I’d no idea being disabled would allow me to achieve so many dreams. When I was very small I wanted to be a writer, but as with many things in my life, I tend to go the long way round. I had my children young and am now having my career. No regrets about either.
In 2000 I had my own business, which I set up when I divorced. I was about to expand it when I had some surgery on my stomach. Unfortunately, my body didn’t respond well, and afterwards I couldn’t swallow food or large quantities of fluid properly. I became very ill and couldn’t work. Instead of expanding my business, I had to give it up. I was a single parent with three children. It wasn’t an easy time.
After a year and with the support of an amazing Specialist Nutrition Nurse, I had a PEG fitted: a percutaneous endoscopic gastrostomy feeding tube. This was the beginning of my getting my life back. I hadn’t got a business, but I wasn’t willing to sit and do nothing.
I had a massive chip on my shoulder that I hadn’t gone to university at 18. Fate stepped in: a leaflet came through the door announcing an open day at King Alfred’s College (now University of Winchester). I saw that the English degree had some creative writing modules and I had one of those ‘It can’t hurt to ask’ moments. I was made very welcome at the open day and told I should apply. I was so excited when they accepted me, disability and all.
The university were so accommodating. They were happy for me to come with a backpack, which had my feed in, attached to me via a tube. I was with a great bunch of people, including many other mature students. A whole new world opened up to me. I came to university with a set idea of what sort of writer I thought I wanted to be — the next Joanna Trollope. However, classes with Andrew Melrose and Judy Waite introduced me to children’s writing. It was like coming home. It felt a natural form to write in, and going on to do a Masters in Writing for Children and a PhD focusing on young adult fiction seemed logical and a great opportunity. This was how I met Imogen Cooper, which led to my working for the Golden Egg Academy, a brilliant organisation where we support aspiring children’s writers by offering editorial support, reports and workshops.
My first published novel Flight came about after Imogen told me to go away and write whatever I wanted. This was after we decided that I should walk away from another project that I was struggling to make work. Whilst researching online, the nugget of a story started to grow when I found out about this true story, Operation Cowboy, and nothing would stop it. I sent the first few chapters and idea to Imogen and she loved it. It needed a lot of work and detail put in but I was really happy with this story and so was Imogen. It was wonderful when Penny and Janet at Firefly saw Flight because they were equally as excited about the story, which made it very easy to work with them on it. Extraordinarily the first line of the book has never changed.
Working with a disability isn’t always easy for me. My stamina isn’t great. I no longer walk around with my backpack on as it’s distracting for students, so I feed only when I’m home. I often lie on my bed feeding while I’m writing. The advantage of being attached to a pump means that you have a lot of time to edit and research. You don’t waste it. Also if you are having a bad day, it is not futile because you can spend the day reading, writing or doing research. People ask me if I miss eating and yes, I do. Eating is so important socially. Occasionally I try and eat stuff because I want that sensation, or to join in with everyone, but I know how much pain I’ll be in afterwards. I’ve had to adjust my life again recently as trouble with one of my knees means I’m on crutches. I do get frustrated with that. I can’t always do the things I want to, but I find ways around it. Being a writer works well with my disabilities: they’re forgiving when I’m having a bad day as they let me work from my bed.
I’ve learned that things may seem bad, but something good may develop from the difficult times. Stay strong. Try to look forward and don’t dwell on the past. Who knew when I went to that open day that I’d end up lecturing in creative writing, mentoring aspiring writers with the Golden Egg Academy and writing books myself?
Flight by Vanessa Harbour is published on 1st August by Firefly Press.