Letter to my creative writing tutor Tim Atkins (2016)

Letter to my tutor

Dear Tim
My voice is a product of my history. As a promising young writer things were by far from promising. Homework to my schoolboy self was the most exquisite agony. Made to sit at the dining table so the parents could watch me. Pen pressed hard on the page. That tightness of the throat when you want to cry. The mistakes, the back to front letters, the back to front words, the back to front sentences. Scared to fail before the end of each line, my pen mysteriously not doing what I told it. Another spelling mistake and I would be made to start again. Agony. Agony. Agony.
The worst thing is… the agony never left me.
Here I am again, putting myself though agony. I am either tenacious for my dream, or an idiot. It all started with Biggles. Well, I like to think it did. It didn’t, but for the sake of a romantic start, I shall say it did. (It actually started with a series of pirate books that featured a griffin). I needed something to capture my dyslexic eye, to focus it. I am still the same in that I need to trust the author, to build my confidence in them. I have read all the 98 Biggles books. Oh how I wanted to know what adventure Biggles was going on next with his chums Algy, Ginger and Bertie. Not to mention when he stumbled into his nemesis von Stalhein.
Biggles would fly around the world in flying boats. I devoured those words, but slowly, at my dyslexic speed. I extracted the full flavour of each hard won word. Each hard won page another beautiful experience. Each hard won book an epic journey, an epic struggle.
It was hard to read and it still is. Then I would press my finger to each word with a piece of card to underline each line. This way my eyes could not wander. Words pulled ponderously, one at a time, from the page.
Long before Biggles I wanted to write. I wrote great stories. They were full of exciting things and interlaced with pictures of amazing spaceships and aliens. Wow! So deep was my imagination! Those stories were fantastical. Epic stories. Magical and deep. There was one problem: they were bullshit. My teacher, my parents, and later myself, looked at those exercise books filled with my great stories and could only see mush. Pictures of scribbles in brio. Words of no meaning. Non-words. One big fat dyslexic spelling mistake.
(Later I came to love the works of Edward Thomas and George Orwell. I connected with their love of the planet, nature and human condition. I agreed with Orwell’s writing style: journalistic and transparent and not using a long word when I short one would do.)
How does this affect my voice?
When the words started to make sense to the world I had fought like a valiant knight to get those words onto the page. They, like my reading, did not come easy. It was like extracting teeth for each hard fought line. Now my writing voice is a product of that. I don’t waste words, as words are so hard to produce. Even on a computer (my savour!) those words need to be ripped from my brain into being, in black and write.
I should have gone into sports or something. I should have looked for the easy path. But no, I wanted words so much. I still suffer, but the suffering is worth it, worth it in the name of self-expression, worth it in extracting, and being in, that special place that is the written w-o-r-l-d.
(In-between school and uni I wrote 6 novels. 1,2,3,4 were utter tosh. 5 was sent to many agents: “Good but no market for it, does not fit a genre,” they said. Number six, an action thriller, very Biggles influenced and fits a genre, 100.000 words, 3 years work and more, re-written twice, edited many times. Sent to half the agents in the Artists and Writers yearbook. Will become a Kindle book when it is rejected by the rest of the agents in that book.)
Before I could read I used to look at picture books. One in particular was a favourite: a book of animals. Polar bears, otters, giraffe, zebra, elephants, I loved the natural world, I thought those animals were here forever. Later I loved nature programmes. Then something changed. At a certain point Mr. Attenborough started to say these animals were in danger. And very soon I could no longer watch nature programmes as the news was too hard. Those animals I thought were part of the status quo were dying. The rainforests were being destroyed. And we were doing it all.
This led to me in 2011 going off to Ecuador, Indonesia and India to try and do my bit to help. I soon realised I wasn’t a hardy type. Not suited to the harsh rainforest life. No, I was better with words.
This was when I realised that I needed to become a better writer. My chance as a promising young writer is well over, but now I have a chance as a writer who has seen more than most ever see. I feel I need to take all of that and try to do my bit for the planet. I would like to produce commercial fiction and articles in order to fund and promote my continued effectiveness in making the world aware of the plight of the natural world. However it is to be done, my final life aim is to have tried; tried to tell the world that we need to look after this place.
Best wishes

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