Today I’m answering a question that came up in another context: How did you decide or know you were good at writing?
At school I knew I was pretty good at writing essays, and once, in American history I wrote a “creative response” to an essay topic that my teacher really liked. But generally, creative writing was not something my very academic school encouraged, and when it did, it took the form of “exercises”. Never stories.
I think the particular teachers I had for English were generally not very imaginative, and didn’t encourage that kind of thing in their students. I remember one exercise where we were asked to write about a rainy night, using as many colors as we could. I did it of course, but struggled — it contained traffic lights, as generally colors don’t show up much at night and in the rain. I passed, but it was made very clear to me that I wasn’t very good at “creative writing.”
I also remember being shown some examples of “excellent” final year exam pieces (in the state-wide exams) from the previous year. They were lively and sometimes funny, and entertaining, and I recall thinking, “Wow, are you allowed to write like that in an exam?” Because we were strongly encouraged to be serious and earnest in all things. And when I queried my teacher about it, she said, “No no no! You should NOT try anything like that.” So I didn’t.
I travelled a lot during university holidays, and wrote lots of letters to friends and family, and when I got home people said how much they enjoyed them, and that I’d made them laugh, etc. But I never thought, “Hey, I could be a writer.”
Then I started full time work and was so busy I never thought about writing for myself — only work related. But then I was asked to write some non-fiction pieces for an educational magazine. The editor not only liked them she said something like, “These are great. You really can write.”
My response was, “Can’t everybody write?” — it was an educational publication after all. And she said, “No, you’d be surprised how many people can’t write to be clear, interesting and educational.” That was an eye-opener.
Some years later I took a year off work and went backpacking. I went solo — the friend I’d planned to go with had pulled out. So there I was, in countries where I didn’t speak the language, with nobody to talk to, so of course I wrote lots of letters. But also, stories started to spin in my mind. I bought an exercise book and started to write them down, and by the time I got home at the end of that year, I’d filled several exercise books and had a firm resolve to try for publication. (That photo above is of Quebec, where I bought my first exercise book (cahier) and started writing.)
I’ll talk about that in a future post.
One reason I’ve been thinking about this, apart from the question I started with, is because on the weekend I listened to a TED talk on schools and creativity by the late Sir Ken Robinson. Wonderful talk — funny and entertaining as well as educational and really, really important. If the video doesn’t show up below, you can watch it here. https://www.ted.com/talks/sir_ken_robinson_do_schools_kill_creativity/