Inspirations Scrapbook · The writing business · Writer basics 101

How we learn to be original – a story about creative writing

Developing a strong writing voiceI first unleashed my creativity through writing. My handwriting.

In infants’ school I remember being taught to write neatly. Servicably. We copied letter-forms. As we matured, certain pupils were singled out for approval and the rest of the class fell in with their styles. The Debbie – slanting copperplate. The Elizabeth – small and round. The Katie – wide and loopy.

Seeing this, I chose to invent my own.

I don’t know why. Perhaps because we spent most of our time all writing the same thing. Copying from the blackboard, taking dictation, answering questions – 20 girls all processing the same words and thoughts. I must have decided I had to do it differently.

I experimented with letter-shapes. One week, ys and gs might curl under the line in luxuriant loops. The next they would be jagged reversed lightning bolts. I might team this with a Debbie cursive slope for a while, enjoying the clash of styles. All possible Greek letters were tried, and for a while all Rs were small capitals (very time-consuming, so not practical).

roz handwritingTeachers grumbled about neatness and legibility. I thought they needed to be more open minded, although I realise now they probably just wanted to get through a pile of marking.

Fascinated by a computerish font on the back of a sci-fi novel, I tried to emulate that.

Serifs were another passing phase, too fiddly for everyday use. An American girl arrived at the school who dotted her ‘i’s with a little bubble. A teacher told her off for it in front of everyone. Outraged, I adopted it immediately.

This makes me sound like a rebel. I wasn’t. You couldn’t have pointed to a more obedient pupil. I wanted a hassle-free life, even if the rules were bewilderingly dumb. But no matter how often I was penalised for eccentric letters or lack of neatness, I couldn’t toe that line. My identity on the page was not the teachers’ business. It was a sacred search for originality in world where everything else was repetition and regurgitation.

Freedom – or not

At least English allowed us to express ourselves.

In the middle school, that changed too.

One day we were discussing exams, and how to tackle the essay question options – factual, debate, true-life account, story prompt. ‘You mustn’t pick the story prompt,’ said the teacher. ‘They’re very hard. From now on, we won’t do them.’

This was ludicrous. I always, without hesitation, picked the story. I got high marks. (And I bet I wasn’t the only one.)

I didn’t want to write an account of a holiday or discuss the popularity of the motor car. Not when I was being invited to finish the story that started ‘I should never have gone for that bicycle ride…’ And if no one did these essays well, should we not be taught to do them better?

This was my second great disobedience. I carried on choosing the story option, as I always had. Again there were grumbles but it did me well enough at O level, if A is a respectable grade.

sidebarcropManifesto for a creative mind

These tiny rebellions gave me habits that I now realise are essential to the creative nature, whether our weapon of choice is art, music, writing (or handwriting). This is how we do what we do.

  • We will not accept the ordinary
  • We dig for the remarkable in the everyday
  • We ignore what everyone else is looking at and peer around the corners instead
  • We collect what moves us, especially if we don’t know why
  • We listen to our instincts instead of the voices who tell us we can’t
  • We play endlessly
  • We see expressive potential in everything
  • To non-creatives we probably seem infuriating and insane.


What would you add? How did you first start being creative?

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34 thoughts on “How we learn to be original – a story about creative writing

  1. I started writing poetry when I was 5 years old, some 2 years after I’d started writing using my father’s typewriter. Since at that stage I couldn’t read anyway, I was terribly disappointed the typewriter didn’t somehow translate what I had in my head into something others gifted with the skill of reading could decipher. The first poem got passed round the entire school. I recall we’d been asked to write about, “Blue.” no, I don’t still have a copy.
    After that I spent a lot of time mastering this reading thing and then carried on transcribing my stories from my head and onto paper. I wrote my first novel at ten and at eleven I came in as a runner up in the WH Smith’s children’s literary competition with a novella based (sorry) very loosely on that iconic sci-fi film Forbidden Planet. I’ve not touched sci-fi since then, out of pique for not winning. I cut the whole thing down drastically because at the last minute it turned out entries had to be handwritten on A4 paper and mine was in a school exercise book. I stayed up till 1am trying to copy the damn thing out neatly, got too tired, got sent to bed and then truncated the ending just to make the deadline.
    I was probably a very annoying child.

    1. Viv, I love the idea that you imagined the typewriter would read your mind. How logical and sensible. I actually think half of my writing life is spent trying to read my own mind.
      Actually I’d like a typewriter like the one in Fringe. You tap out some words and it replies with more.

