Life being put on hold was just the spur this writer needed to fulfil her youthful ambition

I wrote a novel in the last lockdown. To be clear, it wasn’t one of those creative outpourings some people had in between yoga with Adriene and baking banana bread. I had a deadline. Some days, I thought I’d never cut through the brain fog brought about by living through a pandemic. But gradually, as the initial panic subsided and the usual distractions of daily life fell away, I found the words did start to come, and the process of writing my second book was much more fluid and focused than my first.

Which is hardly surprising. I started my debut while on maternity leave with my second baby. I had dreamed of writing a novel since I was a child. I was one of those bookish kids whose weekly highlight was a visit to the library and who spent the best part of my teens squirrelling away short stories and beginnings of novels that never seemed to go anywhere. When I moved to London after my English degree, I joined a writing group and started a thriller.

The group I fell in with were fellow journalists, all of us starting out, and while one or two continued writing, I became consumed by my career, first on women’s magazines and then at the Guardian. If I’m honest, I was also overcome by self-doubt and a sense of inadequacy. It’s one thing to announce you’re writing a novel at 15. By 25, I knew there were already too many brilliant books and writers in the world – I’d never be able to attempt anything that even remotely measured up. I might as well forget about even trying.

For 10 years, I didn’t write a word of fiction. Now I look back, it seems amazing I was able to shut down that side of myself entirely. But I put aside my short stories and the novel I was halfway through, convinced it was all a childish fantasy. I never spoke to anyone about my writing – it was an embarrassing secret. What I didn’t realise then was just how many other people were nurturing their own.

Vanessa Grzywacz grew up dreaming of being an illustrator. “As a child I would doodle funny cartoons and sketches all over my school folders,” she says. “I loved reading children’s comics and used to make my own.” But after studying illustration at art school, she had no idea how to get commissions. A career as a magazine designer seemed like a more realistic option and so, like me, she simply closed off that creative outlet. “I abandoned my own illustration completely,” she says, eventually going freelance, to fit her work around family life.

It’s not uncommon to bury a youthful ambition, according to psychologist Linda Blair. “Most of us, when we’re young, have these ideas, these dreams, but we discard them over time because of the demands of daily life.” It’s not necessarily that we become less creative as we get older, it’s just that “we fulfil those creative impulses in other ways: work, having babies.” In my case, it was after having my second child that I suddenly felt a strong urge to write again – an impulse that seemed to come from nowhere, though it doesn’t surprise Blair in the slightest. “You said to yourself, ‘I feel like I’ve had the family I want to have and yet I still have this urge to create. How else can I do it?’” And so I signed up for a creative writing course in secret, returning to the novel I had started all those years earlier.

It took four more years, fitting writing around work and family life, before I had a finished manuscript. But it wasn’t until I knew it was going to be published that I had the confidence to admit to many people that I had returned to my childhood ambition. Then, as I began my second novel, we went into lockdown.

It was the pandemic that sparked Grzywacz’s creativity. “When it all happened, most of my freelance design work was cancelled,” she says. “So I started to draw again as a way to keep a positive family diary. I began posting my drawings on Instagram, @vanessagdraws, and they seemed to make people smile.”

According to Blair, the rupture the past 18 months represented in our daily routines has prompted some people to re-evaluate their lives and reconnect with their earlier selves. “Usually, we’re conditioned to behave as we behaved yesterday,” she explains. “The more we do that, the deeper goes the habit. But when you hit a wall, for whatever reason, all of a sudden you can’t do what you were doing before, which was keeping you busy and keeping you from going to those places in your mind.” While the pandemic has been terrible, it has also, she says, “reawakened in many something that makes them feel they have more meaning in their lives”.

Novelist Erin Kelly, whose recent thriller Watch Her Fall is set in the ballet world, was inspired to revisit her childhood passion for dance during lockdown. “I wasn’t a sporty child, but I did love dance, even as a dumpy, clumsy teenager.” Like many, she stopped lessons as she got older, but picked them up again recently. “I was writing a novel about two rival ballerinas and what started as an online ballet class for research purposes soon became a daily routine,” she says. “I took a barre class at dawn every day, when the streets outside were eerily silent. It was the only part of the day I could call my own. I loved the discipline and the feeling of being a student again.”

While Kelly isn’t about to give up the day job, Grzywacz has decided to pursue her childhood ambition professionally. “I’ve recently had commissions for my illustrations and been featured by the Daily Mirror, Euro news and BBC radio. I’m still working as a freelance magazine designer, but I’m also taking time out to work on a graphic novel.”

For Lee Chambers, it was a life-changing illness that prompted him to revisit the ambitions he’d abandoned in childhood. “I was born in Bolton to mixed-race teenage parents. I was a very curious and scientific child, obsessed with the human body and mind,” he says. He studied international business psychology at Manchester and had dreams of being a psychologist, but eventually became discouraged. “I grew up on a council estate and I wasn’t wealthy. I didn’t have the connections it seemed others had,” he explains. “There were no other black male psychologists to learn from.” After suffering mental health problems, he went into financial services and built a successful business. Then, in 2014, his immune system failed and he lost the ability to walk. “I spent a year learning to walk again and had a lot of time for reflection,” he says. “I realised that the business I had wasn’t making me happy and that I had to pursue something I was truly compelled to do.” He signed up for a masters in environmental psychology and, at 36, is now a psychologist. “It’s hard to describe, but it feels like I’m travelling on the right path for me.”

It took Priscilla Tang many more decades to set up the business that would fulfil her ambitions. Growing up in Malaysia she longed to be an artist, but settled for an architecture degree and a career she found “dull and dry”. Now 70, and living in Hong Kong, she launched Tofu-Dogart two years ago. She paints portraits of dogs with their owners, taking commissions worldwide, and describes herself as feeling “elated, that at last I am doing something that deeply satisfies me, and uses my skills”.

When I started writing again in my 30s, I worried I’d already left it too late. But publishing my debut novel at 42, I’ve discovered I’m far from alone in waiting until the timing was right. For some people, says Blair, getting older is a time for giving back. “You might think, I’ve earned my privileges, I’ve done the things I wanted to do, now it’s time to get creative.” And you might, like Grzywacz, feel you’ve got nothing to lose. “Turning 50 recently has given me a renewed confidence just to try new things and to be fearless. If it works it works, if it doesn’t, I’ll try something else.” Whatever happens, she feels much more positive now, she says. “I wake up in the morning with a new idea and can’t wait to draw it. The past few years have taught me that life is fragile and that there really is no time to waste.”

The House Guest by Charlotte Northedge is published by HarperCollins at £14.99. Buy a copy for £13.04 from guardianbookshop.com

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