Be Careful What you Wish for…
Whilst it’s immensely gratifying the have a novel in the best seller lists, something still felt a little unsatisfactory for our columnist. As she has discovered, your dream, your true satisfaction, is in the journey not in the culmination
Column by Elizabeth Moore
I am trying to remember if I’ve ever read an article by someone who’s right in the eye of the success storm. What the hell is that I hear you ask? Well, it is pretty much where I am now. I have had the year I always dreamt of, all my life since I could dream, cliched though that sounds. If you had asked me at eight years old what I wanted to be as an adult my answer would have been ‘A successful author’, and even then it seemed like the Holy Grail, hard to find, harder to possess. My view of success in terms of writing always involved a printed, published book that you could get out from the library. I regarded, and continue to regard books as precious beautiful things, and I found what wisdom I possess within their covers. I formed my views of the world from books like Wuthering Heights, which is why I am rather out of step with most people I meet. It’s hard for boyfriends to conform to your belief that it is perfectly normal to be a cross between Lord Byron and Heathcliff. I believed that life was like the plot of a book, and I have pretty much lived it like that. This was not entirely my fault, as when I was a child there was no one around to discourage this view or parent in the traditional way. So, writing continued to be my dream all the way up to the Faber Write a Novel course that I finally enrolled on at the age of fifty. I remember telling Jill Dawson that if I ever had a little pile of books with my name on the spine my life would be complete. I wrote and I wrote, found a lovely publisher and blow me down the book was on the outside of the Bookseller and I stood in the London Book Fair trying to feel the completeness that I was sure came with walking through a tube turnstile decorated with your book cover, past a poster of your book into Kensington Exhibition Centre.
So, my dream was apparently fulfilled. I had my pile of books now and yet life felt strangely unsatisfactory even when I stacked them on my desk. I had a book available on Audible….yes even those who didn’t read books could listen to me, I had a beautiful red cover and I walked past Waterstones in Piccadilly and looked at it, but curiously I couldn’t really feel a connection between that dream of being an author and the sight of it sitting there, selling copies. I have tried to analyse why this is. I think it’s me. I am a people pleaser of note. I think I expected people who had reservations about me, or found me too bouncy, too over achieving, to suddenly see the light hidden in those pages of The Man on the Middle Floor, to see the sensitive intuitive me hidden in Nick or Karen. Intellectually, I can see that people who didn’t like you to start with, or thought your life appeared annoyingly shiny, won’t suddenly start thinking you’re an all round good egg because on top of everything your book is a success and you’re on Sky TV.
Just in case you think this is a column on ‘Don’t follow your dreams as it’s a depressing and unsatisfactory exercise’, don’t despair. It is in fact a column about the nature of dreams and checking where your happiness lies. I have discovered it doesn’t inhabit Festival stages where people ask you questions although it’s lovely to be asked, it doesn’t live in Waterstones at a book signing, it doesn’t even live in Cape Town at the Open Book Festival where I am lucky enough to be speaking in September. I realise now that I thought it lived in all those places, in public recognition and in the fact that the book is at number four in the bestseller chart at the airport. I can feel you going off me as you read but I promise you that my conclusion is that your dream is in the journey not in the culmination. There is a peace and a pride in the success perhaps, but the real challenge to yourself, the growth part of the process is in the solitary writing, in the days you choose to sit inside and go to your study instead of watching the tennis, in the hours of torment in bed at night when the characters in your book inhabit your dreams, and in the barriers in yourself you overcome to get to the end of a novel.
I have been on a wonderful journey in the last year, where I have gone from writing articles to being a novelist, the kind of person I would go dry mouthed to talk to at Hay Festival. I have seen that people look at me differently, people who have unfriended me on Facebook have even tried to add me again, readers email me wonderful thoughts on how my book has touched them and they take the trouble to review it on Amazon. Those are amazing things that I thought I had dreamt of all my life. I hadn’t. I had in fact dreamt of being able to walk into a room and express my opinions without being terrified of censure, or of a bogey man jumping out of the cupboard and telling me I wasn’t good enough. My dream turned out to be the calm that comes over me when I think about the plot of my next book, or in imagining all the people over the years who have doubted me and my abilities, having to shrug, probably grudgingly and internally and admit they were wrong. I know that’s really shallow, but it’s been satisfying and I agree with Harvey McKay when he said ‘Talent is God-given, be humble. Fame is man-given, be grateful. Conceit is self-given be careful.’
I am lucky to have found Nick, Karen and Tam, the characters in my book that I think of as real people who form part of my life, and I am lucky that I have only had a modicum of the plaudits and fame that come to the most deluded inhabitants of Love Island, but it’s still odd, to be yourself and not to have changed one iota but suddenly to get invites you didn’t get before.
So, what has all this first world torture from PR to digital marketing, through strange moments talking in the middle of the night to bookclubs in Virginia in the middle of their afternoon taught me? It has taught me to value my friends, to recognise people whose interests are only in the reflected warmth of my momentary success, and most of all it has taught me that I mostly like to be at home with my husband, as many children as I can muster and my dogs with a hug to look forward to at the end of a day alone at the typewriter. It has taught me that I’m worthy, a terrible 21st century concept, but one I really needed to learn, and it taught me that some people think I can write well, which is enough for now. The rest of it isn’t real.
Maggie Smith said recently ‘When I started acting 50 years ago, it wasn’t about the fame. It was about acting.’ Things have changed a bit, I was asked to turn on some Christmas lights last week which makes you think. So, you will find me today while London swelters in the park, inside with my fan on and my fingers on the keyboard.