As some of you may know, I used to work for the NHS. I get asked a lot about how and why I made the change to writing full time, so I thought I’d share that here.
I imagine that almost all writers will tell you that it was something they’d always wanted to do, and for me that was certainly true. For as long as I remember I’ve loved books and reading and, encouraged by my teachers at school, I started writing stories at a young age. I remember clearly being asked what I wanted to do for a living, and saying that I wanted to be an author and to write novels.
But I ended up in the sciences, and went to University to study for a Physics degree. It wasn’t so much that I gave up on my ambition, it was more that I thought I’d write on the side whilst having a ‘proper’ career. And for a while I did that. After my degree I studied audiology (the science of hearing and balance) and then worked as a clinical scientist in various hospitals in London. I specialised in paediatric audiology, so my day-to-day job involved assessing children and babies who were suspected of having a hearing problem, and being part of the team who helped those who did. I enjoyed the work a great deal, and moved from job to job until eventually I was deputy head of a large (and rather stretched) department which covered the whole of South East London and the surrounding boroughs.
By this time I was in my mid-thirties, and a discontentment that had been growing for some years was reaching the point I could no longer ignore it. I was finding it more and more difficult to find the time and, more importantly, the energy, to write. I could feel the likelihood of ever being able to fulfil my childhood ambition of having a novel published slipping further and further away from me. For a while I tried to live with it, figuring that it was more important to have a career and stability, but as the months and years went on it was making me more and more unhappy.
Then my boss announced that he was going to retire. Everyone assumed I would apply for his job. It was the next logical career step, after all, and that was very much the track I was on, and had been on for almost 20 years. But I knew I didn’t want to do it. I’d seen how hard my manager worked, and how much stress he took home with him during the evenings and at weekends, and I knew it would mean the end of my writing ambitions. I remember very clearly thinking that my dream had always been to have a novel published, not to lead a paediatric hearing aid service. I knew how hard it was to be a writer, and that it was a remote possibility that I would even finish a book, let alone find a publisher, but I also knew that if, towards the end of my life, I could look back and say ‘Well at least I made a proper, serious attempt” then that would be enough.
So I made some changes. I asked my boss if I could go part time, and when he refused began looking for other jobs that would allow me to work three days a week in the NHS and spend the rest of the time writing. As luck would have it a job came up which was in the same field, at a nearby hospital, and was much more junior. So (much to everyone’s surprise) I applied for that, and was successful. As soon as I got that job I I knew it was the right choice, as straight away all my excuses not to write disappeared. And because I’d made a sacrifice (don’t get me wrong ,I was never looking at having to eat cold baked beans from a tin, but my take-home pay pretty much halved overnight) I was determined not to waste the extra time I’d created for myself. I treated it as two jobs, I told myself I'd work in the NHS three days a week and then on my novel the other four, though it wasn’t long before I was writing during the evening on my NHS days, too.
Obviously for me things worked out. The book I was working on was Before I Go to Sleep. But I knew that I’d made the right decision long before that book became a success, long before I’d even finished writing it in fact. For the first time I was doing what I wanted to do,
something wholly for me. I’d made sacrifices, so was working hard, and had a direction and a goal. In some ways it felt like it was actually the first time I wasn’t drifting, to some degree at least, but had taken a hold of the tiller and was setting my own course. Looking back, I think it’s really important to figure out what you enjoy doing, what brings you pleasure or makes you feel ‘in the zone’, irrespective of how much (or even whether) it pays. Especially with writing, the work itself should be its own reward.