When I was a kid, in summer, I loved getting up before anyone else – even my dad, who’s a pretty early riser himself – and slipping out of the house to explore the grounds of the environmental studies centre I grew up at. As I got older, I’d go out walking with only the dog for company. I wasn’t completely antisocial; I had a few friends, but school wasn’t a happy place for me – I got bullied a lot – so I was most content when I was at home with my books and my animals, my fields and my woods. I had a sister who was usually willing to be my partner in crime, and I was perfectly happy with my own company, too. I don’t ever remember feeling lonely.
Then I moved up to secondary school, where it seemed, suddenly, that the Most Important Thing In The World™ was to find your way into a group of some sort. And it didn’t take me long to realise I didn’t really fit in with any of the groups at-all.
The trouble is, when you’re a teenager, fitting in can be everything. The friends I had at school were outsider-y types themselves, but I didn’t even feel as if I had much in common with them. Why was I still happier reading a book than going to parties and hanging round in a group? Why did I still enjoy ‘boring’ stuff like walking through the woods, or sitting on a beach and gazing out to sea?
What was wrong with me?
By the time I reached my late teenage years, I felt shut off, with no idea of who I really was or what I wanted to do (except to write, of course; I honestly believe this is what kept me sane back then). Things finally changed when I went to university and met other people – including the man who’s now my husband – who didn’t think reading books or gazing out to sea was boring at-all.
Still, it’s taken until quite recently for me to feel comfortable in my own skin, and to stop questioning why, as much as I enjoy talking to and meeting up with my friends, I need time by myself, too. What’s helped is the realisation that I need a balance. Too much time alone and I start to feel stale and cut off from reality – and as a result, so does my writing. Conversely, too much time with other people, especially in large groups, just wears me out. I need time with others to stimulate me and draw me out of myself, but time alone to allow my creative well to refill.
And what about my experiences as a kid and teenager? If I could go back, would I change them? Yes and no. No-one deserves to be bullied – it still affects me now, and I know people who had it way, way worse than I ever did. But no matter what happened, I think I would have felt outside of things in some way, because it’s just who I am – and a facet of my personality that, as a writer, I now find incredibly useful. Whatever genre you write in, you need to have the ability to observe and feel empathy for all sorts of people and situations; to find your way under the skins of characters who might be quite different to you. Being on the outside looking in has definitely helped me with that.
And if you prefer reading a novel to hitting the high street? Walking along the edge of a muddy field, watching the rooks rise from the trees, to being packed shoulder to shoulder in a sweaty club?
There’s nothing wrong with that. And there’s nothing wrong with you.