Sunday, 1 August 2010

Childhood writing

I can’t remember a time in my life when I wasn’t writing. My mother wrote; my grandmother wrote: it always seemed an occupation as natural as breathing. Back in my early schooldays, the emphasis was always on reading and writing. (Arithmetic fell on stony ground.) Fairytales, poems and Bible stories went in, and poems, descriptions and stories flowed out.

 I still have an exercise book from when I was about eight. Remember those lined exercise books, with their supple paper covers in dusty blues, maroons or greys, two staples in the spine? The teachers cut them in half to make two smaller books with one staple each. On each page we wrote what were termed stories, but really they were only a couple of lines long:

I have a little DOG who looks like a big baby her name is Lassie and I play with her and at night wen the gas fire is lit she lies down flat on the floor. 

The moon is rising in the sky wen I look out of the window. It looks just like a silver ball floting jently in the sky

“Floating gently like a silver ball…” I was the same writer then that I am now.

When I was nine I began writing poetry. I’d heard that Shakespeare was the greatest English poet, but he’d died hundreds of years ago. Nobody had written better poetry since then? Look out world, I thought, here I come! I’d need to practise, of course, I knew that: but I reckoned that by the time I was grown up, I would probably be at least as good as Shakespeare. I spent my time reading, writing, and riding ponies. My schoolfriends admired my stories, especially if they were about horses – or later, about ethereal love affairs between lords and ladies ‘as beauteous as the stars’. I was rubbish at all subjects except English and Art, but in those I was sure I was good. Have at look at this epic treatment of thunder: Thor and all...

As you can see, I didn't have the natural lyricism that many child poets have. I think I was already struggling to be 'literary'.  Perhaps I read too much (lots of 19th century poetry from The Children's Encyclopaedia: I remember particularly admiring Byron's heavily overdone 'Mazeppa's Ride').

In order to become the new Shakespeare, of course, I would have to write a play or two. My verse drama career kicked off (and ended) with an adaptation – don’t laugh too hard – of ‘The Lord of The Rings’ in pantomime couplets. I took this very seriously. My group of friends was going to act it out in the apple loft of our barn (we lived in the country); and we spent ages making costumes out of curtains. The script has long since vanished, but I can still remember two lines from the play. Frodo and Sam are struggling across Mordor, and Frodo pauses to exclaim:

“The Dark Tower seems – ah! – just as far away.
We’ll reach it not tomorrow, ne’er mind today!”

Pretty good, huh? See that neat poetical inversion, and the apostrophe? I can’t remember now if the play was ever put on - probably not; I think our parents weren't that supportive - but we got some fun out of the rehearsals. And meantime I was writing a book of short stories about magic. It was springtime: I used to sit outside scribbling, and the sunshine and the celandines somehow found their way into the stories.

“Once there was a golden land, full-filled with mirth and joy
And in that land a lady lived, more beauteous than the stars,
And she took joy in simple things
Like butterflies with coloured wings
And little flowers, and green green grass,
And crickets’ chirp, and birdsong…”

I'm not sure I've ever been happier.  Oh, it’s bad, I know it’s bad! But I didn’t know that then. All I knew then was that I was writing my absolute best: and to this day I don’t know a better feeling.

Soon after that I began a series of discoveries. I discovered Alan Garner, and started writing a long story based on ‘Celtic’ mythology. I discovered Rupert Brooke, and threw myself into sonnets beginning with lines like: Dream-like on the broad river drifting slow… I discovered Mary Renault and tried my hand at historical fiction. And, somewhere along the line, I discovered how to be self-critical…and the gates of the Garden of Eden shut behind me.


  1. I am jealous of your notebooks. We moved frequently and my mother always insisted on 'giving away' or 'throwing out' things she no longer wanted us to have. That included everything I wrote as a child. Later she found my teenage notebooks and they all went into the fire. She told me, "You will be glad I did it."
    Later, when I went to study in the UK, I left a box full of work in the garden shed - carefully sealed with packing tape. She threw that out as well.
    I often wonder what I would think of what I wrote then if I could read it now.

  2. The Lord of the Rings in couplets? Very ambitious!

    When my mum died a couple of years ago and I was clearing her house, I found she'd kept a lot of my childhood writing, including an excruciating teenage diary.

    I threw the diary out, but kept the rest.

  3. Oh, catdownunder, I'm so sorry! This school book survived by accident; but I still have a lot of childish stuff - most FAR too embarrassing to show. Welshcake, I understand completely about the diary. I have one I began when I was ten and finished when I was about 15 - all I can say about it is that it's definitely warts and all.

