This Writing Life, the Beginning

In a Time Before Words...

I'm told I never stopped talking when I was small, except for when I went to sleep. According to my Granddad I even used to sing with my eyes closed.

Of course, when I write this I mean when I was very, very small. I'm talking about the time before I could talk. My mother and my big brother understood me, or so they say. But they mustn't have thought what they heard was very important--they never wrote it down.

I should ask them sometime how long it took me to learn to say real words. I know I took forever to learn to write. But I'm guessing in those earliest days I was telling my tales to my toys, dreaming dreams perhaps of when I got big. Or maybe I hoped to stay small, telling stories forever...

Bedtime Stories

My brothers and I shared a bedroom on vacation when we were small. We'd crawl into our bunks and Mum and Dad would pop in to say goodnight. Then... it was storytime. I remember telling endless adventures with Stingray and Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet, a bit of Supercar thrown in for good measure, and of course, my secret ingredient--those unknown heroines who always came to the rescue when the world was falling down. I don't recall what mystical name I gave them, but I know they were powerful women, even more secret, even more clever than International Rescue, and they always won.

I remember feeling nervous sometimes, because my stories gave me a power I didn't deserve. That awesome threat: "You do as I say or I shan't tell you the next bit of the story when we go to bed." I really hated it when I had to go through with my threat. All those words spinning busily round in my head and I couldn't let them out. Much better when the brothers gave in. Then I would just feel guilty instead of guilty and sad.

Sitting at the Teacher's Desk

One of my earliest memories of school is of sitting in front of a class and telling a story. Sometimes it was my class; sometimes somebody else's. "Big kids" would come down the corridor and ask my teacher if theirs could "borrow" me. Then I'd walk behind them, feeling tiny and lost--so many doors with matching windows, so many long corridors. At least they knew the way.

Their teacher was probably going to a meeting with a parent or the headmistress. She'd smile at me and invite me to sit at her desk, then say "I won't be long." I'd gulp, always feeling slightly scared as I climbed on her chair--there's just something about the teacher's desk. It's tall. It's forbidden. It's sacred ground. But I'd sit and peer over the top at expectant faces. Just before I started to speak I'd be looking round the room, eyes wandering, mouth gathering air for words, and wondering if the threads of a story would really be hiding there.

Of course, once I started talking I always knew it was all okay. The thoughts were like blackberries falling in my hand, and thorns were just the occasional frog in my throat. Stories were spun from sunlight and chalk-dust and air. They poured out of me like breathing, and I couldn't quite understand why people thought it strange. Doesn't everybody dream?

The Pen is Mightier than the Microphone

One day the headmistress came into our class with a large black box and lots of wires and wheels. She put the contraption down on the desk and called me to the front of the class. Then she plugged in something that hummed and whirred, and set two big discs turning. "I want you to tell a story," she said. So I asked what the machine was for. "It's going to record you. If you won't learn to write we'll just have to get your stories onto tape." She placed a black ice-cream cone on the desk where it skulked like a frog that had failed to turn into a prince. Then she told me to speak.

The story started off okay. Sunbeams still carried their magic to me and wove their threads round my head. But my eyes kept drifting to those whirring wheels, while the plot tumbled flat on the ground. All the sounds came out dead. Afterwards, the machine played back my voice and I heard the story meandering lazily round, dull and boring like parcel-string. The box and wheels and blackened cone had stolen the magic from me, so I agreed with the headmistress that perhaps it was time I took up the pen.

Written letters had always danced and swirled on the page, like sunbeams, like magic. But now I learned to tie them down, shape them in pencil, and fix them firmly in space. It wasn't so different really from tying chalk-dust into stories into words. It just took more work. And at least it didn't hurt the story's flow. The magic grew much better through a pencil than a microphone.

Chopstick Word Machine

So there I was. I'd finally learned to write. My wrists ached constantly and my hair fell in curtains over my face, making the words lie hid in their own secret cave. But I could write. That's what I thought, at least, till my Mum, wise lady that she is, decided to intervene just before I moved on to senior school. It seems, by learning to write so late, I'd missed all those nice instructions on how to hold a pencil. I'd learned to make my letters okay, but I held the implement in fiercely clenched fist, twisted at a crazy angle to the page. Now Mum said I had to do it right. She even sent a note into school saying, "Please excuse Sheila's writing; I'm teaching her to hold a pen."

Have you ever thought about the muscles you use to keep that pen from sliding over the page and onto the floor? Okay, have you ever used chopsticks? If you didn't use them from childhood (I didn't), then imagine, if you will, growing up using a spoon and fork and being told suddenly the only implement allowed would be a long stick of wood. Maneuvering chopsticks really wasn't so bad when I grew up because it felt just like learning at age ten to use a pencil.

Luckily the words still stayed in my head, even though they were so reluctant to land on the page. Maybe that's why I never learned keep a notebook of ideas; I store them in memory. And maybe that's why I'm so bad at remembering, 'cause I've used all the space up on story-lines.

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