In this blog post Rebecca Johnson describes her personal journey of becoming a novelist.
How I became a novelist.
Fiction writing happened to me quite unexpectedly. I’d been a total bookworm as a child and practised the art of writing in various forms throughout my life. But my career in languages had funnelled me towards translation, while novel writing seemed the stuff of dreams, the realm of more talented people who had something to say; and so by the time I was thirty, I’d come to believe that translation was my calling – to work with other people’s stories and help spread them to new audiences. I saw myself as a not-quite writer, with a not-quite voice, but an important role to play. That was as far as my self-esteem allowed me to go.
Two big events changed this.
The first event was my PhD in Translation Studies at the University of Manchester – a strictly non-fiction affair, fully funded by a scholarship, the years of writing of which led me to understand that I’d always had a voice, I just hadn’t had the confidence to use it properly. It was an intensely gruelling mental journey that hammered my writing into shape, took it to the next level by holding me to the highest standards, and challenged me to my absolute limit. I was halfway through the final chapter of my thesis, working round the clock and gearing up for a full-blown career in academia, when the second big event happened: I got sick.
That exciting, non-stop world of lectures and seminars, teaching undergrads, hobnobbing with professors and jetting about the globe to give conference papers froze in mid-whirl when the nerve in my left eye failed and I was hospitalised so that they could rule out a brain tumour. After that, it all started collapsing in slow motion around me with the onset of further symptoms, chief among them fatigue and brain fog, followed eight months and several MRI scans later by the official diagnosis: multiple sclerosis. At the time I was living alone, far from my loved ones, battling to finish my thesis with depleted energy reserves… let’s just say looking back it was quite the endurance test!
When I finally submitted my thesis, six months after my scholarship funding expired, I completely crashed out. I would drop to my hands and knees in the shower, weak and exhausted before the day had even begun. I couldn’t hold a normal conversation without getting lost and confused. On one level the sense of achievement was seismic, I was so proud of my word-perfect thesis that stood as proof that I didn’t give up when the shit hit the fan; but at the same time I thought I was finished, that my life was over and I had nothing more to give the world, ever again.
In the months that followed, I entered a dark and frightening place. I was refused welfare support and put on treatment involving painful daily injections that didn’t ease my symptoms. Having my thesis to focus on, I realised now, had kept me distracted from the slow disaster happening in my body and in my personal relationships, which after the initial flurry of love and concern were now dropping away one-by-one as the gulf widened between my life and theirs. I had to face the facts: I was alone with a body that didn’t work properly and a brain turning to quicksand. My glittering career was over. Cycling was over. Dancing was over. Being young and footloose and fancy-free in the world was over. I was thirty-six suddenly going on eighty-five.
It’s pretty miserable laying all this out, but it’s necessary to explain the depths I sank to before I reached a simple realisation that saved my life: if I could manage to finish a PhD thesis with MS fatigue, then I could write a novel. A PhD is harder to write than a novel, and less enjoyable. And, crucially, something remained amid all the losses that no person or disease could take from me: the confidence in myself, in my writing ability, that I’d legitimately earned through years of hard graft and a project successfully brought to completion.
I started writing my debut novel, The Immaculate, when my best friend of seventeen years walked away overnight, with no word of explanation, weeks after my official diagnosis in December 2016. I was too numb to chase after her, or to grieve her. Instead, I wrote her down. I began a fictional story set in Mexico (where we’d previously lived and travelled together) that captured the kind of humour and adventures we’d shared, as well as the resentments and differences between us, and ultimately, the end of our friendship. It felt glorious to be free from the rigidity of academic writing, so I went to town with my imagination and wove in a dimension exploring a mystical alternative version of human origins I’d been reading about. It was slow going, but when I was writing I wasn’t in my body anymore, I was anywhere I wanted to be, and the joy of creativity made my spirit soar.
I’d started and aborted novels a few times in my twenties, but I knew from the outset that this one was different. I’d found my voice and I’d found my story, and writing it was the one thing that brought solace and strength as I struggled to find meaning in my life. Come what may, I was damn well going to see this through!
Fast-forward to December 2020, now living off-grid halfway up a mountain in beautiful Asturias – a healthier and more wholesome environment I couldn’t imagine – and I’m wrapping up the final chapter and my novel is at long last complete. It’s not published (yet!) but I’m really proud of it, and in the intervening years two of my short stories (‘The Dogs’ and ‘Tall White Chickens’) have been published online, plus I’ve joined two writing groups: Tindal Street Fiction Group back in my hometown of Birmingham, and now this one – Untold Stories, here in Asturias. As well as a source of invaluable creative feedback and publishing advice from fellow writers, Tindal Street helped me take my first shaky steps out into the world again, and returned a sense of belonging and purpose to my reclusive days laid up at home feeling ostracised from society. It allowed me to think of myself as a novelist, instead of as a sick person. I started taking care of my appearance again, and even made it out to the pub on one occasion! The group was an important part of my rehabilitation process and I owe it so very much. And now, as a newbie to Asturias, I’m excited to carry on in the same vein and connect with other writers here!
Four years ago, I believed I’d been cut down in my prime. Now I can stand up and say I’m grateful my illness came along to teach me in the most brutal way to dig deep, find that creative spark, and follow my childhood dreams.