If there was one thing that I was sure that I had always wanted since I was young, it was to write.
When I was younger (oh, a long time ago now, it feels like the distant past) I could write on and on and on, my handwriting a messy scrawl across pages and pages and pages. I was self-conscious about it — I almost never showed any of it to anyone. Handing in writing assignments was almost physically painful since it felt like I was giving a piece of myself away, but still I wrote.
Somewhere along the way, I grew up. I couldn’t write for myself any more, not even in hidden paper journals I’d never show anyone, or locked blogs only accessible to me, or password protected documents in password protected computers. The spark was gone, and I couldn’t find it no matter how hard I looked.
When I was in school, we had these regular meetings with our counsellors. (They weren’t really counsellors — just ordinary teachers who had to take around six to ten of us under their wing, meet maybe twice a term, try to make sure we only made the ordinary stupid teen-aged mistakes instead of extraordinary ones.) Once, very early on, perhaps when I was in my first or second year, our group’s counsellor asked us to list down the things we were good at.
(Things I have never been good at: self-promotion. I especially suck at interviews.)
I was stumped. I was a bit smarter than the average student, but aside from that I didn’t have any special abilities. I wasn’t athletic, I didn’t sing, I couldn’t dance, I didn’t play a musical instrument, I had never tried acting, I was not at all outgoing. I was staring at the blank spaces on the paper until the counsellor (who was incidentally also my class teacher, who also taught religious studies, who had always (at least in my mind) slightly resented me because I did well in most subjects except hers and art, but art didn’t count because that required talent) came to stand beside my desk. “You must be very good at something?” she prompted, perhaps with kindness, but I only remember flushing hotly and feeling deeply, dreadfully embarrassed.
Someone, a classmate, I can’t remember who it was now, said, “She’s good at English. She writes very good stories.” I was still too embarrassed to feel grateful.
“There you go — you’re good at writing. Maybe you should try harder at that, yes?”
I scrawled ‘writing’ in the column. I can’t remember if I added anything else. It seemed enough.
I wanted to write and I wanted the stars. Such lofty ambitions for such a plain child. I didn’t get either, not really.
My English teachers adored me, especially when I was in primary school. Not so much in secondary school, mostly because I didn’t speak up. (The orators, those they loved. Our debate team was practically put on a pedestal.) They kept entering me into writing competitions, though, and I never won, simply because I froze too easily and kept dithering on whether I should write what they expected me to write (boring stories about trips to the museum) or what I really wanted to write (slightly more interesting stories about visits to Mars). Now, living with roomfuls of books, I can’t help but conclude that it wasn’t really my writing skills they were admiring. They were probably just glad to have a student who had a firm grasp of grammar and a vocabulary significantly larger than book 12b of the Peter and Jane series.
But it felt nice, being good at something different. Being good at creative writing felt better than being good at geography (it felt less academic, somehow), though in hindsight, neither helped much once I was out in the real world.
I remember being fourteen and learning to write in Mrs J’s English class.
Mrs J liked me. She thought I was too shy and kept trying to draw me out and participate in class, but she never pushed me to read out loud or made me do the presentation for group activities. I tried harder in everything else instead. One day, though, she decided that the class should hold a storytelling competition and everyone had to tell a story. I chose The Fisherman and the Sea Turtle (a retelling of the Japanese folk tale of Urashima Taro I had found in the library) and she discussed the moral of the story with the class afterwards. She didn’t do that with any of the other stories, though I imagine all of us already knew the not-to-take-candy-from-strangers lesson from Snow White that eventually won the little competition. I remember thinking angrily that she was discussing my story because she felt sorry for me having to stammer through it with my too soft voice that probably didn’t even carry to the last row of class. Ah, youth. It was not a very good age, fourteen.
She assigned class readings that were interesting and told us to search for books that spoke to us. She taught us how to write descriptively: use all five senses, vary your sentence lengths, avoid repetition, use the thesaurus but don’t abuse it! It was good advice, though I blame my sometimes purple prose on her; charitably, and with great fondness, of course. She always enjoyed reading about our flickering, crackling fires that burned our fingers and our rose-tinted dawns that faded with the sun. She gave us short writing exercises and singled out my work almost every time.
Somewhere towards the end of term, she told us to write a story. She gave us the first few lines. The story began, classically enough, with “It was a dark and stormy night”. We took it very seriously.
Mine ended up being a horror story, and perhaps a witch was involved. It was vaguely Victorian. In my defence, I was fourteen, and our reading material didn’t really help. This was more than twenty years ago, mind; no internet, no references easily available, even with our relatively well-stocked library. The details of the plot escape me now, but my teacher loved it and so did my classmates. Mrs J read bits of it to the class and my exercise book got passed around, and I decided then that well, yeah, this isn’t too bad after all.
Did I mention my father was a journalist and a regular newspaper columnist, once upon a time ago?
No pressure. I always wrote fiction better than fact anyway.
I grew up, got a degree, and after a few jobs ended up working as a subeditor despite it having nothing at all to do with my field of study. Among the first things I learned was how badly someone can mangle up a sentence and what you can do to fix it, and commas should be used in apposition or not at all, and commas between the subject and the verb should die, die, die.
I was a very good subeditor. I picked apart every sentence I read, even the ones outside work. Slowly and inevitably I found myself no longer able to write with that feverish haste because there was a voice in my head that kept pointing out how easily I could wreck the sentence I was working on. I kept going back and editing the same one again and again and again because I kept seeing the mistakes and not the beauty any longer. (Hey, a stray comma. Die, die, die.)
Sometimes I go through old files and find old, unfinished works: articles with no solid conclusions; stories with no definite endings; snippets of fanfiction that had sudden and startling insight into the characters and their motives, peppered with pretty turns of phrases but no real plot. I read these pieces I wrote years ago and find myself smiling at the right places and thinking, Hey, that’s not bad, then feeling slightly embarrassed because that’s a little self-congratulatory, isn’t it?
(It’s not; not really. It’s just the truth.)
Then I feel bitter and jaded because I’ve forgotten how to write like that.
Sometimes you read something on the internet, the whole sixty thousand words of it, be it a very well articulated write-up on dairy farming or a lovingly crafted piece of fanfiction, and all you feel is despair because there is no way you’d be able to write like that even if you spent the next sixty years trying.
Your options are obvious. You either give up or you go on trying. Some days the former is easier than the latter.
There’s a conversation that I almost always have with my best friend when we stay over at each other’s place. It would be after the lights have been switched off, or in the dark after a movie has ended but the credits are still running and the sound is set to mute.
“Whatever happened to that novel you were writing?” she’d ask, already knowing the answer.
“What novel?” I’d counter, because we’ve been friends for too long and I couldn’t let her play this game alone.
“I’d already named the villain,” she’d grumble, and I would huff, or laugh, or shake my head, depending on how moody the idea of writing made me then. (I can’t even remember the villainous name now. I don’t think she does either.)
“I haven’t written anything in a long, long time,” I’d admit, and it gets truer and truer every time we meet.
“You’ll finish it someday.” She would always sound confident, like it’s a done deal. I’d never really believe her. I probably should tell her I had never started writing it in the first place.
I’m writing this right now, and perhaps it’s a start to something new, somewhere new, even if I’m not sure where I am going or where I’ll end up. I’ve reread this too many times, and there’s an editorial voice running a dry, biting commentary in my head, and I’m wondering why there are so many parentheses and why this sentence is still running on, but if I edit this more it will end up in the WIP folder and it will never see the light of day.
(There is a subeditor somewhere reading this piece and spotting a stray comma and thinking, Die, die, die.)
Maybe I’ll find my way again.