How is it that, given that I have loved writing from as early as I can remember, I wrote nothing remotely creative between the ages of 14 and 21? OK, I wrote a summary of the work of the college students’ union for the college magazine, but that was as dry a narrative as you can imagine. It was competent — I’ll give myself that — but interesting? I don’t think so.
And yes, it’s true that for another college I wrote a diatribe (aka rant) about crime and punishment in the context of muggers that made Attila the Hun look like a totally laid back dude by comparison. (“So what do you think?”, I asked the editor. “Well”, he replied. “It is rather partisan…”)
Otherwise, nothing apart from what I was asked to write for homework or classwork. So what happened?
I think, though I cannot be certain, that it was because of a comment made to me by my English teacher. The homework he’d set was to write a piece of fiction, a short story. As I tended to get bored senseless with long descriptions, flimsy plot lines and fiction in general, I decided to write up a report of a meeting of a fictitious film (cinematography) society.
The teacher’s comment to me was that it was very good — and that I must have copied it from a magazine. He just would not accept that I hadn’t done that. Whether I was upset at the implication that usually my writing was rubbish, or being thought of as a plagiarist and a liar, or both, I hardly wrote anything after that for around seven years.
You might ask: why didn’t I provide evidence that I hadn’t cheated? Well, it’s difficult to provide evidence of the absence of anything, although I will try to do so in a moment. Also, in those days I was much less assertive than I am now. Thirdly, it really wasn’t the kind of place that encouraged arguing with a teacher. For example, for the first geography lesson in the third year (age 13-14) with the deputy headteacher, some pupils had brought in a pocket atlas they’d bought specially.
“I don’t approve of pocket atlases”, announced the teacher. “And to help you remember that I’m going to cane everyone who has brought one in.” And he did just that. Astonishing!
If I had a time machine, here’s what I would say to that English teacher on my younger self’s behalf:
I was able to write a made-up report of a cine society for the following reasons:
Since the age of 13 I’d been attending a cine club every week.
Each month, the money I earnt from a Saturday job went on purchasing a film-making magazine called 8mm Magazine.
Sometimes, when I was especially flush, I also bought a rival magazine called Movie Maker.
I read each magazine from cover to cover.
I was saving up my pocket money to buy a cine camera that I’d decided was the one for me after a great deal of research (pictured).
I attended amateur film festivals.
During the school holidays I’d arranged for a few friends and I to visit the Kodak factory where cine film was made.
In other words, I was steeped in the world of amateur film-making. It was my hobby even before I had a camera with which to make films, or the equipment with which to edit them.
I like to believe that had the teacher known all that he would have realised that I was as qualified as anyone to write a fictional report of the proceedings of a cine society. It still rankles (obviously, or I wouldn’t have written this), but I take three lessons from this:
First, whether something is credible or not (in this case my ability to write that piece) could well be a matter of having all the relevant facts.
Second, if the sceptic is not in possession of those facts, it’s up to the protagonist to provide them.
Third, it’s a good idea to not allow oneself to be defined or deterred from other people’s perceptions and criticisms — even if you’re just a school kid.