I enjoyed writing ‘Making the Leap – Moving from Deputy to Head’ in 2016, and found writing for a professional audience considerably more straightforward, and in some ways more satisfying, than producing my 60,000-word doctoral thesis the year before. Similarly, writing for this blog, or for various educational publications, both print media and online, is something I relish, and which I feel I can do reasonably easily. I know what I want to say; I have confidence in my ability to say it; I find it rewarding to complete a piece of writing; and I hope that others may read what I have to share, and find it interesting, and perhaps useful.
But I have always wondered whether I could write fiction. I love reading fiction – it’s probably the most powerful form of relaxation for me. I can escape into another world, and have found it particularly helpful to do so when I have been in pain, or grieving, or anxious. In the summer, on holiday or sitting in the sun in our garden, I can easily read a novel a day. I know what kind of books work for me, and I know what I consider to be well-written. I like books (many by contemporary women authors) that are thoughtful, cleverly structured, atmospheric. I have a particular fondness for books that play with chronology, so that you read a section which is enriched by your understanding of what will come later. Plot matters far less to me than character and relationships. I like skilfully written dialogue and I am impressed when writers manipulate the reader’s emotions so that you care deeply for some characters and have less sympathy for others. For a book to work for me, I need to feel emotionally invested in what happens to those I am reading about. When I have reached the end of the very best books I have read in my life, I have felt a little lost, as I have immersed myself in an alternate reality and it seems disconcerting to emerge from it. (My response is usually to find another book into which I can dive.)
I used to be good at creative writing as a child. I dedicated ‘Making the Leap’ to the memory of Mr Malyan, my Year 6 class teacher in the late 60s, who used to say: “Send me a copy of your first book, Jill.” I know he was thinking of fiction. I was sad that he didn’t live to see me have a book published, albeit a non-fiction book.
I do want to know if I can write fiction. My ability to write seemed to atrophy in my teens when all I could come up with was sentimental (and not very good) love stories. And now it is over four decades later. How did that happen?
I can no longer say that time is a pressure; I still work, but on a consultancy/part-time basis. I do have time to write. And I have the inclination and the staying power – that has never been a problem for me. ‘Stickability’ (sorry, Emma Kell…) is a strength. But do I have the ideas? I’m not sure about that.
At the end of the most recent #WomenEd unconference, in Sheffield in October 2019, we were asked, as is now the custom, to make a pledge. What would we do/do differently as a result of our reflections and our learning on the day? What would we do if we were 10% Braver? My pledge: ‘I will try to write a novel’.
Steve Munby, in ‘Imperfect Leadership’, points out that if we decide to do something we are far more likely to follow through on that commitment if we talk to others about it, so I also tweeted: ‘I will try to write a novel’, and received a gratifying number of positive, encouraging replies. I was challenged by one respondent because of my use of ‘try to..’, but I had thought about that, and decided that was the phrase I wanted to use. I did have a fledgling idea of what I might base the narrative on, but I didn’t know whether it could be sustained across the length of a novel.
‘Making the Leap’ is 50,000 words long. My doctoral thesis, as I have mentioned, is 60,000. I know a novel is usually around 50,000-60,000. Even a novella is usually around 30,000 words. A short story can be anything from 3,000 words upwards.
So far, I have written a short story of 9,500 words. Not yet a novel, but I won’t give up. I enjoyed writing this, and I am proud of it. I’m interested in what others think of it – constructive criticism is welcome!
My one word for 2020 is going to be: WRITE.
Photo montage: John Berry