‘Are you all right, madam?’ asks the shop assistant, eyeing me with concern. ‘You look a little lost.’
I offer her the practised smile of a woman who is asked this question on a regular basis. ‘I’m fine,’ I confide with a reassuring laugh. ‘I always look like this.’
She laughs too but there is worry behind her gaze.
Poor woman, she’s thinking. Poor baffled soul.
Yes indeed. Poor baffled me. To walk around wearing the constant expression of a woman who has lost her glasses and is trying for the life of her to remember where she put them, is a curse.
However, I should add that it’s a blessing if like me, you have the good fortune to be a writer. For what better job could there be for a bewildered soul who is constantly searching and in these increasingly troubled times, trying to make sense of it all?
Only today, I find myself looking for:
- an idea for this piece
- the right word
- my pen
And, despite the fact that these searches lead to a perpetual frown and the urgent need for wrinkle cream, I have to confess that it’s one of my favourite things about being a writer. I love the process of sifting thoughts in my mind because usually it leads me to that moment when everything falls into place, when the fog lifts and the world seems to come into sharper focus.
Over the course of my writing career, I have experienced many such moments of clarity, some of them as seemingly insignificant as character names (‘Barney should DEFINITELY be called Joe – change immediately!’), others monumental in the way they have influenced me as a writer.
Here are two of my biggest.
The day I knew I could write
It was 2008. I was on my second maternity leave at home with a baby and a three-year-old, experiencing a nagging sense that I’d forgotten how to use my brain. I decided to take an evening class and as chocolate appreciation courses don’t exist (at least not at the Penge Adult Education Centre), I chose creative writing instead. The class was populated by almost every generation and nationality that south-east London has to offer, including a particularly downbeat man called Ken. Let’s just say that Ken was off sick the day they taught smiling at school. I didn’t mind. I was out of the house, away from watching Peppa Pig on a loop and trying to think of something more imaginative than fish fingers for lunch.
One week our teacher asked us to write a short story to be critiqued by the group. My story was about a man called Reginald who meets his guardian angel, who was a little like Clarence from It’s A Wonderful Life and a lot like Nessa from Gavin and Stacey. When it was my turn for feedback, my heart sank as the teacher turned to Ken first.
‘So Ken, what did you make of Annie’s story?’
He frowned at me. I closed my eyes, ready for the blow.
‘I wish I could write like that,’ he said.
I opened one eye. Ken was smiling. Actually smiling. And that was that. If I could make Ken smile, maybe I could make other people smile too. Or perhaps even laugh? I was decided. It was the writing life for me.
The moment I knew I wanted to get better
All writers have their heroes, don’t they? Mine is Anne Tyler. For me, she is the perfect writer. She expresses emotion, creates characters and tells stories in an unassuming and utterly brilliant way. I was lucky enough to hear her speak a few years back and to say that is was a pivotal moment in my writing career is like saying that George Clooney has an okay face. In fact, the moment of clarity was so great, I cried. There was no sadness in these tears though. It was fuelled by sheer admiration, inspiration and a desire to become a better writer.
This wasn’t about me comparing myself to Anne Tyler though – we sit on different sides of the literary spectrum. I’m fine with that. I know and like my limitations.
However, I do want to be the best writer I can be. Forgive me for smacking you round the chops with dreaded ‘j’ word but I believe that writing is a journey. Your second book should be better than your first and so on. You are always learning and you can always improve. The day you think you know it all, is the day to stop writing. Keep learning, keep trying. Always write the best book you can.
And there you have it. Bafflement brings clarity and with it, writing happiness.
So remember, if you ever happen upon a confused-looking woman in her early forties, often clutching a notebook, perhaps sitting in a coffee shop staring into the distance, don’t worry. She’s not lost or bewildered. She’s merely trying to make sense of life, searching for that moment when it all falls into place and the lightbulb in her brain illuminates. Or she may be wondering where she left her pen. Don’t worry – either way she’ll find what she’s looking for eventually. What’s more she’ll be delighted when she does.
Having worked in the worlds of book selling and publishing, Annie Lyons decided to have a go at book writing. Following a creative writing course, lots of reading and an extraordinary amount of coffee, she produced Not Quite Perfect, which went on to become a number one bestseller. Her second book The Secrets Between Sisters was nominated in the best eBook category at the 2014 Festival of Romance and Life or Something Like It was a top ten bestseller.
The Little Choir on Hope Street will be published in spring 2017 and is the first of three books in the Hope Street series inspired by the grubby but colourful south-east London streets where she grew up. She tries to write stories which make people laugh and cry, although hopefully not at the same time. Annie lives in a shambolic money-pit of a house with her husband and two children plus a cat, who she pretends not to like.
Find out more about her on her website
Links to her books
Not Quite Perfect
Not Quite Perfect Christmas (a novella)
The Secrets Between Sisters (formerly Dear Lizzie)
Life Or Something Like It
The Little Choir On Hope Street (Book 1 in the Hope Street series)