Hi. I’m Zoë. For fifteen years I made my living by writing books for young adults, and running creative writing and reading workshops in schools and libraries, mixed in with a sprinkling of book festivals and other bookish events.
But I’m not doing that job anymore.
Don’t misunderstand: I’m proud of the work I did as a children’s writer. I poured out my heart and every bit of talent and skill that I had into making books that were diverse, Feminist, nuanced and inclusive. Back when my early books came out, ‘diversity’ wasn’t even a phrase in mainstream discussion about media yet; my publisher labelled my work ‘multicultural fantasy’. I had to fight to include trans and queer characters, disabled and neuro-atypical characters, and get characters of colour accurately represented in my cover art.
I loved working with kids, trying to help them keep their connection to creativity when, very often, they’d had their natural desire to make up songs and poems and stories shamed out of them by adult authority figures telling them ‘Don’t daydream!’ and ‘Sit still and pay attention!’ and ‘Don’t make up silly stories!’ Sometimes it was an incredibly stressful and even thankless job, but at others I felt like I was living the dream. No matter what, I always loved it.
But for years and years I had dream so secret – so seemingly unattainable – that it was mostly hidden even from me. I wanted to write books for adults. I wanted to teach adults creative writing. It was silly though; I knew it was never going to happen.
Why was this ambition so far out of my reach?
From the day that my mother – sick of the overactive imagination that caused night terrors and ruined my family’s sleep for weeks at a time – shoved a battered old Enid Blyton book into my hands and told me to read when I was scared at night, I wanted to be a writer. This was a tall order for a working class girl from a council estate in one of the most socio-economically deprived areas in the country. My parents had grown up in homes without indoor bathrooms. They both left school at fifteen. No one in my family had ever even attended university, let alone graduated with a degree. Who was I to think that I could actually be a published author – that anyone would ever want to hear, let alone read, what I wanted to say? And that was before you took into account the chronic illnesses that amounted to a life-altering disability, and the fact that I was just figuring out there was something, well, a bit different about my sexuality...
Luckily, I was blessed with the one attribute that is indispensible to all writers: a stubbornness so profound that it rivalled that of any donkey in the land. If people were going to look down on me, bully me, sneer at me, tell me to sit nicely in the corner and be quiet? Well, I would just damn well show them, wouldn’t I? I worked with a single-mindedness that frankly awes me, looking back, and that stubbornness was repaid. By the age of twenty-two I had been rejected by every British publisher of children's fiction (and two in Australia) at least once... but I had my first book contract under my belt.
One of the things that I let drop in my all-consuming quest for publication was education. Like many ‘bright’ working class girls, it was made clear to me by every adult authority figure I knew that, if I were fortunate enough to avoid getting pregnant as a teenager, the peak of achievement for me going forward would be to attend the local university and become a teacher. Probably an English teacher, since I wasn’t quite ‘bright’ enough for maths. I needed to have reasonable expectations of life, after all.
This de facto life-plan was clearly not going to aid me in my quest to become a writer, but I dutifully went along with it, enduring a year at sixth form college where I experienced even more bullying, sneering, and demands that I sit nicely in the corner and stay quiet, mainly from the overwhelmingly middle-class kids in my classes. Then an assault by a male classmate landed me in the hospital. I was used to physical bullying, and so were my family. It didn’t occur to us that we ought to contact the police (although I do wonder why the college didn’t).
When I came back to the college two weeks later, the male classmate and his friends had spread their version of events (I’d started it, I’d been asking for it, I’d over-reacted, I’d only been trying to cause trouble for the poor innocent boy) and the rest of the student body, with a few kind exceptions, responded by sending me to Coventry.
That was it – I’d had enough. I shook the dust of the college from my feet, found a job, and kept writing. It took years to understand that what had happened to me wasn’t normal, or OK, and the way I’d been treated was actually messed up. But I refused to let it bother me because I'd done it, in the end. I’d become a published author, and a full-time author within three years of that. I’d shown them, hadn't I? What did it matter that I'd dropped out without finishing my A-levels? Why should I care?
Except, of course, that I did.
Despite publishing ten books for young adults and making a living at my craft, I had a constant, nagging sense that I’d missed out on something I hadn’t even realised was important, until it was too late. That an opportunity to learn, to add richness and depth to my knowledge, had slipped through my fingers. A kind of freedom, the ability to choose, was lost to me. People who read my writing blog – which was aimed at young readers – and my long, analytical posts about the craft of writing there urged me to look into returning to education. But it was impossible. Impossible. Wasn’t it?
In 2017 I was made the Royal Literary Fund fellow at York St. John University. It was wonderful. I adored teaching in that setting, and despite not having done any academic writing for over a decade, and never having done it at degree level, I turned out to be really good at helping others with theirs. Talking to the students, whether they were doing a BA in physiotherapy or a PhD in marketing, and spending time with the other staff members, showed me that closing the door on A-levels at seventeen didn’t necessarily mean the door to education was barred and locked against me forever. So in 2019 after the Fellowship ended, I took the plunge. Despite rampant insecurity and the lack of any qualification more advanced than GCSEs, I enrolled for a Master's Degree in Creative Writing at Kingston University.
Some pretty knowlegable friends warned me against this move. A Master’s Degree, for someone who’d made a living as a professional writer? The course wasn’t meant for people like me! I would be bored senseless, frustrated beyond belief. It would be too slow for me. It would be too academic for me. It would crush my spirit. I ignored them, and in a not-at-all surprising twist, I found that they were wrong. I loved doing my MA as well. I loved the reading, the essays, geeking out with fellow students, workshopping and offering feedback, being challenged to try completely new mediums and genres... I even enjoyed learning to cite references correctly and compile a bibliography (in a strange way). By the time the course was over, I was finally able to admit, to myself and others, that secret dream: to write for adults and teach creative writing in a Higher Education setting.
Academia was where I wanted and needed to be.
And for that, I needed to set my eye on a new goal: a PhD.
I think I’ll skip swiftly over the process of actually getting to pursue my doctorate because it was long. Long and arduous. Much more messy and complex than the short summary above makes it sound. I will probably go into it in more detail in another post, if anyone is interested in that or would find it useful. For now I’ll just say that it took a hefty dose of resourcefulness and energy (and stubbornness) but eventually I was able to win a place and funding to study for my doctorate in Creative Writing at the Open University. I’ve just started. Just now – this October. If you can't believe I managed this, well, join the club. I still occasionally have to pinch my own arm.
And so, this new blog of mine. I wanted to chart my journey to my PhD, to talk about the work that lights me up with passion, enthusiasm and occasionally rage, and the process of learning about the academy as an outsider and a mature student. My old blog, The Zoë-Trope, was aimed at younger readers for my books, and has been on hiatus for over a year besides. So I decided it would be symbolically and practically appropriate to start anew.
This blog's title comes from a line in Rossetti's poem ‘Sudden Light’, which refers to “Time's eddying flight”. The poem is central to my research project, but it's very meaningful to me personally, too, and in my mind Rossetti's eddying flight has come to represent not only the characters' arcs within my novel, but also the exciting, terrifying and non-linear journey to achieving my doctorate and, hopefully, a place in academia.
An Eddying Flight is for creative writers and creative writing teachers, for authors both published and working-on-it, for budding academics and for more seasoned post-graduate researchers, and anyone who is interested in academia, the journey to PhD, or writing craft and creativity.
This is my invitation to you, Dear Readers, to join me on my eddying flight.