’t wait to see it expanded upon. I think it’s healthy while tiring to go through tough times. Adds character.

  16. Inspiring story! Thanks for sharing. While I never had anyone laugh at me, I was afraid for many years to tell anyone about my dream or even to pursue it. I’m glad I’m passed that now. Glad to hear that you’re dream has come true! Looking forward to reading your work! :-)

  17. I am loving this series on the blog. Thanks so much for sharing your fears Karen! This is really inspiring for the rest of us.

  18. I love this series SO much. I wish you could collect it into some sort of chapbook. It’s the most inspiring yet to me personally.

    And Kaz, GUH. GUHHHHHHH. That gave me chills. Are you going to let your fear hold you back forever? Wow. What am I waiting on? Eep.

  19. sometimes I dont think teachers realise just how much a single offhanded comment can affect their students. Something very similar happened to me, so this really resonates with me. Thanks for sharing Kaz

  20. My heart ached for the little girl you were Kaz, but OMG(!!!) I wanted to stand up and cheer for V.’s actions! I’m so glad you had him in your life, otherwise we might still be waiting for you to share your incredible talent with the world. :D Thanks so much for being brave.

  21. Moments that seem unimportant to so many can be carried within us for the rest of our lives. That’s the beauty, and tortura, of the human mind. I completely relate to your experience at school. I’m very sorry for it but perhaps it made you and your desire to write so much stronger in the long term. At least we hope so ;-)
    Thank you for sharing with us.

  22. Karen, the very same thing happened to me. When I decided for myself that I wanted to be a “writer,” people kept changing the title for me: “What, you mean a journalist?” Exactly like that. Or I’d get, “Isn’t that MORE of a hobby?” Okay, thanks.

    But, you’re post is encouraging and it’s wonderful to see you were able to fulfill this for yourself. Congratulations!

    I hope to be able to do this for myself as well.

    Zara
    Email: zgarcia(dot)alvarez(at)gmail(dot)com
    On Twitter: @ZaraAlexis

  23. Dear Karen,
    First let me say if I could get my hands on THAT teacher I’d punch her lights out. I teach English in Estonia and unfortunately there are too many teachers who are too much like that one – like the woman who told a girl transferring into my section she was too stupid to learn English. Over the years I’ve heard too many stories like that and yours It makes me want to scream and cry. A good teacher can be the making of a young person and a bad one can block us for life. I’m so glad you finally found your voice.

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  25. I’ve only ever been supported and encouraged by teachers and friends about my writing. It’s my dream of becoming a veterinarian that’s recieved the dubious looks and the “You know how hard it is to get into vet school, right?” comments. So I know how it feels to havea dream laughed at, but just a different dream. :] I’m so glad you didn’t give up writing! I can’t wait to try your books.

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  27. Wow, I’m 14 and have not yet gathered the courage to share my work, or writing career dream with anyone. But I can’t let fear hold me back, thanks for the awesome post. Its so inspiring when you hear about your favourite aurthors going throught the same stuff as you. :)

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  29. It is amazing to me how many stories I hear like this, where teachers laughed at a child, and it deeply impacted her. How wonderful that you are an overcomer! I hope lots of teachers are reading this post and see just how deeply their reactions are felt by children, and kudos to the millions of other teachers who encouraged writers! Great post.

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