  4. I used to have all my old secondary-school exercise books stashed in a cupboard at my mother's house, even twenty years after I left home - after her death my brother and his family moved in and (quite rightly) threw the whole lot out...

    The only surviving writing I have from that time are a couple of short stories and a novella-length piece which got typed up - I've been posting about them on my writing site ( - nice to see I'm not the only one reminiscing about schoolwork...

    I like the idea of an adaptation of LOTR in heroic couplets - the closest I ever got was a full-length play in blank verse about Tam Lin - more about this (with samples) on the site in the next few weeks...

  5. It wasn't very heroic, Ian, alas. I shall look forward to your Tam Lin samples!

  6. Loved the floating jently... it SHOULD be j!

    I've got a book I wrote when I was 10 (complete with illustrations) - it's called "The Story of Flax" and is told by a pony called Flax who ends up in a circus. I still think the pictures are a lot better than the words.

    And LOTR in couplets, phew! I once wrote a 50 word review of The Hobbit and won a T-shirt. Does that compare? I think not.

  7. Oh, I think it was a heavily abridged version!

  8. I have absolutely none of my childhood effusions but if I tell you what they are, you won't feel sorry for me!

    I was writing alternate chapters of a novel about a horse (Katherine will appreciate this)with a friend in my first year at secondary school. It was called "From Herd to Harringay" I can't remember how many chapters we achieved but I doubt it was more than four.

    And at primary school, I wrote plays and my friends performed them in assembly. These were heavily influenced by the Goon Show I seem to recall.

    And then there was a story called The Progress about Elizabeth 1 going round the country bankrupting her hosts. My first historical fiction! I think I enjoyed doing the pictures more than the words though.

  9. 'From Herd to Harringay', Mary? You're quite wrong: I want to read it!

    And the writing alternate chapters thing is something I never did (too darned secretive) - but aged about ten, one of my daughters and her friend wrote a collaborative story called 'Time Flies'- about a magical dove called Time, and an evil villain called Lord Shnubalut (pronounced Shnoo-bal-oot.)

    I still think it is rather a good name for a villain...

  10. I was also an ambitious writer when I was a child - stories, lots of poetry - and then, suddenly, I developed self awareness and the excruciating ability to CRINGE at my own writing. And I stopped writing. I've only started again now (I'm 38). And I love writing agin.

    This dawning of adolescent self-criticism was described so well by Margaret Mahy - was it in "The Tricksters"? I think it was. The heroine writes a novel - a sort of overheated gothic romance, with golden eyed demon lovers and so on. Her sister discovers it and reads it out loud, laughing at its absurdity. The heroine is devastated, because for the first time, she becomes aware of how the story might sound to an unsympathetic ear. But I found this story so inspiring. Once again, I'm trying to reach that innocent state of telling a story that is just exactly the way you want it to be, never mind what other people think, stars, swirly hair, golden eyed demons and all.

  11. Lovely comment, Masha! Thanks for reminding me about that Mahy book, which I'd forgotten, but it's a perfect illustration of what I was talking about. Glad you've rediscovered writing, although from the look of your drawings and sculptures, you have many other strings to your creative bow.

  12. Thank you for sharing, Katherine!

    The most fun my sister and I had was writing the competing tabloids for our community of dolls...(a large assortment of doll houses and commericial establishments that took up most of a large basement room). Her's was the Mirkwood Spectacle, mine the Mirkwood Examiner...

  13. A book of the juvenile writing of a variety of published authors would be wonderful. I would buy it. I know some young people who are striving to be authors who would find it encouraging to know that no one writes like a pro from the starting block. Thank you for sharing.

  14. Cathrin, that would be a nice idea... I wonder?
    Charlotte, I love the sound of the rival Mirkwood newspapers!

  15. Oh yes! The joy of writing as a child without doubt or self-criticism, just delighting in the world around and the words!
    I wish I had kept my childhood writings but I threw them all away during one spring-cleaning frenzy or another. You're lucky to have been far-seeing enough to have kept your early notebooks.

  16. It was luck rather than far-sightedness, Jo! And plenty more have gone the way of all flesh. I had one story illustrated with pink and gold flying horses, I seem to recall. Long gone!

  17. Lovely to see your childhood writings - they are very impressive! I have one hardbacked notebook with stories and pictures in - some very odd things, including instructions as to how to make a park bench!! I have no idea where that came from. Kids klike to see it at schools, though - they like to chortle at the pictures!

  18. thanks for sharing this! so lovely to read your childhood poems! :)