SARAH TURNER – The Unmumsy Mum
Life, as we’re all too aware, has a frustrating habit of throwing us the occasional curve ball and even going so far as to drop the odd metaphorical mountain in our paths every now and then. What happens though when instead of curves balls and mountains, it sends us followers in their hundreds of thousands and book deals from heaven?
I dropped in on a favourite local haunt, Topsham’s Darts Farm, to meet up with Sarah Turner; a regular, girl next door kind of mum who, through her sanity-saving blog posts, unintentionally stumbled across a market and a gaping hole between image and reality, becoming a Sunday Times bestselling sensation in the process.
Sarah Turner is an author, blogger, mother of three and self-confessed procrastinator. She’s a big fan of honesty and an all round bloody good egg. After just an hour in her company, it wasn’t hard to see why she’s loved across the globe and how her seemingly golden path to success just may always have been on the cards.
Written by Tracey Duke, Photography by Pip Andersen
Sarah, it’s great to be here with you; as both a mum of three boys and a writer myself, I’m a huge fan of your work. Sarah let’s jump straight into this one with a little background on how you got to this point.
Ok, so I had left my job in finance; a job that I really enjoyed, to go off on maternity leave with my first baby. It wasn’t long before I realised that the job just wasn’t going to be compatible with life with a baby and so started working, instead, part-time at the University of Exeter when the baby was old enough.
It was around the time when my first son, Henry, was about a year old, that I found myself struggling. I’ll be honest I was finding motherhood hard; a lot harder than I’d expected.
The internet is a wealth of knowledge and I’d turned to it for support from anybody who would reassure me that the feelings I was having were completely normal; even though I knew that becoming a parent was absolutely the best thing that had ever happened to me, I also needed to know that it was normal to have days when you’re tearing your hair out and need to have a silent scream in the downstairs loo. But I couldn’t find anything that reassured me that I was normal and in fact everything that I found online just made me feel worse; what I found was a glossy presentation of parenting where everyone was cherishing every moment. That was great, but it certainly didn’t mirror my everyday life.
So I remember one Friday evening after I’d been to work at the Uni; I’d come home to find Henry refusing his dinner for the 7th or 8th Day in a row. I was feeling disillusioned with the whole parenting adventure and needed an outlet for my frustration. I’d heard about people using blogs online, so I sat down and googled ‘how to start a blog’.
A page came up, I started typing and there and then I wrote my first blog post. Obviously, I had no readers or followers; the only page views were my own because I hadn’t shared it with anyone, but I published it anyway. My writing and thoughts were out there and I felt so much better!
I guess it was almost like a therapy for you? That whole process of getting it out of your head and onto paper.
Yeah for sure; it was something just for me. With the change in career, I’d lost a bit of myself, I think, so writing was a way to reconnect with what I wanted.
And so that’s what I did; I wrote. I continue to type, upload and share and I also set up a little twitter profile. I had to come up with a name; @theunmumsymum. It’s a name that’s quite often misconstrued but the background to it is that I was going to baby groups and looking at other mums who all seemed to know what they were doing; everybody apart from me seemed to have their act together. For me, being ‘mumsy’ was an aspiration; if you were ‘mumsy’, you belonged in the club and by default had sussed the whole mum thing.
However, in contrast, I felt decidedly Unmumsy, which is exactly where the name came from. Obviously, I didn’t think, at the time, that it was going to go anywhere.
So the twitter account ticked along for about 18 months without too much happening, with regard to interaction and shares. But it didn’t really matter; I really wasn’t doing it for any other reason than therapy.
It wasn’t until I started a corresponding Facebook page and my followers jumped to 200,000, that I thought maybe something could actually come of it.
At that stage I hadn’t told anyone at work that I had a blog, because I didn’t feel like I had needed to, but there came a point when I, effectively, had to come out as a blogger; people were stopping me at work to ask questions and I felt like I had to explain.
If I’m honest, it was quite frightening at the time because I’d never planned for any of it; it was just a little sideline, a hobby. I certainly didn’t have plans for it to become my career.
One of those what have I done moments?
Yes, exactly and I couldn’t go back. And then the messages started coming in from Mums who were saying ‘I just feel compelled to email you at 2 am in the morning because I’ve been having a tough time and reading what you’ve said has made me feel like it’s ok’. The more of those messages I got, the more I felt that I was actually making a real difference and I became increasingly passionate about it.
It was about that time, the end of 2014, that the Editorial Director of a publishing company got in touch. They explained that they’d read my blogs on Facebook, that they’d already taken a proposal to an acquisition meeting and that the team had agreed they wanted to offer me a book deal.
Sarah that’s the stuff of fairytales; the holy grail for writers. What went through your head at that moment?
I literally ran around our kitchen shouting “Oh my God! Oh my God!” Bear in mind that I don’t have a background in writing; I’d worked in finance and then higher education and I was just putting my thoughts out there to get it off my chest initially.
I had thought, in the past, that I’d love to write a book; haven’t most people? But very often, especially with women, we can talk ourselves into and then out of something just as quickly.
Within two weeks, however, I’d acquired a literary agent and there was an offer on the table for my first book contract.
I’d also had to make a decision about work. I’d already had baby number 2 at this point and I was back at my desk at the University of Exeter. I had to make the decision whether to cut and run and write a book, or go back. It was a gamble.
Even with the offer on the table?
