The amount of people who say to me: “I don’t know how to write a story. I wouldn’t know where to start…”
And then they turn to the person next to them and say: “Do you know what happened last night? Well…”
And they’re off, telling a great story, a funny one, or one with heartbreaking poignancy or a lesson to be learned – and sometimes with all of those.
And I tell them, if you wrote it down exactly like that it would be perfect, it would be a tremendous story. But often, when I say that to people, they give me a bemused look as if I’ve grown something on my head that shouldn’t be there.
Sometimes however, after a few seconds of thought adjustment, people are off and running – it’s all they need, that little piece of simple advice. Others though, often the most talented storytellers, carry on struggling with some obstructive and self limiting thought process. I have two students in my creative writing class in prison like this. They tell the most wonderful stories, would continue telling them all class if I would let them. But when I ask them to write them down, to just pretend they’re telling me and write them down exactly that way, they look at me blankly. Or they get a couple of sentences down and sit back with a heavy sigh. And I think once more: if you were allowed to take dictaphones into prisons things would be so much easier.
It’s as if somehow, in the act of putting pen to paper, something inside certain people changes – or they believe they need to change and writing adopts this hugely serious and formal air.
I think my own story could be useful here…
When I moved back to the north east of England in April 2000 I brought with me the beginnings of what was to be my debut novel. Over the next five years I managed to amount over seventy thousand words. But even though I’d written so much, I’d had my doubts throughout. After six months of leaving it to ferment (as advised by so many how to write books) I went back to my novel with ‘fresh’ eyes. And I realised it was tosh. Years of trying to be oh so clever, of picking up the thesaurus every five minutes and of desperately trying to invent a plot that shocked and dragged the reader forwards were horribly visible through the words. I’m not sure who I was trying to imitate but I was definitely not being myself, not writing in a way that was natural and enjoyable for me. I became dejected. I thought to myself, why do I bother? I will never write anything as clever or as witty as Dickens, as compelling as Ken Kesey. And so I threw it in the bin, deleted it from my computer and entered a slump for a few months.
But I’d picked up the writing bug and it wasn’t that easy to shake off. Since moving back up north I’d also trained as a social worker, spent two years working in Sunderland Youth Offending Service, six months supporting victims and witnesses in Crown Court and two years working in an emergency access hostel for homeless young people. I was passionate about such work, passionate about my belief that there’s nothing more important than people. And so I started again, inspired by the work I’d done and the people I’d met. Frustrated by the way society and the media are quick to condemn and criticise without any understanding of the ‘story’ that lies behind actions and appearances, I wrote the story of Danny, a sixteen year old lad from the west end of Newcastle.This time the words flowed out easily. Writing became enjoyable and exciting. I couldn’t wait to carry on from where I’d left off the last time. And as anyone who has read the book will testify, I didn’t pick up a thesaurus once. “Kicked Out” is Danny’s voice, and the voice of others in similar situations. It’s a thriller from normal life, full of excitement and tension, of anger and frustration, because that’s what peoples lives are like sometimes…