Joseph Campbell said “follow your bliss”. Heed the call, listen to the voice. But it’s not always that easy; for every voice calling you on, there’s always another one calling you back.
It was the winter of 2008. A supermoon hung over Edinburgh. I idled to work with the words ‘going to be a father’ merry-going round my head, and resolved once and for all to listen to the wrong voice.
It turns out that doing this is a bad idea, but I didn’t know that at the time. This was 2008, after all, and the wrong voices were everywhere. Volcanic dust and financial fear-words like ‘subprime’ filled the air. I had no idea what ‘subprime’ meant but I sure as hell wasn’t going to take any chances. I didn’t want to get all subprimed; that was no way to start a family. A man in my position needed to be firmly primed. Superprimed, if anything.
I wanted to be a writer. I had, in fact, written a book called The Sanctuary. But it needed work if I was going to submit it to agents, and the time for that was over. I was being a man now, all sensible and stoic and grounded. I had to get real if I wanted to achieve hyperprime and avoid the globules of subprime that were clearly headed my way.
So I made my decision there and then: I would abandon my life as an IT contractor - one that allowed me to work when I wanted but offered nothing in the way of security - and take a permanent job. I would hang up my dreams for my daughter. That was the right thing to do. I beamed, relieved, at the giant moon.
What a bad example to set. I know my daughter now. I know how much she values dreams.
Nine months later the moon had returned to a respectful distance and we finally met our first child. She was beautiful and happy and healthy and fun. Life with her was joyful.
But I was already, secretly, struggling. Apart from my new role as Daddy, I was operating in a reality I wanted no part of. I worked in an office writing software for money, in order to make other people money. There was no time to write. The Sanctuary faded in a drawer. Doom gnawed daily.
I kept this doom to myself because to do otherwise would have been selfish. After all, I had a family to support and a good job that paid well. My daily grind involved no sewers, no shouting, no guns, no blood. Nobody ever died coding, although that’s exactly what I felt was happening to me. I felt like I wasn’t the only one. Others scurried through the corridors, head down and wrestling with their own breed of doom.
This is how the world works, a strange voice informed me. It sounded like Tina, the spooky kitchen manager in that Cuckoo's Nest episode of Spaced where Daisy washes dishes.
(Throws down broom)
I’m a writer, right? I'm creative. I'm not a mopper.
All the staff here are writers…They're all creative, Daisy. Not just you.
You should be happy and grateful, Tina seemed to tell me. You’re one of the lucky ones. So stop complaining and grow up.
I tried. I took lunchtime runs with music turned up so loud that it drowned out thought. I heard lines in songs I hadn’t heard before. Pearl Jam’s Not For You - “If you hate something, don’t you do it too.”
Terrible, doom-laden words. Eddie Vedder was shaking his head at me. I was doing something I hated, I was one of those people.
My son bounded onto the scene two years later bringing his own unique joy. I had a full family now and I was supporting them - not a single speck of subprime had landed on me. But cracks were showing. I was moody at home. I drank too much. I made mistakes at work. Some of my colleagues, I am positive, thought I was having a nervous breakdown, and maybe they were right. I wasn’t sure how much longer I could keep this up.
You will, snapped Tina. You will because you MUST.
Doom, doom, doom with a side-order of GLOOM.
My wife, who has a brain the size of a planet, saved me. I’m forever grateful to her.
“That book,” she said. “Why don’t you publish it?”
“Pfft,” I said, kicking a wall or something. “Tried. Can’t get an agent. Nobody wants it.”
“You don’t need an agent,” she said, like a parent guiding a sullen child away from the knife block. “You can do it yourself.”
She told me she’d read about Amazon’s self-publishing platform, KDP. It was gaining traction and authors were seeing results.
Hmph. S’pose. *Kick*
I took some days off work. The Sanctuary became From the Storm. I uploaded it one morning and went to work. Then I watched in surprise as people actually bought it. This was interesting.
Then my wife said, you know, just maybe, since I hated my work and she had this planet-sized brain and all which she would, actually, quite like to use now that she had reared our children through infancy…maybe we would be better off doing things the other way around. Maybe she should be the one at work - following her own bliss - whilst I stayed at home looking after the kids. And writing. You gloomy prat.
Three years and one continent later, my wife and I were sitting in the gazebo of a Mexican restaurant, nursing beers and watching clouds roll on the Texan horizon. We had followed my wife’s advice and it had been working; we’d moved to America, I had self-published three successful books, my wife was loving her job, the kids were thriving. That supermoon seemed very far away.
But those voices are tricksy - for every one that calls you on, another always calls you back. A couple of months earlier we had found out that our happy time in the USA was coming to an early end. Moving back to the UK was going to be hard enough - we liked our life in Texas - but it was going to be expensive and my books were not yet bringing in enough money to cover the difference. If I didn’t want us to get utterly subprimed, I would have to go back to work in IT.
If only I had a bit more time, just a push, a bit more interest, anything…
We sat there scratching our beer labels and watching the clouds get closer, when the kind of thing that only happens once in your life, if you’re lucky (and I’m very lucky, I know that) happened. My phone beeped with an email - an editor at Penguin Random House had read my second book, The End of the World Running Club, and liked it. How would I feel about a traditional publishing deal?
How would I feel?
I made some kind of noise. Then I threw the phone in my glass and fell off my chair.
(And then I said yes, of course.)
Like I say, I know I’m lucky; I married a woman who saved my life and my book ended up in the right hands at the right time. But luck only happens if you’re listening to the right voice - you have to be able to tell it apart from the rest.
Working with Penguin Random House has been fantastic and I can't adequately describe how it feels to know that they are publishing The End of the World Running Club. The best thing about them is how passionate they are about what they publish. They have a call and they’re listening to it. And I’m very happy, at least for now, to be doing the same.