“When I look back now over my life and call to mind what I might have had simply for taking and did not take, my heart is like to break.” ~William Hale White
Today the family watched my niece in her Christmas show. It was all very sweet but there were a few moments where I had to avoid eye contact with my sister for fear of us both sniggering like 12 year olds – you know that bubble of laughter that builds like gas inside your stomach before erupting at the most inappropriate moment? I had to swallow that down a few times during the hour. Some of the singing was buttock-clenchingly awful but as I sat there enduring the din I felt guilty about judging these kids. After all, at least they were up there giving it a go. You wouldn’t catch me singing on stage in front of a couple of hundred people unless there was copious amounts of red wine involved. So, bless their cotton socks, they were trying their best and nobody should ever be ridiculed for that. Furthermore, they looked like they were having the time of their life and let’s not forget, it’s not the winning but the taking part that matters.
When I think about myself as a youngster I feel sad that I never expressed my talents for fear of failure. Or lack of confidence. Or lack of encouragement. Or…who knows what? All I know is something prevented me from choosing the paths that might have taken me to great places. Frustratingly, I had it all inside me. I could’ve been a brilliant singer or actor. I was extremely creative and spent many hours writing plays, choreographing and singing. I had (and still have) an incredible gift for remembering lyrics. But all these things took place in the privacy of my bedroom, or in the bathroom, singing into a deodorant bottle, imagining the tiny flowers on the wallpaper was a rapturous audience at the London Palladium. I perfected the thank you speech for my BAFTA at an early age and I truly think, with the right guidance and an injection of self-confidence, I could have achieved that dream. In fact, I could have achieved anything. But sometimes it’s easier to not try. Sometimes it is easier to hide away, to let other people take the risks and to let life pass you by. Years of having a thick layer of protective fat really saw to that.
We often make the mistake of thinking that opportunities are going to spring up and hit us in the face. For a long time I imagined meeting the man of my dreams in a museum or a library. Like a scene from a Rom-Com, I would play the part of the ditzy, misunderstood character who bumps into the handsome geek as we browse the artefacts from ancient Egypt. Cue the moment where the music kicks in, we’re both completely awestruck and spend the rest of the day strolling through parks and sipping hot chocolate whilst discussing life and love. I now know that is never going to happen, not least because I rarely get the chance to visit museums nowadays and the last time I spent time in a library I stumbled across a strange man doing something very dodgy behind the Historical Fiction aisle.
Opportunity can be difficult to recognise. It doesn’t come with flashing lights and alarm bells attached to it. Sometimes it is subtle to the point of being invisible. Opportunity surrounds us but it rarely falls into our laps; we must go out and grab it with both hands. A wise person once said, “If opportunity doesn’t knock, build a door” but that takes time and effort. It can also involve hurt and humiliation. But the other option is to never try and that simply isn’t an option.
I am raising my son to believe in himself. I desperately want him to recognise his qualities and to try his best, even when he’s not very good at something. I will guide him in his interests and I’ll tell him he’s gorgeous every single day, because that is the truth. Judging by the deodorant/hairspray fumes that waft from his bedroom every morning – enough to stun a small horse! - he perhaps believes me a little too much. I have always encouraged Junior to be the best he can be, to try his best and to never judge others when they try theirs. I will endeavour to raise him to take appropriate risks, even if that means certain people laughing at him or making fun of his efforts. Even if that means failing miserably or falling flat on his face and even if that means taking the giant leap of following the person of your dreams on Twitter only for them to immediately ask you to unfollow them. Life cannot be lived fully without risk. To play it safe and to never put your dignity on the line would only result in a life unlived. It’s worth remembering that with time the hurt doesn’t hurt anymore. Only regret does.
I still suffer from debilitatating nerves when I give author talks but I have never opted out of any because of this. There’s something exhilarating about feeling the fear and doing it anyway. Not only is it a gigantic “fingers up” to all the people who ever doubted me but it’s also a reminder that I am as good as the next person if not better. I remember my first gig at the Edinburgh Book Festival, where I presented my novels to a fully booked auditorium, filled with children from all over the country, some of whom had travelled an entire day to see me. The pressure was huge and as I watched over 250 eager children file into the venue I thought I might actually die of fear. But the second I started speaking, the nerves disappeared and were replaced with an immense feeling of peace and pride.
I wasn’t alone on the stage that day. In the shadowy corner, just behind my right shoulder, I felt a strange and unexpected presence. A ghost of a girl, sitting in a chair, quietly absorbing the words coming from the mouth of the woman she would become. She was wearing her favourite burgundy dress, tied at the waist with a black belt and her hair shone chestnut under the lights. It was me, aged ten. It’s an extremely difficult moment to try and put into words without sounding seriously unhinged but I held that moment in my hand, brilliant as a star, fragile as a bubble and at the end of the gig, just before the lights went up and the children prepared to leave, I turned to my younger self and smiled a smile that told her, “We got there in the end.”