As the more observant amongst you may have deduced from my recent lack of output, I’ve been lacking storytelling inspiration for a little while.
The more cruel / honest amongst you might suggest that the most recent output that preceded said lack of output was also lacking storytelling inspiration but that’s just being mean / honest.
Personally the fact that I’ve already used lack and derivatives thereof approaching half a dozen times already tells it own story (The Lost Chronicles of King Lack and the Amulet of Paucity available in all good imaginary bookshops as well as some rubbish ones).
This afternoon, completely by accident, my seven year old son stumbled across a small cardboard box containing bits of my history. I’m not being figurative, he literally stumbled across it after pulling it out from under a bed and then getting distracted before turning around a minute later and tripping over it.
The box has got all manner of weird and wonderful things in it. First up was my baptism certificate which Rhys found oddly fascinating. I started to explain that this was a process whereby a man sporting a highly seventies moustache dressed up in a white frock and tried to partially drown a small child in the name of a fictional man with a beard, but held myself back and waited for him to get distracted.
Next up was my degree certificate. Appropriately, this was printed on a slightly beige piece of paper – given that I got a beige 2:2 in beige / business studies from an educational institute so beige that when every college of higher education in the UK was rebranding itself as a university it morphed from West Glamorgan Institute of Higher Education into…Swansea Institute of Higher Education. The high point for Rhys was me mangling my way through the Welsh version on the bilingual page.
Oddly, his attention started to wane when we came across a 1991 football programme for Coventry City v Sheffield United (even after I showed him a couple of signatures) and despite a brief moment of interest at my Head Boy badge the downward spiral was well and truly spiralling.
And then, as if by magic, we came across some of my school books.
English books to be precise.
The first was a green exercise book which we discovered would have been from March 1979. We’ve worked this out courtesy of one of the first stories in the book which breathlessly sums up the simplicity of the end of five year old life:-
I am going to be six tomorrow becuse it is my birthday I will have a party i will be happy the end.
Later on in the book there is an exploration of a man in a boat (one story catching a fish, the other catching nothing because of a hole in the boat) and plenty about ghosts, including my personal favourite:-
This is drakcuelas cotage it has a bat and lots of gohsts in it there are some in the windows and some in the smoke even in the chimney.
By the time we reach the end of the book a certain sparseness has become evident in my writing and I sign off with a grey flower pot cocooning a rather tragic looking orange flower and the words:-
This is a flower in a pot it is a preety flower.
What more can one say?
The two remaining books in the collection leap forward to the age of about 12 or 13. Both follow a similar pattern whereby tasks fall into two brackets.
Bracket one encompasses anything vaguely purporting to be theoretical in nature. Myriad topics ranging from formal letter writing to homophones engender comments such as “A good attempt but answers seem very brief” and “Is this finished? Answers are very brief.”
Bracket two on the other hand covers anything where I could vaguely wangle an excuse to write something imaginative. Here we encounter such gems as Escapade At Midnight and Stranded In Galaxy Nine. My personal favourite is where we were quite clearly given a Peter, Jane, Mum, Dad character brief and told to write a play. My character list is as follows:-
Bayer Unit (voice of Balthus Dire)
Alphatheus (King of Magick, Lord of Wisdom)
Irant (personal quest droid)
Let’s just say there was a fairly distinct pattern to my work.
Stranded In Galaxy Nine earned me an 8 ½ out of 10 and the comment, lovely work – you tell the story economically and with a maturity of style. Re-reading this comment was nice – I’m not sure my maturity levels have evolved but I do try and be economical and sparse in my storytelling wherever possible and fully subscribe to the idea of giving the reader space to imagine.
An earlier essay suggested that I had some “amusing lines” – and I have no doubt that Mrs Church was referring to this classic exchange between the bounty hunter heroes Bren and Dainn:-
“Oh my god, we’re in BIG trouble.”
“Apart from having a complete interplanetary gasket failure circuit blowout, nothing!”
“Is that serious?”
“Is that serious? Is that SERIOUS? You bet it’s serious. Do you know what this means?”
“It means we have no frozen yoghurt or ice cream for the rest of this trip!”
As I neared the end of the final book I was beginning to wonder why exactly I lost interest in writing for so many years. Two full books of “Well done!” and “Wonderful imagination”
And then I saw it.
8/10. Nik – a good essay, imaginative and well-written but fantasy stories and the like will be unsuitable material for work in Form 4 & 5.
And just like that my enjoyment of English classes was done and dusted.
I have no doubt reading it back that the comment was well-meaning and was there simply to warn me that things were about to change. But it still fills me with sadness to look back and visit that moment where everything I’d been praised and encouraged for over a number of years was rendered irrelevant by the stroke of a red pen.
What saddens me most is that throughout those pieces most of the key components were fairly well looked after – grammar, spelling, tense and all the other building blocks were rarely criticised and more often than not praised for attention to detail. And yet somehow imagination was suddenly unimportant.
I often look back and wonder what direction my studies would have taken had I been lucky enough to find the right English teacher back then. Not just someone who would tolerate my imagination but someone who could bring the more formal works to life to expand the tools at my disposal.
Other than a couple of short-lived explosions, it took me the best part of a quarter of a century to start writing again and to start gaining the confidence to have fun with it. I realise at face value that sounds faintly ridiculous but the truth is that at thirteen writing stories was one of the few things I thought I was any good at, and this kind of well-meaning comment, frankly, crushed me.
Strangely enough the motivation for writing this piece was positive rather than negative. I’ve lost my way a bit over the last couple of months and have spent a lot of time doubting and questioning the things I enjoy, seeking some unattainable purity of truth.
Why do I write? Why do I run? Why do I still need to act like a child and play Playstation occasionally?
Over the last two weeks I’ve played a lot of guilt-free Playstation and I would answer with the words, because it’s actually quite a lot of fun.
This morning I gave out finishing numbers and medals at out club’s half marathon and watched people of all ages, sizes and fitness levels triumph. I’m also tracking (stalking is such an ugly word) a truly fantastic lady – Cat H Bradley – in her first ever marathon (New York no less!) as I’m writing this piece and it’s reaffirmed my love for running (Update: while tinkering with this piece on WordPress she clocked a sub-5 marathon).
And finally I got to read some old stories with my son and remember a time when I daydreamed about writing stories for a living.
The memory brought a lot of smiles and a couple of tears, but more importantly it reminded me of two very important facts.
I’m a long way from dead yet…and Galaxy Nine needs my help.