I’m in my mid-fifties. Looking back on a life involved with language and literature, I realise that I’ve been a writer almost since I became literate. For quite a lot of that time, I’ve been a very bad writer, and there were two reasons.
One, I had no lessons in the craft, no mentor, nobody to point me past the English composition of my public and high-school days. High school English is no place to learn to write. I remember one English teacher who would routinely dissect stories in front of the class, finding fault but never offering a single constructive suggestion for how it might have been done differently.
Two, I was young. Now, there are some writers who are brilliant writers in youth, who produce works at the age of seventeen or twenty-six that cut right to the heart of a matter and make the reader laugh, weep, get angry or – well, something. I was not one of those writers. I thought I could write, but every time I tried, I proved I couldn’t – at least, I proved it to myself. I sucked – oh, yes, I did. (Lest you think this is modesty, let me say I recently unearthed a folder of my high-school writing. I sucked. I just didn’t suck as badly as everyone around me.) So I thought I wasn’t a writer, when really, I was just a very bad, very unschooled writer.
Well, time passed. I got older. It’s not so bad – beats hell out of the alternative. I read, and I tried to figure out why, particularly, I liked some books and not others. I learned about grammar and punctuation and I got my first thesaurus, and my Oxford English Dictionary. Unlike a lot of writers (but, I’ll bet, like a lot of them, too), I never kept a journal, mainly because I couldn’t be bothered and never kept it up anyway.
At university I learned to write a decent essay. I learned to construct a sentence, a paragraph and an argument, and I learned that if I was going to write about stuff I didn’t know, I’d better research it first.
I read and read and read. Somewhere in the reading and analysing, I learned how to construct a plot. I learned how to extract humour from a situation, and how to write it amusingly. When I was thirty-six, I got paid for the very first time for my writing. It was a piece of slice-of-life humour about my animals and my weaving; I called it “A Loom with a Zoo”. On top of the cheque, I had a note from the editor of the magazine( Threads) telling me I had a “lovely and distinctive” writing voice.
I remember standing there, with the letter in my hand and realising that I had something here, something that nobody else had, something that had struck the editor of a magazine as worth complimenting me on. And I thought “Maybe I can learn this writing thing.” I’d never be a wunderkind; I was way too old for that. But who cared, really, if I wasn’t the youngest writer on the block? Not me.
Twenty years later – almost exactly twenty years later, in fact – I’m still learning this writing thing. I’m not the best writer around, nor the youngest, nor the richest. I am, however, a writer. The youth problem has been remedied. I’ve also found mentors, and I’ve learned that writing is a mutual-mentoring game, which means that to some of my mentors, I, too, am a mentor.
How cool is that?