Yes, even with it. The details of the offer meant that I could pay my bills during the year I was writing, meaning I could leave my job, but then I’d have had no career to go back to.
At the end of the day, I knew that I’d never get the opportunity again; so I left and I spent a year writing a book.
And what about that moment you heard you’d reached the Sunday Times number one spot? That must have been seriously insane!
It was; completely unreal. In fact, it still feels a little surreal even now. I’ve had quite a few book events and literary festivals and I still never believe that anybody is going to come; I’m always amazed that people turn up to see me and have their books signed.
If I’m honest my whole life feels surreal, still, but I have learned to talk myself down from those imposter moments.
I remember, during publication week for the first book, I was invited to do the Steve Wright Radio 2 show. I went in, shook hands with this iconic radio voice and I remember that I just didn’t take any of it in; it was all just too surreal. I had my interview and then jumped on a train from London back to Exeter St David’s and headed straight to the nursery for Harvest Festival at 4 pm. The whole thing was so weird, but I think that’s the nice thing because, in many ways, absolutely nothing has changed.
And what of the publishing process itself? How did you find it?
For a while, I felt a little guilty; almost as though the whole process was too easy. But as my editor said, whilst I didn’t type a synopsis and send a covering letter to numerous publishers, at the point at which I was offered the contract I’d written probably 35 blogs; thousands and thousands of words. That essentially was my pitch; I just made it online without any realisation that the right people were reading it.
It didn’t feel like hard work, because I was enjoying it. If I’d have known that people high up in publishing houses would be reading my work, would it have changed the tone? Would I have become more conscious of how I was writing? Probably yes. So the fact that I was writing for no one, in particular, meant I developed my own style and my own tone. I tapped into something and the right people liked it.
This then taps into a question that I ask quite often; Is naivety the key to success?
I think it possibly is. Whilst my path looks like a dream pathway, I really didn’t have a path or a clue. I just got on with it. I’d never have believed back then that I’d have a Sunday Times bestseller; it would never have even entered into my mind. I would still have been happy blogging, if only a hundred people were reading my work, so long as I knew I was making a positive difference.
And that’s the thing; the making the difference and aligning your passions with your work. Jobs, as we know them, are changing and some report that 45% of jobs we know today won’t even exist in ten years time. So with all this in mind, should we still be asking our children what they want to be when they grow up?
Or instead, should we ask them what they want to contribute to the world and how do they want to make the world a better place? Would that question encourage them to follow their natural strengths?
I think so. Focusing on strengths and passions rather than jobs is always a good thing. The chances are that more children than not will work at more than one thing, cultivating a set of skills. You’re right though; we need to nurture our children so they grow with the mindset ‘How am I going to improve things and what am I going to contribute to the world rather than take?”
You’ve clearly found your own strengths; strengths that resonate around the world. Am I right in saying that your first book has been translated into 15 languages?
Yes; there are 15, if not 20, translations now. It’s bizarre because every now and then I’ll be tagged on an Instagram post and it’ll be from someone reading the Slovakian version. That’s always very strange to think of.
And could we be looking at a film version of the diaries?
No, not yet! But it’s funny, I was in talks with someone, at one stage, about a TV version. I think though that we’ve reached a point where there are so many wonderful parenting shows around at the moment and they’re all doing very well. I think the mum sitcom market has almost reached saturation point, so probably not. But you know what they say… ‘never say never”.
And the next book? How’s that going?
I’m currently under contract for a third book, but I haven’t started writing it yet; I’m not 100% certain at this stage what it’s going to be, but I have considered the possibility of trying my hand at parenting based fiction.
The writer’s block! I know it well! I have my own techniques for getting past it, but how do yours work? What happens when you have a deadline to meet but the creative juices aren’t playing ball?
To be honest, I find book writing a lot easier to motivate myself for, than smaller freelance pieces; I treat having to write 75,000 words as a job.
I wrote a lot of my second book at Exeter library. I’d leave the house in the morning with a flask of tea, sit in with all the students in the quiet study area and not leave at the end of the day until I’d written 4,000 words.
I find that I procrastinate a lot more with freelance pieces; it can take me 3 or 4 days to write one article when I would probably have thrust my way through 3 or 4 chapters of a book. The thing is, when you’re writing a book, you’re in that zone; to get started all you need do is read the last few paragraphs and you’re straight back into it.
But when you’re writing articles, it’s very different. I find the stop-start nature of being a freelance writer very hard, but I do really enjoy the book writing. I’m just waiting for inspiration right now; I don’t want to turn out a third book for the sake of it. At the moment I’m just not feeling that I’ve got the idea there yet.
All that said, my third book should already be out on the shelves. My publisher has been so good though; they recognise that actually sitting down to write something that your heart isn’t in and then having to promote it half-heartedly, is not a good idea and they’d be better off waiting until I feel fresh again. They’ve been brilliant and basically said to keep in touch and let them know when I’m ready.
Obviously, there will be an end date; there will come a point when someone’s knocking on my door looking for ten thousand words, but for the moment they’ve been really good and I have time for inspiration to strike!
Sarah thank you so much! You’re an inspiration and living proof of what you can achieve if you just let go of fear and let it happen. Good luck with writing the new book; I for one can’t wait to see where inspiration strikes!
The Unmumsy Mum and The Unmumsy Mum Diary can be bought online and you can catch up with Sarah’s blogs over at www.theunmumsymum.co.uk and @theunmumsymum