Writing. Norman Mailer called it the spooky art. I remember when I first got the bug to actually put pen to paper. For some reason, at the age of 20, I decided to read a kids book. I had spent much of my time up until that point ignoring books and dedicating my time to drinking and socialising. There was barely a moment when I was without company. All of life was about getting together with people and living our lives to the sound of grunge and rock to the accompaniment of alcohol. That’s all we did. For many years. None of us read much between the ages of 15 to about 20. It just wasn’t the thing to do. No, the thing to do was party. Constantly.
I had read a few books in those years, American Psycho, The Time Waster Diaries, Some Terry Pratchett, but they were few and far between and I would take months to read them and didn’t really engage. Then I fell in love. And the woman I loved, loved to read. Well, I could hardly sit there in silence while she read could I? So, I went with her to the book shop and picked a book with a monster on the front cover. I didn’t actually realise I had picked a kids book until I got home and started to read it. Sure, I was embarrassed that I must have seemed like an illiterate idiot but, mostly out of stubbornness, I read the whole thing. It was Cirque Du Freak by Darren Shan.
Maybe not my proudest literary moment, but nonetheless it was the book that kick started my obsession with reading. Within a few years I was reading between 50 and 70 books a year (no more kids books though, at least not until I had my own kid to read to). I had to catch up. How could I have overlooked this wealth of knowledge and entertainment?
The writerly thought struck me first with Darren Shan, and did with every book I read after that for a long time, and that thought was this: “How is this possible? I have just read several pages of text but I have no memory of observing the words.” A movie was playing in my mind. I could see the characters as clear as day. I would get to the end of a chapter having watched the story unfold like a film.
I wanted to know how the trick was done. How can a writer put words on a page in such an order that you stop seeing the words entirely and just let your imagination cast a cinematic veil between your eyes and the page. I had to try it. I had to find out how it was done.
And so I did. I should admit that before this time I had written comedy sketches, and, when I was much younger, wrote many comics with a friend. I had also tried to write a TV show at some point, and tried to right a stand-up act. The urge to create stories was always there, it had just never occurred to me to try and write a novel. Or even a short story.
I spent the next five years writing lots and lots of things that will never be read by another living soul (except for my old friend Danny, who’s been forced to endure my wordy ramblings for too long). But, gradually, I picked up a few of the tricks. The first year consisted of a series of non-starters. By the middle of the second year I had written my first long story. It was a 20,000 word novella called The Journals of Mr. Cabbles. It was an awful, but quite funny, science-fiction diary about a time traveling monkey dressed as a cat. Nothing more will be said about it…
I’m getting away from the point. As I said, Norman Mailer called it the spooky art. I think he was referring more to the way the stories come to you, and how things seem to fall in to place as the novel progresses, even though you, the writer, didn’t really know where it was all heading.
The spooky thing for me, or the magic thing maybe, was the way you could create an image with words. Eventually you find out how it’s all done. If you read enough, you’re bound to.
The thing is, once you know how it’s done, a bit of that magic disappears. It’s kind of like, once you know the rabbit is up the magician’s sleeve, the hat is kind of boring.
Luckily though, that’s not quite true. For me, when I read something great now, I’m just more blown away by it than ever. I still go into the cinema of the mind as a reader and watch the words turn into images. The only difference is, now I take notes. For every book I read a small lesson about writing is added to my overall sense of the craft.
It is very early in my writing career, in fact, as yet I don’t really have one. But one day I hope someone reads something I’ve written, and thinks, “How did he do that?” and maybe it will inspire him, or her, to write too.