I am not a very reflective person. I tend to look forward to what’s coming rather than to review what has gone before. I also have a terrible memory, which is good in some regards as I can re-watch films or re-read books a couple of years later and not remember a thing about them. So if people had asked me how far back I can remember about being a storyteller or a writer, I wouldn’t have been able to give them a good answer.
Recently though, I have been working as a coach specifically helping people live a happier life by finding what they love doing and helping them set up in that. Many people are desperate to get out of jobs they hate and an equal number of those don’t know what else they could do so feel trapped. One of the most interesting questions I have found to help them discover what they love comes from Marianne Cantwell’s book Be a Free Range Human. It asks, when you were eight years old, what were you most likely to be found doing?
When I first asked myself that question my immediate response was, I don’t know. How can you possible expect me to rememberer what I was doing when I was eight? I pretty much brushed it aside for myself, but I started using it on my clients. That was when I discovered what a great question it really is. Kids don’t ask themselves why they are doing what they are doing, they just do what they fancy in that moment. For some of my clients it was very revealing to revisit the kinds of things they gravitated towards as kids. Sadly many of them “put away childish things”, grew up, got a sensible job and forgot what made them happy. Only for me to ask them the question and spark fond memories and excite people with new ideas of the possible.
As I saw how powerful the question was for my clients, and how good it was at highlighting what people loved doing, it got me thinking again about what I had done as a child. Homing in on the age of eight was impossible but that far off nebulous childhood held some interesting keys. As I thought back I realised that I’ve always been a storyteller. I have a vivid memory of playing in our back garden when I must have been five or six, and coming up with imaginary stories of spies and cowboys. Yes I was heavily influenced by the films and TV around me. Much of my early storytelling revolved around inserting a character of my own creation into a TV show and making up interactions with the show’s characters.
I don’t recall sharing my stories with other people, they just made up part of my inner life, but it must have come out because my step-grandmother once paid for me to attend a week long writing camp. As I recall it was great fun and I learned a great deal from it. I can still remember one of the lessons which revolved around not getting your character into so much of a trap that they can’t get out of it, or worse, have them magically removed from their predicament in the following chapter. That stuck with me.
All the same it took a long time for me to actually get writing, rather than just imagining things and keeping them in my head. I recall one attempt at writing, I was very keen on science fiction and attempted a story about colonising Mars. I got so frustrated by my inability to put what I imagined in my head down on paper that I gave up.
From then on I restricted my creative writing to English homework. I was rather keen on Roald Dahl at the time and my stories were flights of fancy. This wasn’t what school wanted, they kept telling us to write what we know (a strangely useless piece of advice – which I will talk about in a later blog), and apparently what we knew was teenage angst.
I noticed that my classmates always got better grades if they wrote about what a struggle it was being a teen and how alienated they felt. Well, I was fine. I was happy at home and fine at school (I didn’t really like the rigid system but I got by, did sports and had plenty of friends), so I didn’t actually have anything angsty to write about. But as that was apparently what got you good grades, I wrote a piece on how miserable it was to be short (I’m 1.56m).
I didn’t mean a word of it. I was perfectly happy at my diminutive height but my teacher loved it. She was a beanpole of a woman and told me she’d always hated being tall and was astonished to hear how terrible it was being short. The upshot was she liked it so much she entered it in a creative writing competition for schools. It didn’t place, but showed me that misery writing is popular.
That was pretty much it for my creative writing. South Africa (where I grew up) is a very pragmatic country. You’re supposed to get educated and get a job. Not a lot of attention is given to creatives unless, of course, you choose that as a definite career path. I went into the sciences instead. Scientists, apparently, are not creatives. Unless you look around and discover all the scientist who play music, paint, write or engage in hundreds of other creative activities.
Once I got a proper job I focused on that, although I continued to mull over my stories in my mind. Other people may count sheep or imagine beautiful tropical islands when dropping off to sleep, I work through scenes in my stories. Which may have been how it remained but then I moved to London.
England was a revelation, there is a greater interest in doing creative things and an acceptance that people will give it a go. In England practically everybody I met was in a band, or had been in a band. They were almost all also writing a book. That maxim that everyone has a book in them is not only accepted in England, it’s actively pursued. And yet, I still didn’t consider it for myself. Till 1999, when I discovered my boss was writing a book. Well, I thought, if he can do it, I can do it too. And so I began and now I have 33 completed novels. Which is why I feel I can now call myself a writer.