Part one: on writing
I’ve been digging out my old school reports in the vain hope that they might not have been as condemning as I remembered. Sad to say, it was wishful thinking and the proof could not be ignored: ‘Lynda finds it hard to concentrate for more than a few minutes at a time’ or ‘she is rather ebullient (I had to look that up) in class at times’ and the very worst one in the eyes of my poor long-suffering dad, ‘general flippant attitude’ by my geography teacher.
I remember clearly Dad’s reaction to those damning three words. But I learned something very important from the hand-written reports at the time, which was that the teachers who balanced out the bad with the not so bad, were the ones who drove me on to do better; to show that there was more to me than just apathy and stroppiness and teenage angst. Mrs Lewis, my then English teacher wrote, ‘Lynda needs to answer the question set, not supply her own question… but she is a very likeable person’.
Much, much later, on becoming a teacher myself, I thought back on those words and subsequently, every school report I wrote (always by hand), I tried to conclude with a sentence of encouragement and positivity for the recipient. I’m retired now so I can say this, but I find it sad that nobody writes reports by hand any more and it’s a case of ticking a set of generic terms on a computer screen which could never ever reflect the true essence of the make-up of any child.
How I got into writing
You might determine by what I’ve just admitted, that academically I was not enthused by the erudite teaching gifted to me during my younger years. There was certainly no indication that I had a ‘book in me’ considering that I barely read any, but I’m here to tell you that it is indeed possible for most folk to write, if not a book, then a story or a poem, even if it’s only for personal satisfaction and destined never to see the light of day.
I fell into writing completely by accident: 24 years ago a good friend of mine died when I was in Florida on holiday and her death hit me badly. As I couldn’t attend her funeral I sat down and put some thoughts together about our relationship (we had had our disparities and I acknowledged that) and faxed the piece off to Lindy Mc Dowell at The Belfast Telegraph. Lindy liked my honesty and kindly published it, which proved the catalyst for subsequent articles in the ‘Telly’ and other outlets.
I’m not suggesting that it takes a traumatic event to instigate your adventure into writing but I do believe it ought to be the product of some genuine conviction, whether great joy, sadness or perceived injustice – my only caveat would be to write with honesty and integrity and ultimately be prepared to stand by what you’ve written.
Anyone who believes they can become an established writer overnight is delusional. Yet, if I’m honest, I think there’s an unspoken belief in all of us that our talents are only waiting for that instant recognition. It didn’t take very long for that particular bubble to burst for me and I joined a long list of would-be writers who pasted rejections on their walls and greeted every publisher’s reply with pre-emptive disappointment. If this is putting you off, don’t let it, for Louisa May Alcott was allegedly told, ‘Stick to teaching’ yet Little Women remains a classic nearly 150 years later; and it was suggested to F. Scott Fitzgerald that, ‘you’d have a decent book if you’d get rid of that Gatsby character’.
So you see, the critics aren’t always that smart.
Getting stuck in
The common adage seems to be, ‘write about what you know’ but I’m not so sure, on two counts. Firstly, because writing about what you know can sometimes get you into a lot of trouble. I know a fair old bit about dexamethasone as I’ve experienced its benefits (and disadvantages) in the past, and had recently considered writing a piece about it for a popular website.
Yet no matter how I tried not to, the words on the page took on a political slant that I generally try to avoid, so I put it to bed. Some things are just not worth the accompanying flack.
Secondly, I think it’s rather good craic to write fiction about something of which you are ignorant. My first novel was all about narcissism (I hope I know nothing about it!) and I let my imagination run riot with exaggeration and hyperbole. It works with writing fiction but it’s probably wise to steer clear of fabrications otherwise.
Writing can be immensely healing, and during these ongoing dark days where mental health issues within the general public seem to come to the fore, writing can honestly help to save your sanity. Nobody needs to see what you’ve written. Nobody needs to know your personal feelings of anger, frustration, lust, resentment, love, envy, faith etc., because in the end you can simply put your words in a drawer and let them sleep there forever if you want.
The process of penning the words is often enough to release tensions that might otherwise have built up in a negative way. Try it and see. And if you’re worried about grammar and punctuation, just write it down as a stream of consciousness – capital letter at the start and full stop at the end. It’s liberating, you’ll find. I also believe that more of us should be writing memoirs and regret to this day not encouraging my own parents to share a lot of their memories with me.
You can be a writer too
As I said, I read very few books when I was younger. I didn’t care much then but I do now, as my vocabulary is nothing like it ought to be. Now I’m trying to make up for lost time because the best advice you’ll ever get about writing is read, read, read.
Nothing drives me on more than discovering a sentence in a book or poetry collection that has me thinking, ‘How I wish I’d written that myself’. Time and time again I return to Kent Haruf’s novels and wonder at the gift he has for describing ordinariness in a most extraordinary way.
There is nothing quite like the feeling you get on seeing your words published for the first time, so I hope that some of you will have a go. I sometimes wonder what Mrs Lewis would say if she knew I’d eventually taken writing seriously and stopped making up my own questions. I think she’d be pleased. I’ve had an awful lot of help and support along the way, not least of all from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland who valiantly battle to fund the arts here, in all sections[JK1] .
It keeps me going – this faith from others and ultimately, (hurrah!) faith in myself. It’s been a long time in coming.
An earlier version of this article appeared on the Slugger O’Toole website