I had to dream big, silence my inner critic, and stop hiding my ambition from myself, says the ‘Ruth & Pen’ author
A month ago I published my first novel, which seems like a surreal thing to write. It’s been such a long-held dream, that I keep wondering if it’s actually true.
Since Ruth & Pen emerged into the world, I’ve been asked whether I had always wanted to write fiction. I find this question hard, not because the answer is in any way complicated – it’s a simple ‘Yes’ – but because it leads to the next question: ‘Why not do it before now?’
And the answer to that query requires a bit more soul searching.
I lied to myself. In fact, I told myself three kinds of lies. My first lie was about time. I kept reasoning that it was too late, that I was too old to start, that there weren’t enough hours. Of course, for any busy person, with work and family commitments, time is always an issue.
But that wasn’t the real the problem. It felt like I wasn’t able to grant myself the time to simply be, to explore, to get lost – all the things that being creative require. Not having any time was, I see now, a way of refusing to allow myself the space to try.
My second kind of lie was that I was just not the kind of person who wrote fiction. I was an academic, after all, used to teaching and writing academic subjects, so it must follow that I didn’t have the skills to be a creative writer.
That lie had kind of fallen apart when I put my academic work to one side in 2016 (I literally pushed the laptop away and grabbed a notebook) and started writing the personal essays that would become Notes to Self, a collection about my life published by Tramp Press in 2018.
But though that book was a total departure from my normal work, they were still essays. A novel would require a different kind of person, surely?
After Notes became successful, a few editors asked me if I might want to write fiction. ‘No,’ I heard myself saying, ‘I’m happy with non-fiction.’ That was true in the sense that I really do love writing non-fiction. But it was also another kind of lying. Because in refusing to claim the thing that I really wanted, I was hiding my ambition from myself.
I persisted in this lie, even as I took a year off my academic job and tried to write a follow-up non-fiction book.
That book was set in the National Maternity Hospital where, in 2019, I was lucky enough to land a role as writer-in-residence with a view to writing about women’s reproductive health.
But even though the staff were welcoming, the material was fascinating, and the emotions were powerful (going into a maternity hospital every day when you’ve struggled with miscarriage and infertility is never going to be easy), I felt like I couldn’t find the story. Every day I would get out my laptop and stare at the blank screen, willing inspiration to come.
And then my grandmother, my father’s mother, died. She was an amazing woman who at the age of 105 still lived by herself. I visited her on weekends and during the week she was visited by care workers twice a day, who helped with meals and all the other things that arthritic people over a hundred can’t do by themselves.
Then one morning in late October the phone rang. It was the home help manager calling to say that Gran had a fall. I went to her home, where I found her disoriented but not outwardly physically hurt.
Still, I was worried when she wouldn’t eat or drink. She adamantly refused to go to hospital. It took my mum to do what was needed and call the ambulance. At the hospital, the doctors were sympathetic but not optimistic. They told us to call anyone who needed to know.
Even as I was phoning my dad, I was sure, so sure, that Gran would make it through. It wasn’t her first time in hospital, and doctors had always shaken their heads at the idea of another year. But they were right this time, and over the next few days our grandmother faded.
As my sister and I sat by her bed, grieving and reminiscing, I realised that life – even if you make it to be a centenarian – is far too short to lie. Especially to yourself.
In the days after the funeral when there was nothing left to organise and only a heavy feeling of melancholy left, I asked myself what I really wanted to do. It felt like a dangerous question. ‘I want to write a novel’ was the equally dangerous answer.
My Gran had a mantra: ‘There’s no such word as ‘can’t’.
This could be somewhat annoying when I was trying (and failing) to do something she was asking for, like inventing a new type of food because after a hundred years she was bored with all the existing options.
But though it could be tricky to navigate, I admired her innate stubbornness as a part of how she had endured. Maybe it wasn’t even stubbornness, maybe she just knew what she wanted and had the daring to say it? And maybe this was exactly the personality trait I needed to copy myself?
In the new year, I closed the laptop on the non-fiction project, opened my notebook instead and started writing fiction.
I don’t want to make it sound too easy. Because even after I made the decision and admitted to myself that fiction was my dream, there were still plenty of moments of fear and self-doubt. But I had crossed the bridge that mattered.
I realise now that I had been waiting years for someone else to give me permission, waiting for someone to tell me I was good enough. It took loss and grief to teach me that the permission I really needed was from myself.
Emilie Pine’s first novel, ‘Ruth & Pen’, is published by Hamish Hamilton and out now