"Take one for the team”, my boss said to me when I told him that I didn’t think I’d make an extra early appointment the next morning with a client, at a venue almost 50 miles from home.
I was a single parent with three young children and, although I knew that fitting in a sometimes 90-minute commute around them would take a lot of sacrifice and juggling when I took on the job, it was a case of needs must, as in my then line of work there wasn’t a lot happening nearer home to enable me to keep all the balls in the air.
I was struggling most days to make the usual starting time, never mind to get there much earlier.
That night, I barely slept with worry and fear of sleeping-in and, when it was time to get up, still pitch dark on a cold January morning, I felt an overwhelming sense of ‘mummy guilt’ as I got my children out of bed at an ungodly hour, dropped them off to my dad’s house in the nearby village with instructions for breakfast and what time to leave to walk to school, and set off flustered towards the M1, feeling my heart race as the stress of getting there on time mounted and piled up.
After taking a wrong turn and getting lost, I felt palpitations and I honestly thought I was going to have a heart attack. I just wanted to turn back and go home and forget about it all.
I pulled in and tried to get my bearings, fought back tears, then took a deep breath and eventually found where I was meant to be, late for the appointment, just as I’d feared.
I’ve always been a ‘working mum’ ever since I graduated many years ago, so I was normally able to manage stress, but that incident got me.
Back in 1999, my three-year-old daughter was in full-time childcare while I worked the nine to five every day in PR for Dungannon Council, where I spent many happy days, learned a lot and made lots of new friends.
Another two children later, I kept this routine up quite happily, but when my hobby of creative writing took a turn for the better and I landed a book deal for my first novel, Crazy For You, in 2007, I decided to take a career break to give it a go. I dreamed of days at the laptop in the comfort of my own home, pondering sentences and plot lines as I stared out at the garden, taking coffee breaks when I felt like it and finding a work life balance that was a dream come true.
If you are a budding writer and have the urge to think along those lines like I did, here is my advice to you ... don’t do it! I suffered for my art, let’s say. If I’d a pound for every time I was asked ‘so, are you the next JK Rowling?’ or ‘are you working on a new Fifty Shades of Grey?’ well, I’d probably have been able to keep my head above water much easier than what was the reality!
My personal life changed a lot during that time and eventually I had to go back to the day job, which brought me to that memorable moment on the motorway, tears streaming down my face and my heart thumping in my chest.
“There has to be an easier way than this”, my dad said to me one snowy night after 9pm when he picked me up at the bus station in Dungannon after my car wouldn’t start that morning — and, of course, I knew he was right. It wasn’t up to anyone else to make those changes. It was up to me.
But, as we all know, with three children and bills to pay, it can be very hard to see a way off the hamster wheel when you’re, quite literally, running for your life.
Behind the scenes, I kept writing and, when I did give up that day job in the city about six years ago (another breakdown on the M1 eventually ‘broke’ me), I held on to the hope that things would change.
I pulled in the odd freelance bit of work here and there, juggled and struggled along the way and then, a few years later, when in a new house and with a new partner and a new baby in my life, things did change.
I wrote a bestseller.
The Legacy of Lucy Harte will always be a precious story to me because it represents so much hard work, blood, sweat and tears to make it the best I could, having written seven books in total by this stage.
My partner Jim (McKee) and I watched ‘Lucy’ climb the Amazon charts with shock and delight and, as the reviews poured in and it went to America, then Germany and soon Holland, I really felt like something special was happening.
A year later, I’ve now a new book out called A Part of Me and You and, just one week after its release, it broke the Amazon Top 100 in the United States and, like ‘Lucy’, it will soon go to Germany, while the reviews so far are what dreams are made of.
Someone asked me recently if I write full-time now and the very idea of that makes my mind drift back to that image of wistfully dreaming up stories as I listen to bird song from the garden curled up in a window seat in my own little library — but the reality is very different, a little bit messy, very hectic and a bit chaotic at times!
I can’t say I write full-time, I’d say I write what I can when I can around four teenagers and a toddler and, instead of peaceful, quiet days thinking up new characters, I’m more likely to be dodging Lego on the living room floor, putting the dog out a million times a day when he lets himself in, taking orders from a three-year-old for constant drinks, snacks and playtime, doing school runs and running household errands to very glamorous places like the local recycling centre or the supermarket.
Jim is a professional artist and singer/songwriter and he works from the kitchen at the moment as he dreams of his own studio to match my dream of a window seat in my own library — some day I hope!
We keep out of each other’s way just enough on a daily basis to keep sanity levels manageable — he works mostly at night and I squeeze in a few hours then too, once the house is quiet.
My writing space is a corner on our battered old sofa among toy train sets, building blocks and, with Peppa Pig on the TV in the corner, I’ll wash the dishes as Jim strums on his guitar writing his songs or paints up a storm in the dining room.
Occasionally I’ll help him with a lyric here or a lyric there and he’ll give me ideas for character names or story titles when I pick his brain, and sometimes we get to work on projects together, which is where magic can, I believe, happen. This week, for example, we will visit primary schools for World Book Day with a Scarecrow Hop workshop which we both created.
It’s a beautiful story about friendship which features original stories, singalong songs and groovy dance moves, all created very much from our own home and from our own hearts and I’m so, so proud of it.
With two bestsellers and the autobiography of Philomena Begley, plus a new exciting project just around the corner, all penned among the madness from our family sofa, my writing life is far from glamorous, but it’s homely and it’s fun and it’s a whole lot better than breaking my neck to beat traffic on the motorway or breaking down in despair in the snow.
Sometimes, I guess, it’s good to fall off that hamster wheel when you’re running for your life. You never know what you might come up with when you do.