Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Un-Learning to Write

Reading: Light in August by William Faulkner
Writing: not going very well, but developing a short story
Watching: not much – been sunning myself in the garden!

I’ve been thinking about how much un-learning I have to do in order to write as well as I can. I feel that my years at school were a process of shackling my imagination. I spent so long trying to write ‘like a grownup’ that I find myself dismissing ideas as too adventurous, weird or just ‘out there’. It’s sad.
I have to learn to look at every possibility – even if it seems crazy – and to ignore the voices of teachers who held back my writing. I should note that I went to one of the few remaining grammar schools in Britain between the ages of 11 and 16: exam results mattered to them, but creativity did not. From their perspective, my fiction writing wasn’t going to account for a very big proportion of my English Language GCSE so it wasn’t worth encouraging.
In fact, I think we did one creative writing assignment in the last two years of school. I remember my teacher causing me to abandon a story because it was set in the south of France and I described the interior of a house as cold. It was a ghost story. My protests were met with her reiterations: ‘But it’s hot in the south of France.’ Yes, I understood that; I wanted an uncanny contrast to indicate a paranormal presence. Apparently she didn’t understand that there is such a thing as suspension of disbelief.
It’s only in the past few years, having studied creative writing with the Open University, that I’ve become more fully aware of the rich diversity of fiction writing. My tutors empowered me to try writing in different styles and to follow my own curiosity. I also have enough money to read more widely than I could as a teenager (libraries in rural areas don’t tend to stock much experimental fiction – it was classics or Catherine Cookson and I chose the former), which is made even easier by internet shopping. I wouldn’t be surprised if most of my former English teachers haven’t heard of magical realism, let alone more obscure types of writing!
The upshot of this is that I’m making up for lost time as I discover fantastic writers that I didn’t know existed when I was a teenager (why didn’t someone introduce me to Angela Carter 15 years ago?!). I also have to un-learn the rules and restrictions that have been forced upon me. I suppose this is about confidence as much as anything: confidence to trust my instincts, to experiment and to say ‘fuck you!’ to those who have tried to hold me back.

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