The Person I Became (or what I’ve really learned since being published)

If you attend enough events as an author, you will find you are asked the same questions many times over. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because with each response, you are able to fine tune your answers.

‘Are you a goat, or a sheep?’

‘Yes, but where did Mrs Creasy really go?’

‘What have you learned since you’ve been published?’

What have I learned since I’ve been published? I will usually answer, ‘the toilets at Euston Station only take ten and twenty pence pieces,’ and ‘Salisbury is a lot further away than you think.’ The truth is, I have learned more in the last twelve months than I could ever have imagined possible, and (in my current state of editing limbo), I thought I’d take a moment to explain why.

I’m not sure I really thought very much about what would happen when Goats and Sheep was published. I certainly didn’t think there would be so much travelling, and that I would get the amazing opportunity to visit so many places. We have criss-crossed the country from Edinburgh to the West Sussex coast, from Liverpool to Norfolk. To a regular person, that probably doesn’t sound like much of a big deal, but to me, it was a mountain. Not only a mountain, but a whole bloody range of them.

If you know me, or have read anything about me, you may know I was involved in a very big car accident when I was in my twenties. A fatal car accident, and one which left me terrified of travelling, regardless of the method of transport. The last time I went on a train, many years before Goats and Sheep, I had the biggest panic attack known to man. I can’t get off, what if I feel ill, what if some (unspecified) terrible thing happens and I’m stuck on this train with all these strangers. I decided I would never travel on trains again. Simple. Except when Goats and Sheep came along, I was presented with a choice: face my fear or give in to it. And I decided to face it. I have since been on many train journeys (if you follow me on Twitter or Facebook, you will know exactly how many), and unsurprisingly, nothing terrible has happened. I haven’t had a single panic attack. I hesitate saying that, because it has an echo of getting away with it. Now, there’s actually a very large part of me would quite like to have a panic attack on a train, just to prove to myself that life does carry on afterwards. No one dies. And each time I wait on a platform, each time I sit on a train, and on the numerous occasions I’ve been stuck somewhere between Watford Gap and Milton Keynes, waiting on a train that doesn’t appear to ever want to move again, each of these times I smile to myself.

Because I did it.

I became the person I didn’t think I could become.

When the proof of Goats and Sheep was printed, my very lovely publicist rang to talk to me about going on a bookshop tour. ‘Locally?’ I said. ‘Oh no, all over the country.’ ‘You’ll have to give me a map and directions,’ I said. ‘No, no – we’ll have a driver.’

A driver.

The last time I was driven anywhere, was home from the hospital after my accident in 1993. No one drives me anywhere. I drive myself, or I don’t go. Now I was faced with a stranger driving me all over the country, on roads I didn’t know. When the itinerary arrived, I went through it like an exam paper, working out how long I would have to stay in the car for each leg, before I would be able to get out. On the morning of the first day of the tour, I stood outside my house, shaking so much, I couldn’t pick up my suitcase. ‘Is it alright if I sit in the front?’ I said. Because in my strange, illogical, anxiety-ridden mind, it would make me feel as though I had at least some control, if I was sitting next to the driver.

By the end of the two weeks, I was sitting in the back, playing on my phone.

(or at least for some of the time, because I quite enjoyed sitting in the front with the driver, who was called Bernard, and who was an absolute star).

I have to stress that no one knew about these fears. No one. Not my publicist, not my agent, not my editor. Because if you suffer from anxiety, you will know that it somehow makes the monster feel slightly less terrifying, if you can manage to contain it in your own mind. If any of these people had known, I’m certain they would have worked around it, and found an alternative, because they are kind, good people.

I am very, very glad they didn’t.

Because I faced my fear. I became the person I didn’t think I could become.

