18 Jul 2019 / Lumb Bank
I’ve had two writing births in my life: the birth, and the rebirth. My time at Arvon in 2013 was part of the rebirth. But first, about the birth, which happened some thirty years earlier in 1983.
I was 9 years old, just a kid at primary school, skinning knees and getting stuck up trees. We played outside more then, and also had to entertain ourselves more. Books were a big part of that. I found myself drawn to reading and almost wore out my cloth library bag with weight. But then, after reading other peoples’ stories, I decided to create my own. So I picked up a HB pencil and started writing. I was soon penning increasingly longer pieces, challenging myself to go further into a story, wondering how far off I was from a book, and hoping that one day, just one day, I might write one.
Graduating from pencils to pens, and from loose leaf pages to exercises books, I wrote more and more. The frustration of needing to always sharpen pencils was replaced with the annoyance of smearing stinky blue biro ink across the page. I actually had two exercise books: one for stories, the other for notes, little things I picked up along the way and wanted to save for later. I called that my ‘anything book’ and appropriately decorated it with anything I found, usually stickers that soon piled thick. I still have the equivalent of an anything book today, albeit a computer file that sits in the background.
The highlight of my primary school writing career was a short story I wrote as an 11-year-old in 1985. I found it a few years ago, rolled up in a thick rubber band, the original blue ink and all. It even had all my original crossings out. I didn’t use correction fluid; even back then, I knew that waiting for it to dry slowed the flow of creative juices.
Finding the story was like unearthing some ancient parchment. It was a short story where I used my classmates as characters and put them in all manner of situations. At the time, the idea was revolutionary – no one else in my class had done it, kids always just wrote about space aliens and wizards and unicorns. When my teacher Miss Nadin – who I had a major crush on – saw what I’d done, she was flummoxed. She asked if she could read it out to the entire class during story time. In essence, she was asking me – was I up for it? Was I up for being open to criticism by an audience at that tender age? What if my classmates hated it? Being teased about it would be the equivalent of scathing reviews. Social status was everything, even at 11. But I believed in my product and said okay.
It was the first time anything was read out during story time that wasn’t a published book. To this day, I can still remember sitting and watching the expectant faces of my classmates waiting for mention of their name, and to then hear what crazy situation I’d written them in. I didn’t realise it at the time, but that day was the first time that my classmates had ever appeared in a story. They felt famous, that someone had deemed them important enough to write about. I felt famous too.
The following year, due to overwhelming demand (requests from classmates), I wrote a sequel. Like most sequels, it was less successful. Unlike most sequels, I then shelved the franchise before it got tired, and went on to high school where I promptly stopped creative writing. High school was all about grades and preparing yourself for entry to university. Creative pursuits weren’t going to get you in; mathematics and science were. Put those creative storytelling juices away son, you won’t be needing them for some time. If ever.
But then came my writing rebirth in 2006, and it was actually in response to being pushed academically. I’d been working as a geneticist for a number of years and was at the end of a gruelling research fellowship in California. My brain needed a break so I fell back on what I once wanted to do – write creatively. Deciding to test myself in a historically literary city, I enrolled in a course at The New School in New York City. We wrote short pieces for class and got feedback. It turned out that I wasn’t the best writer in the class, but it was enough for me that I wasn’t the worst. I was still finding my voice and needed more time.
As it turned out, ‘more time’ meant 13 years. That’s how long it took to write and publish my first book in 2019, with my writing course at The Ted Hughes Arvon Centre, Lumb Bank coming almost exactly halfway through. I remember our morning writing sessions in the barn fondly, bleary-eyed students still a bit dusty from the night before, the tutors both understanding and inspirational. After an afternoon ramble in the surrounding woodland, sumptuous dinners of sustainable local produce were enjoyed in the grand dining room amid warm writerly conversation. The week at Arvon was a revelation and set me on a new course; or, should I say, set me back onto an old course that my subconscious brain had been yearning to reconnect with. In time, the momentum would propel me to finish my manuscript, secure an agent, and eventually sign with two publishers in the UK and Australia.
I make it sound easy but it wasn’t. There were countless rejections and setbacks along the way, and moments of self-loathing and doubt. But what kept me going were the dreams of a little kid with a blue biro, an exercise book, and a burning desire to tell a story. I never lost sight of who he was, and in the end, he carried me across the line.
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