Who doesn’t love hindsight? I’m a big fan of science fiction, and one of my favourite tropes is ‘what if?’. What would have happened if George Bailey had never existed? What would happen if, Sliding Doors style, you made one choice instead of another, you zigged instead of zagged? So, if you had the chance to talk to your younger self, steer you on a different path or pass on hard-won wisdom, what would you say?
At first, when someone suggested this idea for her blog*, I thought the answers were obvious. Maybe for a start tell my 20-year-old self to get saving for a deposit so that, at 46, I wasn’t still living in rented accommodation. Maybe don’t blow my first year’s student grant on gigs and wine, thereby starting a lifelong relationship with debt that it took two decades to get under control. There’s probably a few guys I should have passed on, and definitely some that it took me way too long to realise were A Very Bad Idea. I REALLY should have learned before I was 40 that if shoes hurt in the shop, they’ll always hurt, and if you buy something a size too small ‘to diet into’, you might as well burn the money there and then. And if you absolutely fall for something (and it fits) you should buy it straight away: I’m still bitter about a Vivienne Westwood corset I passed on 15 years ago because it was a little out of my price range. I should have learned a lot earlier than I did that alcohol, an empty stomach and an emotional crisis is the most toxic combination in the world: for God’s sake, Younger Me, eat a sandwich before you go out.
But honestly – would I tell myself any of this? I always thought I’d like to be a homeowner, but maybe if I was, I wouldn’t have been so comfortable moving cities whenever the opportunity arose. Being crap with money without any safety net from anyone else was a hard lesson, but one worth learning and which has stood me in good stead. Being someone who has made, in her life, Many, Many Bad Choices has, I think, made me more understanding and more supportive of others, so it’s hopefully made me a better person. I’ve certainly met several interesting people along the way – some of whom I’m now good friends with, some of whom I’d hide in an open cesspit to avoid, but hey, I can’t say it’s been boring. I’m a writer, after all – at least I’m never short of material.
My life has, to a great degree, been shaped by chance, and even when it hasn’t worked out, it’s actually sort of worked out. I moved cities for love and while that didn’t end that happily, it did inspire my first novel. I’ve stumbled into jobs that I didn’t know existed till I did them, and some of them were terrible, some of them were great – but I made friends and learned things at all of them, and the worst ones actually ended up being the most useful, opening up opportunities I never would have expected. And friendships forged in fire often turn out to be the strongest.
I could have been bolder, it’s true. Younger Me would have benefited from being less crippled by self-consciousness over my class, my lack of money and polish, my belief that ‘people like me’ don’t get to be writers, don’t get to ‘do art’ – that’s for Oxbridge types with rich parents and better connections. But then maybe that anger at inequality was part of what drove me (it certainly informs my work). Without a desire to prove people wrong, would I have even bothered?
I should have asked for more help. It took me until my late thirties to realise it wasn’t a weakness not to be able to do everything myself: it’s taken a number of crises to learn to reach out when I need it, and I suspect I would have made my life a lot easier a lot earlier if I’d figured that out sooner. Like most people, I’ve made mistakes, for which I am genuinely sorry. I’ve hurt others through thoughtlessness or selfishness or sheer stupidity, and there’s a fair few moments I would erase if I got the chance. But again, maybe you need to have some things to be ashamed of, to understand what it is to be human.
So, if I had to boil it down, what would be my advice to my younger self? In the end, I don’t even need a letter – I could probably fit it on a postcard. Be bolder, take more chances, ask for help when you need it. Don’t be scared of being the first one to say sorry, and don’t hold onto a grudge. Always keep spare taxi fare home in your handbag (separate from your purse). You’re never quite as amusing as wine makes you think you are, you really don’t suit that faux-pony-skin mini-skirt no matter how much you paid for it, and you’ll eventually realise you just don’t actually like lipstick, so stop wasting all that money looking for ‘your shade’. And I hate to tell you, but you DEFINITELY should have asked out that cute doctor you had the crush on, because you’ll always regret that you didn’t. But other than that – you’re good, girl. Just keep going.
*This post was a originally written for a book blogger, who had to discontinue her blog due to personal reasons.
Younger me: always thinner than I thought I was