Another thing about being published, and one I didn’t give a second thought to, is just how many times your photograph will be taken. My first photographs were the official ‘author’ ones, the ones you see on the book. The scars from my accident meant that I had avoided cameras for twenty years. I would, quite literally, hide in the loo if anyone produced a camera on a night out. I’ve had an adult life-time of people pointing out my scars to me and asking how they happened. My face was ugly, disfigured. I didn’t want to look at it, so why would anyone else? Now I had to face a camera. And I couldn’t lift up a glass and hide in the background behind someone else. I was there at the front. Being looked at.

My editor at the time said I didn’t need to have author photographs if it distressed me, but as a reader, I love to see the face of the person who has written the book. It’s human nature, I think, to want to see what someone looks like, because it makes us feel more connected. The photographer was amazing, my publicist was amazing. As an aside, one of the (many) things I’ve learned since being published, is the depth of kindness and understanding people can show to you is truly breathtaking.

Now, at events, I will look out into the audience and see people holding up iPhones. People who have read the book will ask you for a photograph. Journalists will take pictures at the most unflattering of angles. I decided, very early on, that it required much more energy to control these situations than it does to accept them. There is always a fraction of a second’s hesitation, even now, when someone asks for a picture, but it’s more of a reflex. More muscle memory than fear. Since I’ve been published, I have learned to live with my photograph, and my face. I have learned to smile at a camera instead of being terrified of it.

I became the person I didn’t think I could become.

I am still learning. I have struggled recently with expressing my opinion online. ‘I can’t say that,’ I think. ‘Someone, somewhere, might be offended.’ I did worry I was turning into some kind of ‘professional social media player’, whose newsfeed is wiped clean of any opinion whatsoever, for fear of an audience backlash, but – after a lot of pacing and reflection – I’ve realised that I have always been this way. I have always taken the path of least confrontation, even before I ever thought of writing a book. Being published just means with a wider audience, that confrontation is unfortunately more likely. Being published hasn’t made me more afraid of saying what I think, I’ve always been a wimp at it. I am still trying to find the courage to voice my opinion, because another thing I’ve learned since being published, is that understanding who you are truly is a work in progress.

I have discovered many things in the last twelve months. I have discovered I can stand on a stage and talk to five hundred people. I have discovered that there was, after all, something in life I wasn’t too shoddy at, and I have discovered the girl who prefers sitting in her pyjamas really is capable of small talk without making an utter idiot of herself.

But most of all, and why I decided to write this post in the first place, is the realisation that I am capable of so much more than I imagined. This is what I really want to say when someone asks me what I’ve learned since I’ve been published, but it is perhaps more suited to a blog post than the stage at a literature festival.

I have learned that we are all so very much stronger than we think .

I have achieved the impossible.

I became the person I didn’t think I could become.

Comments

  1. Jo. This is the most wonderful blog post I have EVER read. This is me. How I feel. Too scared to go on trains for fear of becoming ill or having a massive panic attack. Too scared to go in a taxi as I don’t want a stranger driving me. Feeling a failure because I won’t do these ‘everyday simple’ things. It is all about facing the fear isn’t it ? I too want to become the person that I don’t think I can become. Your book was an amazing read Jo but your honesty about your life is a total inspiration. And if you can get on a train, then so can I.! I’m going to hang on to this post as my inspiration for a better life for myself. Funny how we come into contact with people who then help us make such a profound change. So thank you for writing this. And now I’m going as I’m getting all emotional 🙈 Love and best wishes xx

    • You can definitely do it. I just asked myself, what is the worst thing that can happen? And would it really be that terrible? And one person’s ‘everyday simple’ is another person’s mountain. Always be kind to yourself xx

  2. Well done Joanna, you have done brilliantly!! Goats and Sheep really changed your life for the better. I was one of the public to review your book before publication, through you I found a ‘name’ for what I am – the goat in the room! It comforted me, knowing being different wasn’t all that bad. I have talked about your book to so many people. I am so pleased for you.

  3. You are so brave – many thanks for sharing. I know what you mean about keeping the monster in your head. It works, but can be isolating. Your journey is really inspiring Jo. Keep up the good work!