  2. The funny thing is I remember starting a novel when I was perhaps 10 years old. It just came to me out of the blue. “Writer” was not one of the things I thought about doing or being; “fighter pilot” or “space explorer” or something of the sort, but I’m not absolutely sure I understood what writers were at that point. I knew that names were associated with books but I’m certain the idea that people started with a blank page and began with a line like “I am born” hadn’t occurred to me. I wrote 3 or 4 pages and ran out of ideas. Four years later — the magical summer of ’68 — I’d been reading the wonderful Ace Science Fiction Special series of books with authors like James H. Schmitz and R.A. Lafferty, and, equally out of the blue, decided, “I can do that.” And I did. I’m still doing it, years later.

    1. Know what you mean, Tom – ‘writer’ wasn’t on the list of possibilities. I was just listening to an interview with an author who had studied literature at Cambridge University. He said that definitely made you think being a writer was impossible, because it turned writers into godlike creatures to be studied and analysed.
      I’d have been happy to consider ‘space explorer’ as a career.. . 🙂

  3. Very good, Roz. I recently came up with my own list of “Marks of a True Creative,” and as you might expect, they rival yours quite closely. Seems there’s not much new under the sun after all … Wrote my first (published) poem in about 5th grade. All I remember is that it was about spring.

  4. ‘We collect what moves us especially if we don’t know why’ That resonates very loudly. The second part almost more important than the first. My first rebellion that I remember consciously was is developing a crush on a young teacher of Theology, who wrote wonderful Greek on the blackboard, and had us teasing out the different nuances between Agape, Charis and Eros. (She wasn’t madly articulate about eros!). I found both her courage and vulnerability very compelling but mostly because of the beauty of language and its ability to express the subtlest distinctions. After that it was all downhill to the metaphysical poets, and then the romantics. The rebellion consisted in taking these things seriously and being shunned for a ‘swot’ (which I wasn’t, but standing up for love…even of language, that seemed noble enough to keep one going) and it has never really left. Writing, and its enrichment was thereafter the only possible way to make one’s life mean something.

    1. Philippa, what a lovely story. It captures how receptive we are at that age. Somehow it reminds me how I used to find certain words enchanting or even harmful simply because of their sound. The word ‘hunter’ was a word I disliked for some primitive, un-literal reason I can never explain.
      Sadly, as you say, such sensitivity usually has to be kept to oneself.

  5. Mmm, yes, handwriting. Many painful memories of frustrated teachers (I found my primary school report book the other day and I clearly wasn’t imagining these memories as half the comments were about my untidiness – something that hasn’t changed). I also found one of my early poems from the school magazine when I was 8 – a very disturbing thing about wasps and bees and the viciousness of nature – plus ca change indeed!

  6. I came upon the two journals I kept in high school. Including a novel that I stuck with for about three pages and then gave up on. I too experimented with penmanship, hoping to find the best expression for my emerging self. Have you ever had your handwriting analyzed by an expert. It can be quite an eye-opening experience, or so I am told by a friend who had it done. Some claim that new handwriting choices can also create new forms of selfhood — not only the other way around. Fascinating. Love your manifesto.

    1. Thanks, Shirley. I did have my handwriting analysed once. But I wasn’t convinced that the analysis was just my handwriting, or even that at all – as I was present in person, they might have been analysing my clothes, demeanour, anything. Call me a cynic…
      Interesting that we may create different selves through new hands…. like we could with a new hairstyle or shoes that feel different. I wonder if actors create new handwriting for major roles? Just a thought. This could get very interesting…

  7. I always picked the story option (of course) and it was about the only thing in primary school that I thought worthwhile. After reading Dracula at age 10, I began a sequel. All I can remember is that it began in an airport in modern day with descendants of the main characters, and for some reason I chose to dictate it on tape rather than write it. 44 years later, I rewrote Frankenstein, but still haven’t completed that Dracula sequel.

  8. I had an experience similar to Viv’s as a child. We had an old upright player piano in the garage. I used to “play” along with it. Later we traded it in for a normal out-of-tune upright. I still played along. Unfortunately, one day the neighbor complained to my mom about the racket coming out of the den all the time. I thought the neighbor was crazy not to want to hear imaginary Joplin all day. Love the manifesto, Roz!.

