Writers were rich and lived in castles and could never, ever, come from anywhere like the council estate I grew up in. This was what I believed as a child. I was an avid bookworm in a house without books and I had never met an author. But I had dreamed of being a writer; from a young age I loved poetry and when anyone asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would say a teacher or a poet. And then, my audience would laugh.
Looking back, why wouldn’t they? It was hilarious that a kid in Thatcher’s Britain, queuing up at the food bank for free slabs of butter and cheese wearing hand-me-downs, would dare to hope for such a thing. People were out of work and fighting to get by; they weren’t meant to dream or aspire. ‘Put up and shut up,’ was an everyday motto. But it was never a mindset I could comprehend.
There is always room for daring, even when others are trying to stamp it out of you.
I soon learned that if I wanted to break free from poverty, education was my way out. That became my sole focus. I wanted the freedom that an education could provide. I was the first in my family to get GCSEs, and then A-Levels. I continued to love books and poetry and to write. I even got a poem published but was too poor to buy the anthology and had to beg the college bursary for funds to get a copy. Writing wasn’t an option if I wanted to improve my life.
I went on to study Classics, working full time while studying full time, and then I became a teacher.
I talked to pupils about dreaming big and reaching for those dreams – I didn’t want them to be laughed at for their aspirations – but at the same time, I was ignoring my own.
As working life and financial worries took over – trying to pay back student loans while keeping on top of bills – I stopped writing altogether, but I never stopped reading. And oh the places those books could still transport me to.
Many years later, in my late twenties and onto my third career, I was made redundant. Suddenly I was in a reasonably stable financial situation with time on my hands to figure out what to do next. Unexpectedly, I began to write. Badly, and in secret, but it brought me joy that I hadn’t experienced for many, many years. I hadn’t felt that kind of freedom and satisfaction since penning murders, mysteries and modern myths as a kid. Plus, all the other life lessons – both good and bad – fed into my work and gave it grit and sparks.
But something else had happened that made writing more accessible: the internet.
I was living in Spain at this point and the internet becoming a normal, household entity opened up many opportunities that previously hadn’t existed. I could read about and listen to other writers, contact them with questions, devour journals from all over the world. I could interact with writing and writers in a way that had never been possible before. This led to setting up a blog and, as my writing improved, I began to send it out.
Over time, short fiction, haiku and poems were accepted. And I began to make friends with other aspiring writers.
Finding a writing tribe, made up of people at the same level as me, as passionate and determined as I was, proved the ultimate breakthrough.
When I returned to work, writing had become a habit and part of daily life, so this time, it didn’t slip away. Entering competitions and submitting to journals was met with increasing success, and writing gripped my heart stronger than ever. I thought about how much books had always meant to me, and on a whim, I tried the NanoWrimo challenge of writing a first draft of 50,000 words in 30 days.
It was difficult and tormenting and exhilarating and I was hooked.
But when work took me to Ireland, that’s when things really took off.
In Ireland, the writing world opened up to me completely. Firstly, when I opened my mouth, my accent did not position me as part of Thatcher’s ‘underclass’, so there were no preconceived ideas or a lack of expectation. I was now financially secure – in a job I hated –and there was a huge community of real, flesh and blood writers; the first I’d ever met. These writers were friendly and encouraging and not just dreaming – they were writing.
I remember the day I realised that I could be a writer. I was standing in Grafton Street, staring into the window of Dubray books as one of the staff changed the book display. And I thought, imagine that, having a book published.
And then it hit me – why imagine? Why stay in a job I hated when I could be using it to fund a (potential) future career as a writer? So that’s exactly what I did.
I attended workshops, launches, talks, readings, and I saved. I immersed myself in the writing world, writing draft after draft, while building up money in the bank to sustain me for a while if I was ever brave enough to take the leap and focus on the one thing I really wanted to do. I was in my early thirties and my dedication produced a book that was good enough to secure an agent.
So I finally leapt and the writing world swept me up. It all took off from there.
It was a calculated risk, and it paid off. I now have four books on the shelves and some awards and shortlists under my belt. I workshop with children, teens and adults and also teach online. I provide reader reports and travel to interesting places on residencies to write. But I still attend workshops too. I continue to listen and learn. And all the while, I work while I write. And I see this as a gift, because it means I am not reliant on my books for a living and there’s a certain freedom to that.
And guess what? Having a tougher upbringing prepared me for the pitfalls of the writing life and helped me stay strong. Life had taught me to:
• handle rejection
• manage on a small budget
• expect not to win first time
• multi-task efficiently
• keep going when things get tough
• trust in hard work.
They say there’s no such thing as an overnight success and I agree. Behind every writer there are many years of hard work and grind, learning and losing and picking up the pieces when rejected time and again.
The strength to choose to do what you love can only come from inside you, and no matter your circumstances, it’s up to you to find that strength and direct it towards what really matters in your heart and soul.
It took a long time for me to find a way to support myself to write, but I believe that if you want it badly enough, if you trust in yourself enough and work for it, you’ll make it happen.
Writers might live in castles and they might be rich. But writers can also come from council estates and cul-de-sacs, caravans and inner city high rises, and more than ever, I think we need to hear these voices – so why shouldn’t one of those voices be yours?
Elizabeth Rose Murray lives is from Southbank, Middlesbrough and now lives in West Cork, Ireland. She writes short fiction, essays and novels for children and young adults. The first book in her Nine Lives Trilogy, The Book of Learning, was the 2016 Dublin UNESCO Citywide Read for Children. The second, The Book of Shadows, was shortlisted for the Irish Book Awards and the Irish Children’s Literacy Association. The third, The Book of Revenge is published on Feb 14th 2018. Her young adult book Caramel Hearts was published in 2016 to critical acclaim. She has been published in multiple anthologies and journals in Europe and Australia, and recent short story publications include The Elysian: Creative Responses (New Binary Press) and Reading the Future (Arlen House).