The Humbling Fury

Some thoughts on how to become a better writer by overcoming and embracing arrogance and humility. Contains content which may offend.

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© 2013 Sam Slattery / Used With Permission

There are some truths that I used to struggle to share. Not because they were dark or seedy pieces of gossip better saved for some gritty memoir with a blurry, pastel coloured crying child in the middle distance. No, there are some truths that still embarrass me, even today – even though I’ve told most people I know.

At age 10, I struggled to read. I hated reading. I hated focusing on stupid black lines and being forced to understand them by some unenthusiastic primary school teacher. I’d sit and I’d squirm and I’d lie to get out of it. Those little, stupid black lines meant nothing to me but a chore. They’d mockingly dance about their places and offer nothing when I did manage to stutter out a full sentence. I didn’t give a blinding fuck what Biff just told Kipper, and I knew no one else did either.

Not coincidentally, it was around the same time said primary school teacher called me a retard. For reasons related and not, I struggled quite a bit at primary school. All idea of academia was off the table, or never on it, and I spent most of my time in class daydreaming, wishing I was outside playing games, or thinking of ways to best the next dungeon on the Legend of Zelda. It wouldn’t be a lie if I said I was bullied, but it doesn’t pain me anymore, not like how the word ‘retard’ is still etched into my brain.

Come secondary school, I’d say, I felt very ill equipped. I was put on a Special Needs list that never really did anything and I withdrew from most forms of socialising. The kids were bigger now. All modicum of respect I garnered was from my illustrative skills that I’d been nurturing for the better half of a decade. I still daydreamed – quite ferociously, I’d like to say. Since I was quiet anyway, people never really noticed.

Then, overnight, I went from being a ‘retard’ to a ‘boffin’. Children came to me for help on homework, I was removed from the Special Needs list and put on the equally ineffective Gifted and Talented register. This, seemingly, for no real reason. I hadn’t changed since primary school. The six weeks I spent in summer weren’t in brainiac boot camps or doing mental maths exercises. I’d no interest in impressing people, so I didn’t try. I wasn’t trying to be better, and I didn’t feel any smarter.

So, what changed?

Well, for a start, the work got harder. The maths was challenging to a level that interested me, but not so hard I gave up. I was learning things in English that I’d struggled to pay attention to the year before, and it gripped me. Science was a whole different ball game now, and I found myself attached to every astronomy book, every biology journal and every chemistry set I could find. It was harder, and it was better. Half way through Year 7 my Maths teacher had to find me Year 9 work, and my science teacher started slipping me mock GCSE tests in Year 8.

Now, that sounds an awful lot like boasting and I apologise, but it brings me onto my next point of the ‘what changed?’ bit. Some of the teachers told me that they believed I was just bored in primary school, and the work wasn’t challenging enough. The wealth of new information and upped ante had spurred me on and jet propelled me towards academic wonder – but I knew this wasn’t entirely true. Sure, it played a part.

What actually happened in the summer betwixt primary and secondary education? I had an idea. A small, flourishing idea for a story that I wanted to tell. Though, I couldn’t write it. I was struggling to read. So I urged myself forward with new found passion and the unhindered arrogance of youth, and started teaching myself all the basics I needed to know before I wrote that 150 page story that filled me with pride and accomplishment. I researched everything I thought I’d need to know, and since it was a science fiction piece, I tried to stay as true to science as I could. Chemistry, biology, astronomy, English writing, all mixed together as an intoxicating swill in my head.

The story took years to write. Other than undiagnosed dyslexia and autism, one of my main issues growing up was an apparent severe issue with attention. Once the first story came and gave me that rush quite similar to falling in love, I was hooked with making more. The term ‘killing me softly’ was frequently applied in the early days. I was young and hyperactive, and before I knew it, I had 21 uncompleted works lying around.

Simple and effective harvesting has reduced that number to about 26. Sorry, did I say effective? It wasn’t. They’re still sitting on the back catalogue of my mind with the ever present promise that they will one day be completed.

I’ve gotten better though. Maybe eight years ago, I started a project with a group of friends. We’d write one story together on a forum and see where it led us. Fortunately for me, it never really took off, and I kept it. The idea flourished and became what I now know to be my Moby Dick. I spent the next eight years writing it, on and off, or re-writing it, changing it, adding and removing characters, playing with plot and burying myself into the very dirt that made the world its own.

Why am I going into this? Well, it leads me to the day where I was drowned in my own humbling fury.

The summer of my first year of university was spent mostly indoors and knocking out scene after scene of my science-fiction Moby Dick. I lived and breathed those words, even if they weren’t very good. I just wanted the story out of my head and onto something a little more tangible. It was exciting, and it wasted hours that I’ll never get back but I still don’t regret. I was so nicely embedded in this world that any efforts to break me away were met with scorn and, admittedly unhealthy, emotional upheaval.

It’s safe to say I started dreaming about it – and that’s what led to my downfall. I had a dream so rich with information, so beautiful and so enlightening to the plot, the characters and, ultimately, the end of the series I’d had planned. I sat there, staring at blackness and contemplating this reveal, and froze. My imagination was far grander then my skill as a writer. My perfectionism far stronger than my will to just write. Four words slipped from my lips, ‘I can’t write it.’ and I cried. All the frenzy of writing drained from me and I laid back down to a fury unlike any I’d known.

That ending was a way off in regards to where I’d been, but it stopped me dead in my tracks. I didn’t write for a whole year, not prose anyway, and devoted myself to illustrated novels, poems and designing book covers. Every so often I’d be whisked away to the world I’d made and I’d see my characters, frozen in time, waiting for me to come back and save them from the last unfinished sentence I’d written.

I didn’t. Not for a long time. In fact, I came back a few years later – last year maybe – aiming to re-write the whole thing, but I couldn’t. I added new bits and deleted inferior bits, but it just became a mishmash of old and new. Even now I’m too aware that my arrogance still lingers in those pages, and sometimes I still feel like they’re the best they’re ever going to be. One day I will finish learning the lesson I seem to have imposed on myself, and I will re-write my Moby Dick and set it free, I promise.

Until then, however, it seems all my passions currently lie in a different story. It exercises my writing skill, my imagination and my time in a way I’ve never considered before, but the passion is there. The passion burns bright but slow, and it feeds and sustains itself in a way the prior project struggled to achieve. What lessons I have learnt from this endeavour is for another day, and another article – but I will say this, the humbling fury is easily the greatest thing that ever happened to my writing. I may never see my work published, or being a suggested read on Amazon, or even being sold for 50p at the local charity shop, but I know that the fury grounded me. Sometimes the arrogance of being a writer can be what sets us forward and sends us spinning towards better worlds, but it’s the humility that I gained in that moment that brought it all home and opened up doors to better learning, better writing and thus better story telling than if I’d sat and let my stories suffocate in my own hubris.

If it wasn’t for that episode in my life, I would never have thought to have someone else look at my work and offer support where it was needed. I’d spent much of my childhood hearing stories of plagiarism that I’d convinced myself that I’d be a victim. I was too afraid that sharing would result in another writing and my own story eloping somewhere else, or something. It’s an arrogant but also insecure assumption. Sure I used to boast that I was almost entirely self- taught, but that’s nothing if unrefined. Now I do, somewhat, regret not talking to another fellow writer sooner, for I learnt far more from my best friend and my local writer’s group than any English lesson across my education ever could.

Sometimes she writes. Sometimes she doesn’t. Either way, she’s not doing what she’s supposed to be doing.

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