  9. Hi Roz. I love your manifesto, it could have been printed on the walls of my childhood home. I never rebelled because there wasn’t anything to rebel against. I was raised by two feisty women who did things their way–my mother and grandmother, both widowed in the same year. We lived at the beach in Southern California with no other children around, so I had to make up playmates and games and amuse myself with my own inventions. That wild child freedom followed into adulthood, and I’ve always decorated my homes with something that doesn’t make sense. My favorite is putting several small mirrors above eye level in the bathrooms, then watching guests come out looking a bit confused. I simply don’t understand so much about adult life, like marrying well, or dinner parties, or eating dinner, or headboards. What’s wrong with a wall behind the bed? I suppose I keep the creative fire burning by not accepting these rules I don’t understand and observing these strange people behaving in strange ways that don’t make sense. In some ways, they seem like the creative ones. 🙂

    1. Cyd, you’re a total one-off. I adore whacky houses.
      When I moved in with Dave I revelled in the fact that the house used to belong to graphic designers, who were totally impolite with their use of paint colours. The first-floor landing was a watery fantasy – water patterns painted above the picture rail, and on each of the doors. They weren’t exactly well done (so I can’t imagine they got much graphic design work) but I admired their guts so much that I didn’t change it for years. In fact, we made it more extreme by inviting an artist friend to paint a huge gold eye on the chimney breast of Dave’s study.
      Do you know about the British author Lucinda Lambton? I just got a book of hers ‘Curious Houses’ . One of the houses was decorated by a lady who divorced her husband for being far too boring. In her new house she made effigies of him and set them in concrete under the dining table. She also painted swimming eyes up the wall beside the stairs. Eventually she got fed up of venting her colourful spleen and resolved to move to a new, minimalist house with ‘nice things’.

  10. Loved this, Roz! I, too, was a hand-writing rebel. Throughout Year 5 the teacher insisted that we should not loop our gs and ys to join the other letters. This made no sense to me, and I refused to do it, despite many tickings off and being marked low simply because I looped gs and ys. The nonsense is that, in Year 6, the teacher didn’t care whether we looped or not, and never mentioned it. By that time, the habit was set. I still loop the tails, but if it hadn’t been for the teacher of Class 5, maybe I wouldn’t.
    At my schools, we always seemed to be told to ‘write a story titled ‘A Day In Autumn’ or ‘The Old Mill.’ I had nothing to say about either (and doubt my classmates had.) I would put up my hand and say, ‘Can I write my own story?’ I was always told. ‘No,’ and once, ‘No, because I won’t be able to judge them properly when I mark them.’ ?
    So I would write my own story anyway, and the teacher would write things like, ‘A good effort, but not the task that was set.’
    Honestly, school – I’m surprised any of us survived it.

    1. Susan, the tyranny of the unimaginative teacher, Unbelievable that such people were put in charge of our development.
      Dave tells a story of how, in junior school, his class was asked to name a great composer. ‘Mozart’, he said. ‘No,’ he was told. ‘The answer is Beethoven.’

  11. There is an essential arrogance to being creative too – I remember one story I wrote back in high school for a creative writing class, exploring the shallowness of teenage friendships. The comments I got for that one! I had teachers express concern that I was too morbid, peers telling me I was sick….and yet, somehow, instead of interpreting their comments as “I really screwed this up” my brain sifted through it all and came up with “wow, not one of them knows how to read.” There will always be detractors, yet we know, deeply, that we’re right and they’re wrong!

  12. In elementary Catholic school, penmanship was a critical skill to the good nuns. I won class awards for my handwriting. At the time I needed to praise more than i need to stand out from the others…that came later.
    I wrote poems of teenage angst, I watched and learned from my creative mom–making Barbie doll beds from round oatmeal boxes and clothes from bits of dotted swiss fabric. I grew to write newsletters for businesses and take ‘junk’ and turn it into treasures my family ooh-ed and aah-ed over. I made dolls and clothes for my daughter. I made fabric toys for my baby boy. Then I wrote stories for my kids called Good Dreams, so they could sleep well. Now I write adult stories…and my grown kids read those, too.
    Love your manifesto! “We see expressive potential in everything.” That would be me.

    1. Thanks, Marcia! I also used to make stuff with scraps and discards – my Barbies had a complete house which I made and furnished from rubbish. It probably all looked as rough as hell, but in my imagination I saw it as wonderful and finished.
      Love your collection of stories called ‘Good Dreams’ – as a kid whose overactive imagination could generate astoundingly scary nightmares, I’m sure they were appreciated.

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