MUM’S DIARIES INSPIRED MY SELF-REINVENTION
Her mum’s diaries, packed with wry observations about daily life, ignited a spark in Sam that led to 100 interviews, a book in Waterstones and a TedX Talk.
I had no idea that ten years after my mum died I would have reinvented myself as a writer and interviewer.
Ten years ago I was in the thick of domestic life – three kids, a husband, my work as a complimentary therapist and endless ‘to do’ lists – when my Mum finally succumbed to cancer just days after my 40th birthday. She was only 61.
“On reflection her diaries were more Victoria Wood than Plato.”
Mum was the voice of reason, the wise one, the one who always knew what to say and do. I missed her. So when we cleared the house and found 25 years worth of diaries I thought I’d lucked out. Her diaries would be my point of reference when life became challenging.
On reflection her diaries were more Victoria Wood than Plato. Humorous one-liners, pathos in ordinary observations about daily life, they ignited a spark in me. I wanted to find out about other women and ask them how they ‘do life’.
So for no other reason, I started an old fashioned mission to sit at the kitchen table and just chat. Over the next four years I spent my free time listening to over 100 women of all ages, from their 20s to their 90s. I started with mums at the school gate, old clients and local people and then that expanded by word of mouth. They shared their honest views on everything, from happiness to body image to thoughts on life and their dreams. It was exhilarating. I was learning so much, gathering stories and insights through the art of everyday conversation, a treasure chest of wise words from ordinary women.
“It was a treasure chest of wise words from ordinary women”
It was easy to keep going with it because I just loved listening to their stories. I could do that til the day I die. I thought the stuff I heard deserved to be shared with a wider audience. But how? In a moment of naive madness I decided I’d write a book, but in truth I didn’t think I’d actually ever do it. But once I’d completed 100 interviews, I realised I had to go through with it.
What kept me going whilst doing the writing bit it was the women’s words. “Too good not to share” was my inspiration. And whether it was my naivety or their voices that got me through each step – I suspect a little of both – a further three years on I did publish my book, Collecting Conversations: Ordinary People Sharing Everyday Thoughts.
But that was only the beginning of me squeezing myself out of my comfort zone – in fact looking back on it, the work I’d done so far was easy compared to what I was about to embark on. I had to sell those books!
Earlier this year I turned 50, and the menopause arrived with a conveyor belt of symptoms. Meanwhile 1,000 copies of my book were delivered to my doorstep with no homes to go to.
The shit had now hit the fan – I needed to have the courage of my convictions. I mean, who the heck did I think I was? I had no experience in this world, I knew no one who could guide me and there was a whole heap of self-doubt thrown into the mix. For every step forward I went back three. I had a lot of work to do.
“I mean, who the heck did I think I was?”
First was the book launch – arranging it wasn’t a problem but I hadn’t anticipated having to talk in front of a large crowd. The nerves, the anxiety, the sleepless nights – what had I done?
Then there were the book shops. Walking in cold off the street, dying inside and out as I asked complete strangers if they’d like to sell my book, me a complete unknown, a novice, a newbie! It was excruciating.
Then there was the technology, social media and setting up an online shop – creating an online presence was truly overwhelming. I had no clue about any of this stuff and my confidence was being knocked every step of the way.
But my anxiety peaked when I was asked to do a TedX talk. I’d been taught always to say yes and deal with whatever arose when it arose. And boy did it arise! The run up to it were the worst five weeks of my life. I have never felt so completely awkward, riddled with self-doubt and full of sheer fear, but I knew I just had to carry on. I had to practise my talk until I was sick of the sound of my own voice.
Then the day came and everything went wrong. The dress didn’t fit, I was hot flushing all the time, I was overwhelmed with emotion and almost tearful. But I got up on stage and delivered – I did it.
Was it fun? Sadly no. Did I get a ‘high’ after? Sadly no! Did I benefit at all? Time will tell but it showed me that I can do these things I fear. I don’t like it but I can do it and if I am to sell my books then I need to be able to stand in front of people and tell them what I’ve done and why.
Yes it’s uncomfortable putting yourself out there, yes there will be the naysayers, yes there will be days when all the signs aren’t working in your favour… but recently I heard a quote and it’s now become my mantra “If you get tired, learn to rest, not to quit”. That is the best advice.
“I’ve seen my book on display in Waterstones, one of the most surreal moments of my life.”
Eight months on and I have sold almost 900 copies. I’ve seen my book on display in Waterstones with my own eyes, one of the most surreal moments of my life. Last week I went on BBC Radio London and talked about my book. Next up I’m doing a second print run.
I have had so much positive feedback from people who’ve been inspired to get on with what they want to do because of my book and that makes me feel I have done something worthwhile. But the self-exposure, the talking about yourself, the ‘hey look at me’ feelings have been excruciating at times. But now I can see them for what they are – little nagging self-doubts – and I try to ignore them.
For me, when things unfolded they felt a bit ‘Blue Peter’, a bit amateurish, but that’s kind of warm and comforting. Anything’s possible with a bit of focus and passion. So to any woman who doubts she can write a book or put herself out there, I’ve done it. So can you.
Above: Sam and her book.
These pictures: Braving the TedX talk and signing copies of Collecting Conversations for friends at the launch party.