Monday, 29 April 2013

Making Inky Shapes on the Paper - Anna Wilson

"When did you decide you wanted to become a writer?"

I am sure most authors can guarantee this question will come up every time they visit a school, library or do a bookshop event. Or indeed any time a new acquaintance discovers what they do for a living: adults and children alike are interested to know the answer. And I suppose it is an obvious question to ask. 

But the truth is, I personally don't know the answer. Or at least, I don't have the answer people think they are looking for. One thing I do know is that I didn't "decide". I have been writing ever since I could hold a pencil. And so I have always been a writer, just not always of the published variety.

My first stories were scrawled in old A4 desk diaries which my grandfather gave me to keep me quiet on the days he and my grandmother babysat. He had used the diaries for work, but there were still many blank pages that cried out to be filled. And fill them I did, with stories that were initially told in picture form.

However, as soon as I was able, I moved on to stringing words together and discovered that I preferred playing with words rather than images. I say "words": at first they were not words that would have been comprehensible to anyone but me. But it wasn't important. What mattered to me was that I was making a mark on the page; I was forming letters and putting them in an order that I had chosen. As Mark Haddon says in his essay, "The Right Words in the Right Order", I was making "inky shapes on the paper". And the real thrill came later when I found that I could tell a story that other people could read and understand simply by my "selecting and rearranging words you could hear at the bus stop".

Another question people ask is, "How do you become a writer?" as though there is a magical formula, or a particular academic path that must be followed. And so I tell them, "Just pick up a pen and start making inky shapes." I tell them to scribble their ideas in notebooks and to never throw anything away. I tell them to start writing in the middle of a story if that is where the big idea begins - you can always go back and write the beginning later. I tell them to write without thinking about what it looks like. I tell them that the important thing is to make their mark and to keep going until they have written everything down; that the main thing is to get it all out.

I was once criticised by a teacher for advocating this approach to writing. She said that she spent hours of her time instilling in the children the importance of planning and punctuating and that I had swept that all aside in the advice I had given. I sympathised, as I know teachers feel incredibly constricted by what they are "meant" to teach. So I have modified my advice now: I still encourage young writers to splurge on the page, but I also talk about the importance of editing and revising, honing and making their writing better, whilst always holding on to the belief that if they are writing, then they are writers. End of story.

A couple of years ago my grandmother died. We went to clear out her sparsely furnished, neat and tidy house. "There will be no surprises - she never held on to clutter," my mother warned me. "Threw all our letters away, didn't believe in keeping things for sentimental reasons."

And yet, in the attic, in a small pile of papers, there were the old desk diaries my grandfather had given me to scribble in when I was restless and eager to make my inky shapes. It was as though my grandmother understood that this was me "becoming" or "deciding to be" a writer.

I now take these diaries into schools when I give my talks. I show them to the children to explain that the answer to the question, "When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?" is simply: "I didn't. I just am."

Note: Mark Haddon's excellent essay on reading and writing can be found in the book, Stop What You Are Doing and Read This, published by Vintage.

Anna Wilson


Stroppy Author said...

I think a lot of us will identify with this, Anna - just always having written stories, never deciding to 'become' a writer. I like the idea of the teacher telling you off for encouraging children just to write and worry about tidying it up later. What a shame the educators can't see that if successful professional practice and educational advice don't match up, perhaps the advice is not entirely right.

Elen C said...

I have a theory - I don't have proof - that educationalist are teaching the way writing was done decades ago. When I wrote university essays, I planned meticulously, because I didn't want to hand-write it out more than twice. Now, I splurge words, because I have cut and paste. Maybe in another 20 years, teaching will catch up?

Pippa Goodhart said...

What lovely grandparents! If only more children had that freedom to just 'do', with no sort of instruction. We always had a limitless supply of 'clean on one side paper' at home. It lived in a drawer in my father's desk. It wasn't until I was into teenage years that I had the nouce to look on the other side of that 'clean on one side' paper, and find frantic fountain pen written essays which were answers to degree exam questions. I'm sure that such use of such material wouldn't be allowed these days!

A Wilson said...

Thank you for your comments, all! Elen - I think that is a very interesting thought. I, too, was a planner in the days of writing things out longhand. I'm hopeless at planning now: I usually start a plan halfway through the writing process, once the characters have had some space to breathe, which infuriates my editor at times... Pippa - hilarious! I wonder what those examinees are doing now? Maybe some of them are splurging stories somewhere...

Kate said...

Lovely post! I too identify with that sensation of having always just 'been' a writer. I have a quote from Bruce Springsteen, scribbled down from a radio interview, where he describes his music - both playing and writing - like this: 'It's where I fit in, my connection to the world.' That said it for me.
My children suffer from the extensive planning of everything they write in school. They even have had to do it on a little form, filling in sections, ticking boxes before they are allowed to start writing. If planning is your natural method, then fine, but it irritates both of them no end!
Ideally, surely both styles - planned and inspirational - should be offered to the children so that they learn the freedom to find their own voice.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

"stories that were initially told in picture form" I love what you said there Anna because that's what all drawing is about in early childhood... telling a story. "This is me. And this is when I am in the world."

I've kept all my sons' drawings and now I'm busy keeping all their children's drawings as well... no wonder I need that magnificent set of architect drawers I saw this week-end! Just a pity there's no space for it.

A Wilson said...

Dianne, how lovely that you are keeping them all! Your sons and their children will be so happy that you did. I always tell children to keep drawing - and not to let anyone tell them that they "can't draw" once they get to a certain age.