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.
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.
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!
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:
- Intro to the Turning Points blog series
- Gayle Forman: on overcoming bitterness
- Sean Ferrell: on the Writer who never arrives
- Eileen Cook: on a “nasty” book and a teacher’s advice that inspired her
- Christopher Barzak: on how short stories changed his vision for his novel
- Saundra Mitchell: on deciding to quit and walk away
- Eric Luper: on not writing for trends
- Gretchen McNeil: on how “everything happens for a reason”
- Julia DeVillers on the life-changing fan letter she wrote when she was ten
- Daisy Whitney on the book that opened her eyes to writing YA
- Brandy Colbert on the book that inspired her to find her voice
- Courtney Summers on redefining failure
- Sarah Darer Littman on turning off the noise
- Léna Roy on how she came to call herself a “writer”
- Megan Crewe on not choosing the “right” path
- Jennifer Echols on her eighth anniversary of not being stupid
- Blythe Woolston on how she accidentally became a writer
You can keep up with all the open giveaways on the giveaways page!
Series images by Robert Roxby.