Eight years ago today I left my permanent job in the City to go on maternity leave for the second time. I had a vague notion that I would spend some time while I was on leave to explore a different way of life. I had dreamed of being a professional actor and a published author since the age of six but apart from a collection of journals, a few poems, some childhood trophies and a handful of amateur productions I had done little to bring that dream into being. I told myself it was time to shit or get off the pot.
I knew that doing anything with a new baby is fraught with difficulty and, after a difficult first maternity leave, I knew I wasn’t at my best when with my baby all the time. I needed something for myself, my own time, my own projects. So I arranged for a part time nanny for around 24 hours a week when I would be free to write, do some exercise and go to evening acting classes.
Two days ago I took delivery of several boxes fully of my published novel, looking like something that belongs on the shelves of a bookshop or a library or perched on the edge of someone’s bedside table. Then I went into my own studio to finish recording my 48th audiobook as a professional actor for a well known bestselling author. Yesterday some friends from drama school came to my home to film an actor performing my prologue that I will use as promotional material for the book.
As they left I held my book in my hands, breathed out and I cried, because I have done it. I have done exactly what I set out to do. I am a professional actor and a published author. This week I have also been doing the “Escape the 9 to 5” challenge run by Lynsay Gould. One of the entrants asked me what I was doing there because I was already living the dream. And I am. I am living my life the way I want to, built out of my choices, my talents and my work.
This morning I am sitting in my garden writing this, bathed in sunshine and with a great cup of tea in my perfect mug. I have been cycling already and felt the rush of freedom as I freewheeled down the hill I had carefully climbed. I am free. I am alive and I have done it.
I would love to tell you that all this came about as a result of my unerring self-belief and utter confidence that I would make it work. It didn’t. My faith in myself faltered many times. It still does. Most of the time I saw what I wanted to do and I had no idea whether I could do it or not. I didn’t know. My Alex Tech teacher told me that was a good place for me. It didn’t feel good. It felt terrifying.
During the write of my appallling first draft, also illegible due to my “creative” version of handwriting, I spent at least half of my allotted writing time overcoming the fear before I could even dredge one word out of myself. My husband asked me if I wouldn’t just like to use the time to relax, chill out, read a book or watch a movie. I listened, nodded, thought about it for a moment then I persisted.
I didn’t know it at that time but it was meditation that helped me through. I would spend twenty minutes lying on the floor doing the breathing exercises taught by the voice coach at Central or writing free hand in my journal to get the anxious thoughts out and make space for something more relaxed. I am someone who has developed anxious patterns of thought over the years and sometimes they are deafening. But this project mattered to me too much to let me succumb to the paralysis they suggested.
While at drama school I recognized that faith was something I would need a well of if I was going to achieve my overaraching dream. But faith in myself was hard. I am skeptical by nature, half-scientist, half-dreamer and the scientist wants proof. I did have proof of myself as someone determined. I had been working in a career for over 15 years where I pushed myself every day to engage and grow even when my heart wasn’t in it. I could keep going.
I had also climbed a mountain in spite of my asthma, thanks to medication and a determination to complete the task I’d set for myself. Sometimes it was easy and I ambled along chatting or singing taking in the scenery, then it became harder so I would channel my focus to the next ten steps. I didn’t know if I could believe in myself reaching the top but I could believe in the next ten steps, then ten was too many so I cut down to five, then two, then one. I made it one step at a time.
And that is also how I’ve built my dream.
In terms of my book it has sometimes been a chapter at a time, other times a paragraph or a sentence and even one word at a time. I haven’t loved every moment. Sometimes it was fucking painful sitting there hoping words would come, feeling twitchy and unwilling to concentrate. Other times it was wonderfully joyful and the words flowed easily from my fingers and by the time I was on my third draft it felt like listening. My responsibility was to tune into the radio station where the story was playing and faithfully record what I heard.
It was similar for acting. I started with an evening course, then a diploma, then an MA, then auditions until I discovered voiceover and even then it is an audition at a time, a job at a time. When I am recording I can be in flow where I lose myself in the story, other times something about me isn’t quite attuned and then it is a matter of breaking it down again, a chapter, a page, a paragraph, a sentence, until the work is done.
You may ask, if it is so painful why do I bother? Because it is MY dream, no one else’s. It is not what anyone thinks I “should” do or “might be good at”. It comes from me, that small voice Steven Spielberg talks about, the voice that dreams speak in, the one you hear when you meditate. And even when I didn’t believe in myself I believed in that. I believed in what I was doing and what I hoped to give to the world. I have chosen my mountian, the one I want to conquer and I am doing it, one step at a time with a song in my heart, alive and free.
What is your mountain? What makes you feel alive? What work are you prepared to do to taste the ambrosia of freedom?