Elspeth Cooper

Purveyor of fine fantasy adventures

Photo of Newcastle University

Defining success

It’s that time of year when the newspapers are full of pictures of joyful girls (and it’s always girls, isn’t it? Funny that) leaping in the air celebrating their A Level results. These will be followed in due course by lots of well-meaning but uninspired advice for those whose results were less gravity-defying, and in turn by outraged harrumphing on the letters page about how the pass rate going up (again) can only be due to the standards going down (again).

“Not like proper A Levels!” they’ll huff. “In my day exams were hard!” What the letter-writers forget is that their day is not the current day, and what was considered best practice then is different now, and ‘different’ does not automatically mean ‘less than’. But I digress.

The reason for this post is I want to tell you a story.

I was quite a bookish child, academically able, with a reading age well ahead of my peers. I was expected to do well at school, go on to a good university and all that. My parents wanted the best for me, so they offered me the chance to go to an independent school for girls. I said no, they said okay, and I went to the local comprehensive.

Education had lost all appeal to me. I was frustrated, bored, and couldn’t wait to get out of the hothouse.

GCSEs had only just been invented, so I was one of the last years of kids to do O Levels. Got a nice set of results, and went through to the sixth form. Where the wheels came off, big style.

I picked a poor balance of subjects for A Level. One of them was maths and statistics; my dad was a maths teacher, how bad could it get? The answer: bad. I’d started to struggle at O Level, and the A Level syllabus showed me that I wasn’t really cut out for it. Despite copious past papers, extra coaching from Dad, and a resit, I failed A Level maths. Twice.

There were other reasons. A newly-qualified maths teacher who didn’t really have the personality for teaching and a growing disaffection with the whole process of education, due to the teachers’ strike that was happening at the time. That caused me to get a worse result than expected in history, and led to me sabotaging my interview at Oxford – I was honest, and told them I wasn’t sure I wanted to go, so they wisely decided to offer my place to someone who valued it more. The maths fail meant I didn’t have the grades to go to Durham, my number 2 choice, but my dad’s alma mater, Liverpool, had offered me two Es, so all was not lost, right?

I said no to uni, too.

Education had lost all appeal to me. I was frustrated, bored, and couldn’t wait to get out of the hothouse. I have never regretted it. Given my personality at the time, I think the bigger mistake would have been going to uni, and studying a subject (medieval and modern history) that I enjoyed but didn’t really love.

My lack of a BA didn’t hinder me getting a job, or becoming a published writer. That requires no qualifications. You get to be a writer by writing, and I’ve been producing novel-length fiction since I was 14.

My heart was always in language, I think. English Literature was the A Level I aced, and although my employment career ended up being more science-y (21 years in IT), language is where I have ended up. Writing books.

The good school > good grades > good university > good job track was never for me. Despite my parents’ hopes and expectations, it was never going to be a good fit, even if the circumstances of my A Levels had been different. My lack of a BA didn’t hinder me getting a job, or becoming a published writer. That requires no qualifications. You get to be a writer by writing, and I’ve been producing novel-length fiction since I was 14.

Having a BA would probably have taken me in a different direction though. Given me different friends, different goals, a different life. Different is neither better nor worse, but a different life might have been one in which my books didn’t get written. I probably wouldn’t have met the man who is now my husband. Would I have been more successful? I don’t know. It all depends how you define success – or whether you accept someone else’s definition of it.

On balance, I think I’ve done okay, sans letters after my name. I haven’t won any awards or achieved any kind of fame, but I own my own house, there’s food on the table and I can put a little joy in readers’ hearts. That makes me happy. Happy counts as successful, right?

 

Featured image: Newcastle University By Roger – Flickr, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28815490

A vintage typewriter with the text "it starts with one WORD" written on a shee

A needful thing

So this post has been a long time coming. It needed to be written, but I kept putting it off because frankly, I didn’t know how to write it. I still don’t, but I’m going to have a go anyway. I hope you understand.

