I was too scared to become a writer twenty years ago when I went to uni. I thought being a writer wasn’t really a job. There were no writing degrees then like there are now. The closest thing was journalism and I knew that wasn’t the kind of writing I wanted to do. So I went to uni and studied … Commerce.
For ten years I worked in marketing for companies like L’Oreal. It was great fun; I had more lipsticks than anyone could ever need. My job was intellectually stimulating and well-paid, but it also meant working till midnight at busy times, dealing with others’ stresses and tempers, and doing things that other people wanted me to do, rather than what I wanted to do.
One day I looked at my life and thought, hmmmm. Everything was fine on the surface. I’d recently married my fabulous husband, I had a great job as Senior Brand Manager for Maybelline cosmetics, I was living in a funky apartment in Melbourne, what more could I want?
I didn’t want more exactly, but I wanted something different.
Which is when I remembered that I’d always wanted to write. I remembered the little stories I wrote when I was young, the attempts at something more substantial when I was older, the stash of book ideas I’d jotted into an old notebook when I was living in London, where I was working in marketing for Harlequin Books, choosing saucy images for the front covers of romance novels.
I realised that I’d had lots of chances in my life to write. I could have chosen something other than Commerce, except I’d wanted to earn money. I could have done more with those book ideas when I was in London, except I’d wanted to go travelling every weekend, not sit in my flat with pen and paper. Except, except, but, but.
There would always be a BUT. There would always be a reason not to write.
BUT, if I didn’t try, I knew that ten years later I would still be in the same kind of job, doing things that somebody else wanted me to do and feeling further than ever from that missing thing in my life.
Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t quit my job, gone back to uni to study a Post-Grad in Creative Writing and decided to pursue my dream of being a writer. I had no idea if it would work. I had no idea if I was any good at writing. It was a true leap of faith.
I was incredibly nervous on my first day back at uni. I was now the kind of an old mature age student I remembered laughing at in my undergraduate years, the one who attended all her classes, who asked lots of questions, who put up her hand to answer questions that the tutor asked. But that was because I wanted to be there. This was my opportunity and I had to do whatever I could to make it work.
I read everything I could about being a writer. I subscribed to writing newsletters and learned of the existence of literary magazines, which I subscribed to and read. Reading those magazines gave me confidence. There was a place for short pieces of work to be published. Many of the writers published in those magazines were at the start of their writing careers too. I started getting good marks at uni. Tutors told me that I should send my work out to magazines. They told me not to be the writer who never sent anything out, who wrote and wrote and never took the either risk of being rejected or the chance of being successful. So I took their advice.
I sent a poem to Overland, expecting nothing. But guess what? It was accepted! It was the best $100 I’d ever earned because it came from doing what I truly loved.
Of course it wasn’t always that easy. I did have many works rejected, but enough pieces accepted to make me believe that maybe I was okay at this thing called writing.
Then I enrolled in a Master of Creative Arts and wrote my first novel. I had no idea about plot. I was in love with words and sentences, but thankfully I had a supervisor who educated me about the importance of plot in a novel.
When my novel was finished, I sent it out to agents and publishers. Once again, I was lucky. Agents sent me back handwritten notes telling me what they liked about the book, always followed by a polite, no thank you. But such responses were enough to make me realise there was something worthwhile in the book, that I just hadn’t got it right yet. So I redrafted it.
The new draft was long listed for the Australian/Vogel Award. I received an amazing judges’ report which was a bit like a manuscript assessment, giving me great feedback about what was working and what wasn’t working. I redrafted again. This was the thirteenth draft!
I submitted that draft to the TAG Hungerford Award for Fiction, which is a West Australian award for an unpublished manuscript. Months later, I found out I was shortlisted. I went along to the awards ceremony hardly daring to hope, imagining what the drive home would be like if I didn’t win. Because I was getting to the end of my list of options.
I have never been more surprised and delighted than when my name was pulled from the envelope as the winner. My first book was going to be published! Ever since that day I have felt so lucky and so blessed to be a writer, so glad that I made the decision, finally, to do what I’d always wanted to do. I can’t imagine my life any other way than the way it is now.
Natasha Lester is the award winning author of What is Left Over, After (2010) and If I Should Lose You (2012). Her third book, A Beautiful Catastrophe, will be published in early 2016. She has been described by The Age newspaper as ‘a remarkable Australian talent’. When she is not writing, Natasha teaches creative writing and plays dress-ups with her three children. You can find her at www.natashalester.com.au