Writing was an exercise in ego when I began, at age six or so. I’ll never forget the rush I had, when Mrs Rhodes, my Year Three teacher, shared my story with the class. The Children of Apple Tree Farm. It was a thinly veiled imitation of Enid Blyton’s novel of a similar title; the same family of six, making an idyllic shift from the city to farm; an apple farm, not a cherry farm; new names for the lucky children with their ponies and chicks.
I remember in that same year, my frustration at being told that my protagonist could not make grammatical errors in dialogue. But that was his voice! He was poor! He said ‘Me and me dad’ instead of ‘Me and MY dad’ because he spoke like the kids I’d met down the road! Of course I knew it was grammatically incorrect! Couldn’t she see how I’d used the boy’s voice for characterization purposes? At eight years old, I was marked down and corrected anyway. My, my, my, written across my work in red pen.
In Year Seven, my teacher took me aside to check that I was well, that I had not been interfered with, that there was no physical abuse happening at home. Specifically, he asked if my father had any anger issues. Again, I’d ripped off someone’s story; a letter to an agony aunt in one of those awful teenager magazines from the nineties; the ones that promoted Kate Moss proportions, eating disorders and body image issues. I hadn’t plagiarized of course- I’d just stolen the kernel of the story. The poor girl’s father lost his temper and hurt her regularly. His worst transgression was a boiled kettle tossed across the room and this scene was at the peak of my narrative arc. Once my teacher established that this was a mere work of fiction, he had me read it aloud to the class, deconstructing the language, the metaphors, the pace, and the heightening. He may as well have told them I was a genius, someone to watch.
All this was a boon to my limited confidence and self-regard. I was chubby and shy. My voice shook when I spoke. These were formative years. If I could not be Kate Moss, my ego would be sated as a cerebral, an aesthete, a ‘writer’. It was a private enterprise, and that suited me, introvert that I was. I loved school, especially English, History and Art because I could write essays and garner feedback that made me feel valued, that helped with all those adolescent insecurities.
My facility with words on paper would prove that I was not the gormless wallflower I appeared. In Year Nine, I wrote a magazine article assignment entitled, ‘Art or Pornography?’, replete with X-rated imagery. I was usually a model teacher’s pet, fearful of reprimands, and yet, I dared to pierce that mask and reveal my true self. I was endlessly curious about human behaviour- the whole spectrum- but I was socially anxious; a person too fearful to engage in very much human interaction. I remember my devoutly religious Year Nine teacher, who I will call Ned Flanders, because he truly reminds me of The Simpson’s character, moustache and all. Ned was befuddled by my article and he was a picture of cognitive dissonance when he asked me to stay behind after class. He said that usually, this would be cause for concern- potentially a visit to a deputy principal at the very least- but he had conferred with other teachers in the English department and they agreed that it was insightful and well-written, and a warning would suffice. Ned implored me: no more provocative subject matter, please.
Adolescence and that peculiarly adolescent fear of failure made it difficult to put pen to paper for a while. My capacity for a well-made paragraph and cohesive essay meant that I left high school with excellent results, but at the time I felt a fraud- like I’d used my writing to fool the markers in those disciplines where my actual knowledge and understanding was limited.
When I arrived at uni, I felt ill-equipped to write anything other than critical essays. I was studying great literary and philosophical texts, and who was I to make any attempt at fiction that might impart any great wisdom or observation? I’d barely lived.
I returned in earnest to creative writing when I was pregnant with my second-born. It was an exercise in pleasure, but I had a few stories published, and that was validating. Caring for small children and returning to work as a special needs teacher put an end to that inspired period. My creative energy was expended in work, and child-rearing pursuits. I didn’t miss writing- there was so much in life to absorb me, and indeed, I was absorbed. Some might say consumed; I was consumed by a passion for the work I was doing but becoming spiritually exhausted. I wonder about the sensitive observational skills of ‘the writer’ and how much these character traits inhibit work/life balance. My neuroses, obsessions and busy brain is analytical, and pattern-seeking. I think these traits have made me a good teacher. However, one must be wise with their energy, and I am dispensible in my paid work. I am indispensable to my loved ones. So, I have decided to work as a teacher in a more balanced way, so that I do a good job, and I can pay my bills while being less consumed.
So, now, I question why it is that I want to return to writing? I’ve felt compelled to return to my desk. I do not want to ‘be a writer’. I do not have the temperament to make a career of it, and rarely does it pay enough! I do not seek accolades, because I know that the joy of extrinsic reward is fleeting. I suppose I’d like to publish more, if I think the work is good enough, because really, what is a story without an audience?
Most of all, with as little ego involved as possible, I want to write for the experience of it. I want to enjoy that flow state, where I am not really myself, where I edge away from consciousness, where I can take a break from ‘me’. I want to write to help me to make sense of the noise in my brain. I want to remember that words on a page can relieve me of words in my brain and help me find peace. I want to write short stories for the fun of it. I want to write, so that I can edit, so that I can pare back and finesse something to make it better. I want to observe human behaviour without judgment, and with tenderness, because it is easy to become disillusioned in this truly bonkers global landscape.
My partner and I have a quirky sense of humour. I put these framed awards on the wall by my writing desk for his amusement. The first is a Beryl Jones Literary Award from 1994, when I was twelve. The second is an 1997 Editor’s Choice Award from a vanity press (The International Library of Poetry). Both awards make me smile, because I kept them for so long, because, for a time, I thought they meant something about me, who I was, and who I would become.