I’m not a fast writer. I have perfectionist tendencies, which mean I don’t let go of anything until I’m absolutely sure it’s the best I can possibly make it. That goes double for creative work. What it goes for for the Wild Hunt Quartet, the story I have wanted to tell for over 25 years, well. I’m not sure there are enough zeroes in the world. That’s how much it means to me.

I’m also ill, and have been so for a long time. Most of you will already know this, because although I don’t shout it from the rooftops, it’s not exactly a secret. I have multiple sclerosis. Officially, I was diagnosed in 2004, but the symptoms go back almost as far as the origins of The Wild Hunt Quartet. There’s an irony, eh?

MS has approximately the same effect on my nervous system as mice do on your house’s wiring

Anyway, for those that don’t know, MS is an auto-immune condition in which my body attacks its own nerve cells, slowly stripping them of their protective layer of myelin. Myelin works like electric cable insulation, so MS has approximately the same effect on my nervous system as mice do on your house’s wiring, only you can’t call Pest-B-Gone and hire an electrician to put it right. It’s chronic, progressive and disabling.

I’ve mostly come to terms with it, though on bad days I still get angry and bitter when I can’t do something trivial like get the top off a jar, carry a cup of tea without spilling it, or get to the bathroom in time. There’s more, and worse, but that’ll do for today.

When I was first diagnosed, the disease was relapsing-remitting. I’d have flare-ups of symptoms, like visual disturbances or numbness, then periods of no noticeable disease activity. Rinse and repeat. Over time, as the scarring built up on the nerve fibres, symptoms started to stick around. My balance and mobility have deteriorated markedly over the last few years. My fatigue has increased (and fatigue in MS is not ‘feeling a bit tired’, it’s ‘can no longer stand because after a few minutes the axial muscles just don’t work any more’). And the cognitive dysfunction has got worse.

Cognitive problems in MS patients are very common. These can range from poor concentration, difficulty making decisions and general ‘cog fog’ to mood swings, depression and memory issues. Pick one from the list and I’ve probably had it. Certainly depression. Feeling fat and useless, frustrated and foggy and exhausted is pretty much guaranteed to do a number on your mood.

An open book with ribbon marker

© Ingvald Kaldhussater | ID 514554 | Dreamstime Stock Photos

All of which brings me to THE DRAGON HOUSE. Just as a book, it has its challenges. It’s the last one, the conclusion to the series. The one I have the highest hopes and deepest fears for. It’s the culmination of every decision I’ve made heretofore in the telling, the drop-box for all the “I’ll figure that out in the next book”, the firing of Chekhov’s guns, the resolution of every scrap of foreshadowing. As a discovery writer, it’s also the book I knew least about going in.

A big ask, then. And I’m trying to write it whilst dealing with MS that is now secondary progressive. I admit, it has sometimes been overwhelming. I have suffered from creative paralysis. Decision fatigue. Rampant perfectionism and an inability to believe that anything I do will ever, ever be good enough.

If the book’s not done yet, it’s not been because of a lack of effort, believe me. Or any shortage of tears. There simply comes a point where I cannot work any harder, because I simply cannot work. But I keep trying anyway, and that exacts a price.

I will finish this book. This story is my heart-song, my dream; I cannot let these characters down by leaving their tale unfinished. They deserve an ending, and so do all the readers who have come along for the ride. I must just beg your indulgence a little longer.

This story is my heart-song, my dream; I cannot let these characters down

A final few words. I am surrounded with loving support from friends and family. My publisher and agent have been nothing but wonderful. I know I am not alone. This post is not meant to be a play for sympathy, just an explanation. I feel I owe you that. I haven’t kept the blog up to date, despite my best intentions. That’s the thing about missing a deadline; the further past it I go, the less I want to draw attention to myself by mentioning it. The more I’m struggling, the less I feel able to share. My instinct is to hide, to soldier on in isolation. To keep setting myself more deadlines, and keep failing to meet them, so I hide some more.

There are circumstances I cannot change, limitations I will always have to work within, but I will try to do less hiding, going forward.

And I WILL finish this book. You have my word on that.

Sincerely,

Ellie

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