My sixth form English teacher (1973) charged our English class with an exercise in story writing. I thought I had a grip on this and poured hours of effort into it. And submitted it for marking, thinking I had done well. But my shock in discovering I had fared poorly would forever haunt me when he wrote in the marking commentary that, in his well-versed eyes, I would never make it as a writer.
That trend followed me into the army when writing up a report for my Senior NCOs course in 1989. The Chief Clerk who was marking informed me that I needed further tuition to write even a decent report. I found this odd as I thought my grasp of the English language was competent, or more than competent. After all, I could spell well enough. I had a basic understanding of grammar. I could articulate (so many told me, and at all levels of the chain of command). I easily passed the SNCO course but that comment, along with my sixth form English teacher’s assessment, would continually haunt me since, as it still does today.
Armed with those two memorable let-downs (yes, they persisted throughout my life often being drawn out by a jarring moment of poor English usage or just idle dreaming), I enrolled in a local college of education to hopefully matriculate for university (1994). The English Lit teacher at the time was a lovely elderly English woman who had transplanted to Australia, the late Paula Davison. She saw potential and quickly took me under her wing and guided me through the difficulties of English Literature. She brought out in me a deep and abiding love of English Literature; the self-importance and arrogance was of my own doing, and mine alone. That arrogance and pompous self-importance was unwittingly enhanced when I scored surprisingly well by coming second in the state out of all mature-age students by scoring 99. 100 went to a lovely young woman who went to UNSW.
At the time I was working through my unpublished DR MSS and it was becoming a weighted labour. Working was just a source of income while I tried to bring out the novel-in-me. But I wasn’t having any luck. Perhaps a spot of formal education might help? Sadly, no. I enrolled in a Creative Arts degree at Wollongong University. It was an eye-opener. Here I was among peers. And I realised how much I had coasted all this time. I had an inkling at TAFE when everyone expected me to ace the course (that honour went to fellow student by the name of Scott who also won the State Medal for topping the course and thereby winning a scholarship to Sydney University). But I got really silly ideas in my head about how good I was. And I easily forgot that talent alone is insufficient; in some way, talent hinders your progress because you become lazy (as I admit). Hard work, effort, self-discipline, perseverance against adversity, and so on — all that gung-ho shit which I already knew about (Army training) is the main component for success.
Anyway, advance to 2017. Where am I at the moment with my writing? I’d say I’ve progressed some, especially in terms that I am constantly writing – be it on this blog site, or creating gaming events, working on my ezine Quarterstaff, or whatever. The writing block I thought I had was just an excuse. I’ve lost heaps of earlier poems, the really good stuff, when I moved to Brisbane and left much of my writing in storage. But that’s nothing I haven’t experienced before; I am currently on my third collection of miniatures having lost the previous two (again to storage issues) which numbers in the thousands of figures. I wonder if this will endure; I hope so.
I’ve done a couple of writing courses since those heady formal days, mostly preliminary or introductory stuff to Creative Writing via online tuition. But all that’s done for me is confirm what I already knew — I have some basic skill in Creative Writing. If anything my year at Wollongong University showed I was more than capable of holding my own within my peer group and, in some instances, exceeding that expectation, especially when it came to literary criticism and writing projects. My arrogance still travels with me and is more a comfortable old friend.
I’ll be sixty in November. And time is against me if I really am still serious about seeking publication. Like those minor acts and professionals who use the currently popular talent shows, like AGT/BGT/X Factor/The Voice, to try to gain more public recognition and acceptance, traditional publication is the Golden Fleece. But I also know the self-publishing route is another more attainable reach. As anyone with one brain cell knows, what is current today will be trash tomorrow.
If writing is still the aim, what are my goals in writing if self-publishing is already attainable and therefore not as major concern as it is for a great many others? Truthfully, it’s to find something new in writing that hasn’t been done before. A form. A style of writing. There is the belief that writing is a dying art with visual arts taking over in an extremely aggressive and dominant fashion. That may be true. But I always look at my fingers and realise that as long as they exist, so will writing. Finding something uniquely your own to add to the tome is a thrill I find exciting.
I left Wollongong for several reasons. Major was that education in Australia was changing around 1995 with the introduction of HECS fees for NZ citizens. As I couldn’t afford the fees (I also had a young family at the time), I saw no way other than defer in the hope I might find a workable financial situation (i.e., part time work). But I never returned after taking that academic year off (1996) because I was gainfully employed and paying the bill but no longer had the focus to be a full-time or part-time student (I’ve tried a few times to return to University but kept dropping out for whatever excuse I could find). I’ve since paid off my HECS debt because it was only for one full academic year. Pity the other buggers with a hefty student loan debt. Peace out.
Perhaps the biggest excuse I used not to return to the program was discovering my Professor had failed me in one semester. This was my Creative Arts professor. I was forced to change my major as a result, taking Philosophy which I struggled in.
When I managed to confront him some time after that about this discrepancy, after working up the courage to do so (it’s a weakness I have and maintain), he admitted he’d made a mistake in the marking and that I had actually passed his course. Well fuck you too, prick, I thought. Unfortunately that was too late for me as I had already changed my focus by then. It was a bitter pill to swallow because I honestly thought I had the ability.
But that excuse actually masked a deeper failing within me, that I simply fold at the slightest pressure. Was I being overly sensitive and immature? Probably. As they say on construction sites (and they’re real hard cases, some of them), I should have just “Man up!”, copped it on the chin, and pick up the pieces and move on. But I didn’t. And that comes from an inner arrogance that I’m good enough. The flipside to that, which many acknowledge as a virtue, is self belief. Or confidence. Or whatever the fuck you want to label it. Blaming others for your own shortcomings might be a time-honoured human trait, but it definitely doesn’t help anyone, least of all yourself.
Writing, as it did when I was a pimple-bearing member of youth, has always been a part of who I am. Mostly it’s angst. Clutter. When I reached adulthood, that de-cluttering used be done mainly through sport but I’m retired now so it’s back to writing. The past year or two has seen a lot of de-cluttering. I may be all cluttered out at the moment. But I persist because I’m hoping to stumble across something new in writing that’s never been done; not everything pioneering is done at cliff edges, you know. Sometimes, you can find something at your feet, like gold. Timing therefore is important, a belief I developed during my time in TAFE and which persisted at University. Our professor one day asked us all to name one thing crucial to writing. I said timing. Most others said the stock answers but I understood it to be timing. And I still think it now.
Paula taught me (and I’ve cited this before in earlier posts) that there are only three basic plot themes in writing. She was probably referring to Aristotle’s Ars Poetica when she instructed me. That thought though affected me deeply long after, and it still resonates even now. Now, though, I smile as if I understand. I don’t. Fully. If I did, it might involve a major mind shift and all that jazz. And maybe, it might even shake this obstinate old fool into actually writing something worth reading. Cheers.