The Road to Writing

January 26, 2017

As any aspiring author will know, the journey to becoming a published writer is never straightforward. Ronan Ryan, author of The Fractured Life of Jimmy Dice which publishes today, takes us through his story. 

I already knew with certainty that I wanted to be a professional writer, and I’d been pursuing it for years, when, in 2005, I began a Masters course in Cognitive and Clinical Neuroscience at Goldsmiths. I was conscious it could take a long time to secure that elusive book deal, and so my plan – and there’s a chance I hadn’t thought this all the way through – was to establish a respectable secondary career as a neuroscientist that would finance my real passion.

Neuroscience is the study of the nervous system, and the course had a particular focus on brain damage. It’s a compelling subject area, but, during lectures, I would invariably fill the margins of my notebooks with character sketches and snippets of dialogue for the novel I was bursting to write.

At the end of the first term, I decided to drop out. To family and friends, it seemed like a reckless decision. Why not just finish the Masters, and then write the novel? That way I’d have a strong qualification and I’d have kept my options open. But I feared that if I didn’t get the ideas that were haunting me down on paper, they might fade away and, if I waited, maybe the story would end up being only 95% as good. The Masters wasn’t worth a 5%, or a 1%, drop-off to me. I’d also realized that if I wanted to make it as a writer I had to embrace my inner obsessive and go all in – there are undoubtedly plenty of exceptional writers who are versatile enough in their talents to juggle dual careers and lead balanced lives, and more power to them, but because of how I’m wired, I knew I had to take a tunnel-visioned approach to pull it off.

I haven’t hedged my bets since then. Each major life decision I’ve made has been governed by what will help me to write. When I moved to Edinburgh, it was to do a Creative Writing Masters, so that I could become a better editor of my own work. And when I moved to Wellington to do an English Lit PhD, my main motivation wasn’t the qualification; it was that I’d been permitted to deliver a novel for my thesis and, thanks to scholarships, I was essentially being paid to write for three and a half years. By design, the jobs I’ve had have lacked opportunities for advancement, and I’ve repeatedly borrowed considerable sums and stretched every cent. The equation has always been money equals time, and time allows for writing novels. I’m well-versed with getting by on a shoe-string budget, but that isn’t a complaint – it’s been by choice and worth it. My First World privilege of being able to devote my life to chasing a dream isn’t lost on me.

While my ‘neuroscientist on the side’ plan was doomed to fail, studying neuroscience still proved invaluable. I was fascinated by the case studies of people suffering from brain damage: they had all experienced a trauma that had impaired their perceptions of the world and their sense of self, and they were striving to restore what had been stolen from them and to move forward with their lives. It’s no accident that throughout my debut novel, The Fractured Life of Jimmy Dice, there’s an ongoing exploration of mind/body dynamics and the impact of trauma on identity. I started writing it, many permutations ago, on the day I dropped out of Goldsmiths.

Ronan Ryan, January 2016

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