April 11, 2013 by talkaboutyork
I was nine. I sat alongside my mother and father in the school hall, a vast echoing space that smelled of pencil shavings and waxy floor polish. It was jammed with parents all taking time off work to see their child receive an end of year certificate, a symbolic trophy to their parenting skills. We sat through the endless roster of names being called out. My seat was hard. A combination of discomfort and anticipation made me shift and jiggle. I knew that I would be getting a certificate, I just had no idea what for. I wasn’t good at anything.
At last my name was called: ‘Melissa Collier – Standard 2B – a certificate of merit for creative writing’.
My father gave me a nudge. I stumbled my way up to the stage, accepted my award with flushing cheeks and sat back down utterly bemused.
‘Well done,’ my parents said. ‘That’s fantastic!’
‘But I don’t understand,’ I said. ‘I have the worst handwriting in the class. How could I get a certificate for it?’
It was then that I learnt what creative writing meant.
As a middle child who was in trouble more often than not, being told that I was good at something was akin to getting a glowing ember on a cold winter’s night. It warmed me, gave me direction, helped me see my way through some turbulent years.
I stumbled into my teens and out the other side into a career in public relations. I quickly realised that I loved the writing and creativity needed for PR but despised just about everything else about it.
With words I could create a story where there really was nothing to tell. It wasn’t that I made things up, I simply saw opportunities in the mundane and could paint a verbal picture of it. My first ever employer, the South African Blood Transfusion Service, was perhaps unused to my particular brand of creativity. My ‘Get sucked’ Halloween blood drive featured nurses dressed as vampires, which the Board, a collection of stuffy geriatrics, had to approve. But approve it they did and the story made it into the papers.
My writing continued along the professional path – functional, short, formatted. Press releases with their inverted pyramid style required skill to combine interest and facts without waffle. But they gave no scope for adjectives or flair. There were splashes of creativity in the form of opinion pieces or brochure copy, but story telling was locked away in a dusty filing cabinet.
On the eve of the new millennium, I wrote a letter to myself, setting out what I wanted to achieve in the future. Write a novel was on the list. But life took over, the letter stashed in a keepsake box.
My career took me to the USA, a country that values superlatives and corporate speak. My writing became oppressed by jargon -‘ turnkey solutions’, ‘end-to-end approaches’ and ‘revolutionary breakthroughs’. I found escape through a series of weekly emails I sent home. They captured life in the US and helped me find my voice. As the weeks passed, a growing group of people received the missives from America. I loved that I could use words to share my life and that people wanted to read them. I began to get comments from people who’d had the emails forwarded to them by others on my mailing list. ‘You make me feel as though I am there.’ ‘You paint such a clear picture.’ Every comment relit the fire inside me.
The idea of writing a novel still bubbled in the dark recesses of my brain. I’d find myself crossing busy New York streets, taking mental pictures of the scene and translating it into words I’d use to create a story.
But life continued its relentless march. Now married, we moved to the UK. The frenetic pace left no time for creativity. Work pounded its hammer on imagination, flattening it to a lacklustre grey.
And then I became a mother. If ever there was a rich vein to tap for creative inspiration, it is the world of motherhood. It creates a peculiar bubble, rich with experiences yet dulled by sleep deprivation and monotony. My computer is littered with book ideas from this period that would be started and discarded during naptimes, never getting the concentration they needed.
Yet the words fought to get out. Pushing a buggy through a park, my eye would catch a swing swaying in the breeze and my mind would translate the image into words. I felt like a volcano with words churning deep inside me, a verbal lava desperate to find a release.
Starting a blog allowed the eruption to happen. As incidents occurred, I could write them down. Sometimes my writing was purely functional, a rat-a-tat-tat of quick fire words to capture a moment. Other times, I let myself fondle words, massaging them into shape.
As my children grew and my hours of sleep per night increased, I had more brain space to revisit the idea of a novel. I spent hours stomping over frozen fields, hoping that the icy air would give me the clarity I needed for the Big Idea. It never came. The cemetery of half-hearted novel attempts gradually filled with headstones.
Until late 2012. Without a job and with spare time, I did a creative writing course. It opened my eyes to the potential within me. I could no longer make excuses. I had to stop waiting for the story to come to me. I had to create it.
In mid March this year, I started writing my novel. I am currently 11 000 words in. There is a small voice in my head which tries to derail me, telling me it is hopeless and that it will come to nothing. But there is also the voice of a ten year old girl reminding me of what that burning ember felt like. I just need to breathe on it to ignite the flame.
I have just sent this off to a writing competition that asks you to write 1000 words on your writing journey. Ever the pessimist I am certain it won’t win but thought it was worth sharing on my blog regardless.