Do you know what you want? Okay, but do you really want it, or do you just ‘want’ to want it? There’s a difference, see, and it took me a long time to understand that. Take writing, for instance. I’ve always had a facility with words, so writing and editing should have been a shoo-in. English Literature was my favourite subject at school, and I followed it right the way through to university, which begs the question…why did it take me so long to get into the industry?
It’s weird, and it’s stupid. Books were my salvation in so many ways: they opened up the world to me, revealing the minds of my fellow humans time and again. They helped me to understand perspective, true courage, inner conflict, and so much more. As a child, when asked that most dreaded of questions, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ I could think of nothing more apt or worthwhile than to become an author, paying my debt forward to others who *struggled like me.
Part of my barrier was cultural. British governments have long disdained education in the Arts, and the attitude is constantly amplified by the media. That shit filters down. I was a clumsy, impractical child, so I was already half-convinced I had nothing to offer the world. It felt like a pipe-dream at best. Best stick to reading, eh? I didn’t have a clue how to begin, and no-one around who could guide me. Well, that’s not quite true. My step-dad did know somebody – **Peter James – and had I been more driven back then, I might have found my calling sooner.
As it turned out, my main problem was that I didn’t actually want to write books. (Writing is hard.) I just wanted to have-written books. Doh!
I had the same problem with losing weight. I put on a stone after a single summer season as an ice-cream man (my first job when we came to Wales) and my habit of comfort eating ensured I never lost it. In fact, I only grew heavier. Self-hatred found a new avenue of attack every time I looked in a mirror or found my clothing a little too tight. In latter years, the boss at work always kept us employees in crisps, chocolate and cake – a management style that feels dangerously like care – and I started stress-eating. We all did, pretty much.
I wanted to lose weight but found every excuse under the sun to do nothing about it. Check that—it was a Want-to want. I bought exercise equipment that I never used because it took up too much space; I tried (and then gave up on) badminton and various martial arts at different times. I felt like I was getting no down-time between my work and family concerns. Fundamentally, I was short on bandwidth, short on time, and struggling to cope with life day by day. They say you ‘make time’ for the things that are important to you, but the best you can do in survival mode is tread water.
It took a global pandemic, working from home, and recognising my mental health issues to finally get me exercising. Being able to work from home gave me that extra bit of time and breathing space to take daily walks. It got me out into the fresh air, exploring the nearby woodlands, clearing my head and finally finding some presence of mind. I’m not all the way there. I’ve done some backsliding in the last month or two as financial concerns began to raise their heads. Bandwidth again. But I know it’s achievable now. Second time round is always easier.
Well, I’m still not an author. I’ve written a few short stories and may well write a few more, but that whole want-to want to be a novelist thing is identified and put in its place. Sometimes those dreams are just not for you, and that’s okay. Sometimes you can just shelve your ambitions until they become more achievable. You don’t have to give up. Do what you need to do for survival. And yeah, sometimes there’s no real excuse. Consider this a kick up the arse. But you have to figure out what you want (what you really, really want) before you can make any headway.
So what do you want to do? Have you given it much thought?
I stumbled around until my mid-twenties before I discovered the pleasure of writing reviews, and a decade more before podcasting and editing hove into view, so please (for the love of God) do what I say, not what I did.
Seek things out. Try your ambitions on for size. And if you run out of steam, think about why. If you can understand the barriers in your way, you can figure out how to overcome them, step by step. Get advice where you can. Recognise the opportunities when they come, and ***make the most of them. If the road ahead is unmarked, put your head down and forge your own path.
You don’t need to wait for permission.
* You can read about the kinds of things I struggled with as a child in The Bewilderboy.
** Peter was a local horror author at the time, though he’s better known for his Roy Grace crime novels these days. He bought his meat from my old man who, bless him, mentioned the fact I wanted to write. Somehow that conversation turned into an invitation to Peter’s rather grand house for tea and feedback. He was gentle, gracious and kind. Mouse that I was, I thanked him and left it at that.
*** Age 16, I had a week of work experience at Victor Gollancz – something organised by the school. It was the perfect opportunity to see behind the scenes and find out how it all actually worked. Once again, I failed to capitalise, failed to engage because I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I just got on with the filing and whatever other menial tasks they could find to occupy my time. Teenagers, eh? What a fool I was.