If you had visited my high school and asked my English teacher to point out the student least likely to end up writing for a living, he would have pointed to me, the irritant sitting at the back of the classroom scribbling what I thought were hilarious ‘pass it on’ notes for my friends. To my teachers, I was a thorn in the side.
I had this energy, you see. I carried inside a nuclear reactor that made me too loud, too fast, too much. Much too much for a classroom. I was spring-loaded for the sports field where I excelled at running but my twitchy body and busy mind meant I found it almost impossible to concentrate on whatever a teacher was trying to teach, especially if that teacher was an English teacher. English was always a struggle.
In my first year at primary school my teacher decided to move me up a level in reading. I was put in a more advanced group and given a new book. What the teacher didn’t realise and what I was too scared to admit was that I couldn’t read. What she’d thought were reading skills was simply a good memory. I’d memorised the first book and until I was able to memorise the new book, I lived in fear of not only losing the honour of being a good reader but more crucially, I was terrified of being exposed as a fraud and a cheat.
I couldn’t read because I’d grown up in a house without books. We had no children’s books at home, indeed no works of fiction. By the time I was a teenager we’d acquired the ‘Complete Works of William Shakespeare’, a large black hardback that sat untouched and in mint condition on a shelf next to a clock and family photos. No one went near it or understood it. How could we? By this stage, we also had a set of American encyclopaedias that an enterprising salesman had talked my father into buying. So we now had reference books but no story books, nothing to feed the hungry imagination of a curious child.
My parents didn’t give us books or take us to the library out of meanness. Hell no. We had television and the great outdoors. But like many people from modest backgrounds, they didn’t understand the value of reading for pleasure. They didn’t know how a good work of fiction blasts open the imagination, how the gallop of plot and emotional swirl of character and relationship will seize your attention while behind your back the story reveals something urgent about life. A compelling novel will open something up and leave something behind. What those somethings are depends on the book and how receptive you are to its message.
My career path to becoming a novelist was a bumpy one that had me wandering all over the world, looking for my place in it. It took a few years but I finally got there. Being a writer is unusual. Being a published writer is even more unusual. Unusual but not impossible.
My advice to anyone starting out as a writer is more of a warning. Don’t let anyone define who you are or what you can’t do. While I’m at it, don’t compare yourself to others or listen to blabbermouths who tell you how good they are or how many words they crank out per day. In my experience, blabbermouths are all blabber. If you write well, you don’t need to be shrill about it. You simply get on with it.
Keep moving forward. Keep working. Keep learning. Be honest with yourself. That’s what I try to do. I push aside my doubts and the junk of the naysayers, and keep moving forward, sentence into a paragraph, paragraph into chapter, chapter into story. Then refine, refine, refine.
If you are driven to write, you should damn well write.