I’m not a writer.
If you’ve read my other posts you’ll see that. It has taken me until now to start to accept that not being a great writer does not mean that I have nothing to say, nor does it mean that I cannot say it. I just may not put it as best as I could.
I spent many of my formative years, from age 7 to 13, living abroad. This meant that I went to a local school where I learned to speak the local language. I didn’t have any choice: only one person in my class spoke English and she resented my very existence. In the years before that I hadn’t learned very much English at school either as my mother had the temerity to teach me to read before I went to school and that confused the teachers who didn’t quite know what to do with me.
So I didn’t learn English formally until 13, the year before I started my O’ levels (currently called GCSEs, next year, who knows). I was lucky that I read voraciously, otherwise my vocabulary would have been severely stunted. As it is I had great trouble writing, whether creative writing or academic essays. I thought the years of missing out was what had caused this. I lacked practice in essays and practice in writing about books I had read. My first English teacher tried really hard to encourage me and support me and I progressed rapidly, but then I moved schools and my new teachers had not the time to invest in me.
I did try doing English Literature at A’ level but since I ended up hating all the books we read due to at least one teacher who was ghastly, I gave up. The degree that I eventually got had only one module in it that required essays and I struggled more over that than any other topic.
My reasoning may have been faulty though.
My father is a journalist. I should say ‘was’ a journalist, but despite the fact that it has been over twenty years since he worked for a newspaper it still is what he does, putting words together for one purpose or another. However I’m not sure how good he actually is. When I was little I used to look at his cuttings’ books with awe, huge books (or so they seemed) where my mother would cut and paste his articles. I didn’t understand them as they were on dry subjects like industry and economics.
When I was older I read the first book he had published. It was a warm and witty comment on industrial relations and it’s still a good read. I couldn’t understand therefore why I could not get past page 5 of his second book. It was utterly turgid. I have tried several times and have completely failed. He did explain a few years ago that he found his first book very difficult to write and it took substantial work with a dedicated and patient editor before it was fit for print. Maybe the editor deserved more of the praise. The first few chapters of his third book were rejected by publishers.
Writing has been a strong component of his career since he left newspapers but creativity hasn’t. It’s always been about laying down facts and explaining consequences to readers rather than writing stories or exploring what makes people tick.
Creativity in general was not encouraged in my household, whether with pencil, crayons, paint, glitter or any other form I can think of. I was allowed to learn the piano and I never was quite sure why. I think a little piano was deemed a good accomplishment. Listening to music was a serious affair where you had to prepare yourself with a drink and some nibbles and then sit down quietly and concentrate. Anything other than classical or jazz was not acceptable and as for dancing, well that wasn’t done. Sometimes when they went out I would put on music, turn the volume up loud, and dance round the sitting room. Before I was allowed my own records I would have done this to the Four Seasons, the Planets, or any of the classical classics we had, remembering to turn the volume back down afterwards so I didn’t get in trouble.
I once wrote my mother a book for her birthday. I must have been 10 or so and had probably read Watership Down as I wrote a book about a dog or maybe two dogs going on an adventure. I drew pictures copied out of books since I could not have drawn them freehand. I remember her saying ‘oh how nice’, putting it down and that was the last I saw of it. I didn’t try again. It rankled then and it still rankles now.
I tried writing a diary on several occasions but couldn’t quite see the point. After all, I was writing about being unhappy rather than the joys of life and I couldn’t see why I would want to read it after having written it, so why bother? And, having read my sister’s diary, I was also acutely aware that it was something I needed to hide in a very safe place.
Eventually I had to start writing, whether it was formal letters, memos, reports, the stuff of working for a living. I would go over and over each piece, changing words here and there, agonising over whether it was clear enough, whether I’d said what I needed to say, whether it was phrased correctly. I’m sure it was.
My father taught me about writing accurately. Now I’m trying to write what I feel, getting down on the keyboard how I feel, with only a quick read through after, rather than leaving it for 24 hours and having another go at improving it word by word. It doesn’t have to be perfect; it just has to be good enough.