Around about now is the anniversary of my formally joining the writers group I’m in. I’d been attending the meetings for a few months previously, so I felt like I’d had a good introduction. I was invited along there by a woman I’d got talking to in a walking group I’d been part of for a few years. She happened to mention that she was a writer of crime novels, and although it’s not a genre that I’m particularly interested in, I had been considering getting back into memoir writing for some time. I’ll be ever grateful to her for encouraging me to come along to the group.
I don’t generally have a good track record with groups of any description but I seem to have dropped lucky with this one. I’ve rarely come across a nicer bunch of people. A previous writers group I had been in seemed to have members in it who felt they had to offer critical appraisal and advice to other members; something that was unhelpful to me, for reasons I’ll go into shortly.
In my current group everyone is genuinely respectful and interested in the work of their fellow authors. Any advice or critique is only given if solicited by the writer, and everyone is careful to be constructive and not cruel. The atmosphere is such, that I’ve found it really helpful in kickstarting my writing again. I’ve even gained a little more confidence in reading my work aloud in the presence of others. However, I still struggle with many aspects of writing and I’m still quite wary of so-called constructive criticism or advice. The reasons for this go back a long way.
I’m always surprised when people are praiseworthy of their childhood experience of school. I occasionally hear them express a desire to return to those happy days. I’m pleased for them I really am, but my own experience of education and much of childhood was horrendous. Schooling, whether at home or in the class room, was brutal and critical. The adults around me seemed more inclined to point out where I’d gone wrong than dish out anything that even vaguely smacked of praise.
When I was at primary school, I remember we were issued with new, shiney, red “Silverline” exercise books. On the back of these were a lot of arithmetical formulae, including multiplication tables from 2 to 12, and we were given these times tables as our first introduction to homework. Homework that my dad decided he was going to help me with. We sat down together at the dining table to start work, but within a few minutes he lost all patience with me, scolded me and dragged me to my room and shut me in, stating that I wouldn’t be allowed out until I’d learned them off by heart. Needless to say I was in tears, and to this day I have a clear memory of lying sobbing on my bed and wishing I could climb inside a crack in the plasterwork just above my head. I wanted to curl up and hide warm and safe in there. I struggled with figures for the rest of my life after that one formative incident.
Sadly, the rest of my education was pretty similar. At primary school most of my teachers were women, but from then on around 90% were male and many of them were pretty disciplinarian. I became quite good at the more creative subjects, and come to think of it, most of those subjects were taught by women who generally had a teaching style that was less strict than their male counterparts. So I learned to enjoy art and craftwork and, curiously, essays. The latter probably because of the creative element of storytelling. Writing and composition though, were things I learned to dread. For some reason I struggled to understand punctuation and grammar. To this day I don’t really get it, so I try to keep my style pared down to basic and simple.
Handwriting was another nightmare. I grew to hate exercises and tests. My hard work always came back with negative, sarcastic comments. Usually along the lines of likening my style to that of a spider that had walked through a pool of ink. Eventually I got to the stage of developing writer’s cramp within minutes of putting pen to paper. I even gave up cursive writing in favour of block text, which took longer but was at least readable.
For many years I avoided writing anything unless I absolutely had to. Then one day something happened that set me free. It was the creation of the word processor. God bless whoever it was that first developed that machine. I’d looked at typewriters occasionally, but decided that I would waste as much paper with one of those as with my handwriting. The thing that impressed me about word processors was that everything I typed into it appeared on a full page on the screen in front of me. Not only that, but I could save the document to be recalled later for editing. It was wonderful!
So this anniversary, for me, is one that is well worth celebrating. Because it’s the anniversary of meeting a group of people, whose kindness and non judgmental attitude have contributed to boosting my confidence considerably over the last few years. Thank you to all of you.