  4. Well done Joanna, That is brilliant. i was one of the public who reviewed your book before publication. You put a name to the person I was – goat – it comforted me to know I was not alone. Since then, i have talked to a lot of people about your book and discovered a lot of other goats!! Thank you.Keep doing things you don’t want to do xx

  5. Thank you for sharing this. I’m also fearful of travelling and having my picture taken, but for reasons nowhere near as valid as yours. I shall try harder to overcome my irrationality.

  6. Fantastic post Joanna, it must have taken so much courage to be honest about your feelings and fears.
    You are a very beautiful lady – inside and out, you should be incredibly proud of where you are now. x

  7. Thank you SO much for this blog. I agree – feel the fear, but carry on regardless.
    You are a true inspiration.

  8. Fabulous blog, thank you for sharing and well done for becoming the person you always had inside you. xx

  9. I read this a couple of hours ago and have been thinking. Thanks for so much honesty, Jo. Refreshing and insightful. As someone who’s several steps behind you on the publication journey, you’ve voiced some of my own worries. Not that I expect my tome to receive the same acclaim, but coming out of the shadows is scary when you’re partial to shadows and feel safe there. I have your book although it’s still on my shamefully long TBR list. You’re very brave, and it’s zooming up the priority list now. Well done.

  10. Thank you for your post. It is interesting to glimpse the kind of person who wrote such a fine book. You are so right. It is all a work in progress…books, us, life.

  11. Utterly wonderful. Never stop growing Jo, it’s what makes life so very interesting and magnificent x

  12. An inspirational post in so many ways. You’ve achieved so much and this post makes me want to push away my insecurities and face life a bit more. Thank you. x

  13. Thanks for sharing your experience. An overused word but it’s and ‘inspiring’ post and uplifting. Wishing you good things with your book and otherwise.

  14. I had no idea. I certainly didn’t realise from seeing any of your pictures. Thank you so much for “sharing” this, and for all the encouragement and help you give to emerging writers ( me included). .

  15. This is really inspiring, thank you. I didn’t travel on trains for a long time because of anxiety but a couple of years ago decided to face that fear and do it and it opened up my world and since then i’ve gone on to do lots of things that I would never have dared to do before, which feels great. And I totally get the fear of photographs thing too, but for different (and far less brave) reasons.
    Keep being you xx

  16. Congratulations on all of your successes!! You have a lot to be be proud about. Personally I think the photos you’ve shared here are beautiful.
    My second eldest daughter (I have four children) wants to study art. She loves faces and recently told me that the more wrinkles/scars/blemishes a face has, the more beautiful she finds it. She told me every face tells its own story of a life lived and that’s something she finds truly inspiring.

  17. You should be very proud of what you have achieved Joanna…firstly for writing a first class book which I thoroughly enjoyed, but perhaps most importantly for overcoming the fears you have mentionned in your blog. I also suffer from panic attacks and travelling is one of my fears. I know what it feels like to feel imprisoned by fear. Thanks so much for your book, your blog and your honesty. Alison

  18. What a beautiful and well-articulated article, and really very well done to you for making it through the whole driver/photograph/stage situations. It really is all so new for someone who prefers to sit behind a laptop and avoid confrontation at all costs. So wonderfully heartening that you took a deep breath and came out the other side not only intact but also a better person. Thank you so much for sharing this with us.
    Jennifer

  19. Just finished the book. I read it as slowly as I could in order to make it last longer!!! Didn;t want it to finish!
    It has such a fantastic feeling of English life – you can only appreciate it when you live abroad.
    I live in Israel and all the times thought how difficult it would have been translating it into Hebrew as Israeli readers would not understand all the ins and outs of the English small town life style.

    Thank you for a fantastic experience!!!

  20. Yes, Jo. You are a human being who has had a horrible life experience and not let it knock her down. You can crumble after such a thing happens or you can heal – in your own time – and then get on with living and channel that experience in some way – even if only subconsciously. Some folk go on and write unbelievable songs, you have written a funny and brilliant book and yes, we will look at you, but only to smile at you in gratitude, recognition and admiration.

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