Two years ago, I went to an information day for people who were interested in training as funeral directors. By then, I’d given my job as a teacher ten years of my life, but I’d come to realise it wasn’t for me. The throngs of people I had to deal with on a daily basis left me emotionally and mentally drained. Besides, what I wanted most in the world was to complete the novel I was writing, but with all the marking I had to do in my spare time that seemed like an impossible dream.
All in all, it was clear to me that something needed to change. I wanted some peace and quiet and time to write. Where is it quiet? I wondered. Right, in funeral homes. At least, compared to walking around crowded school corridors it is.
But that aside, the fact that we all die, the supreme moment in which it is our turn to leave this earth, what happens to us and where we return to, had always interested me and I’d read Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s work and many other books on near death experiences.
So, therefore, in May 2016, I drove to Zwolle for the funeral director information day, hoping to find something that was more suited to my personal needs and interests.
The day was led by (former) funeral director and funeral celebrant Suzanne van Horssen.
She was brilliant! She spoke with so much candour and with such enthusiasm about working with the deceased and their families that I began to have flashes in my head of fictional characters engaging with one another in a funeral setting.
While the other would-be funeral directors around me took notes about working in the field, I jotted down ideas for characters and setting, and a tentative plot began to form in my mind. I even came up with a title, The Martyr and the Butterfly, right then and there.
Towards the end of the information day I just knew that if I took the time to develop my ideas further, a second novel could come to life. But with my first manuscript still a work in progress, I realised I would need to put in more writing hours. A lot more!
I’d been working on a novel called Coffee Spills & Songs on and off for years.
I’d spun off a short story entitled ‘In My Dreams’ from my manuscript’s subplot that was published online and in a Dutch short story collection. I’d also had the first fifty pages of my manuscript critiqued by author and writing coach C. S. Lakin, which had been really helpful.
During my MA in Literary Studies, I’d inquired about the possibility of handing in my manuscript for my dissertation but as I wasn’t studying creative writing it wasn’t an option.
I had tried to become a writer for years. Alright, I’d turned my back on it from time to—even for prolonged periods of time—when my attention was absorbed by more pressing matters, but I always returned to writing, simply because writing and creating stories made me happy.
That day in Zwolle, as I realised once again that all I’d ever really wanted to do was write, I made a pact with myself. I was going to take my writing more seriously and give it more priority. Even if writing would never be more than just a hobby for me, it didn’t matter. I was going to hone my writing skills and become the best writer I could be.
When Suzanne asked me if I was going to enrol in the funeral director’s course, I replied that I probably wouldn’t. There was one thing I hadn’t considered before coming to the information day: people don’t just die during office hours. I couldn’t really see myself being on call 24/7, whilst looking after two young children.
In the days after Zwolle, I began to reread some of the writing manuals stacked on my bookshelves. One of them, Write a Novel and get it Published, by Nigel Watts and Stephen May, mentioned an online creative writing programme run by Manchester Metropolitan University. I enrolled immediately.
Yes, I still wanted a change of career, but more than anything, I wanted to write.