In need of literary assistance

My dad told me on more than one occasion of his hope that I would be his amenuesis. First of all, as usual, I had to first figure out what he was talking about. Throughout childhood, one of his oft-repeated phrases was, “Look it up in the dictionary!” As if the process of looking it up were more important than the meaning itself, than any explanation he could possibly give us.

I discovered it meant a kind of literary assistant. I was a bit disappointed if I’m honest. I had known it related to writing but hoped it was a more collaborative relationship. This sounded more like a secretary. I already had the dubious honour of being the one to transcribe his spidery, eloquent handwritten missives onto our Amstrad word processor (letters that must have provoked either admiration or humour at the grey customer-relations desks they landed on).

What he really wanted, it seemed, was someone to bring his stories alive – to be the magic paintbrush that completed the half-rendered images he created in bursts of inspiration, moments which were no doubt shortened or dulled by office life and the weariness of being a commuter and father of three.

Later I tried giving him feedback, and remember making notes on a prematurely abandoned script to encourage another scene or act. I travelled to Newcastle to buy a second-hand Amstrad when the old one failed, as he knew how to work that. When that failed to produce a literary storm, I bought an electric Smith Corona typewriter from an elderly lady through Preloved, who wanted only £10 for it. But my powers of persuasion were lacking. That’s not to say nothing exists today: on my desk sits a grey rectangle box containing a life’s scribbles – or what remains of them.

There’s the snappy schoolboy story that was published in The Argosy newspaper, a retirement reflection in his old employer’s dreary in-house magazine, beginnings of children’s stories, reflections on key anniversary events, colourful sketches of family characters in Guyana that were copied and posted around to my aunts for corrections, additions and feedback.

I’m typing them up now so I have digital copies, but also because I’m not sure what to do with them yet. Put them together in a scrapbook of words, and call them ‘Chips’ (à la Edgar Mittleholzer)? Layer them with my own reflections and stories? Fictionalise our memories, as one writer at Bocas Lit Fest suggested – surprising me by showing interest and faith that I could do it.

I wonder that my dad wasn’t more of the pushy parent who wants their child to surpass them on the field. It’s true, he did encourage a love of words in me. It was he who was chief story reader at bedtime. He who encouraged me to do GCSE Latin to advance my English (his theory). He who was always sitting in his chair, reading something – or quoting lines of Chaucer at us. But I don’t remember him offering to be my amenuensis or suggesting I become my own.

I, too, now produce half finished offerings that mostly remain unshared. I celebrate when I manage to finish something, at least a first draft. Even more if I push through an edit. Words and stories whirl around my head, looking for a home. To turn a white page black. But I find myself prioritising other work, other people, other people’s words.

I read that writers need to be selfish to get the writing done, to finish what they set out to accomplish. I think of the writers I know and how they are often unavailable, and know there must be some sacrifices. More no’s than yes’s. Can you become a writer if you’re not even the main protagonist in your own life, but a supporting part?

I wonder if I can escape the dread of incompletion, prioritise words for long enough to produce something I am proud of. The closest I have come is meeting with a group of writer friends via Zoom every two weeks to 1. write, 2. share work and 3. talk. Increasingly three overtook one, but the writing in between sessions continued and I managed to complete a few short stories.

As that petered out with the lifting of lockdown, I sought routine in The Writers’ Hour – group writing sessions on Zoom at various hours of the day where you set your intention (in the chat box), hear an inspiring quote, write for 50 minutes, and then share how you got on – while the hosts pick one or two people to chat about what they’re working on.

For one week I wrote every day. This is it, I thought! But once again, the initial dedication was supplanted by other ‘more important’ things, and since then my attendance wouldn’t win any end-of-term certificates.

Over lockdown, my nine-year-old nephew and I began meeting on Zoom to write a book – his book. I’d set a few random creative exercises and then he’d get on with writing his story. It took longer than I thought, and I worried about him not finishing. But he did – with less chapters than we planned and on a bit of a cliffhanger but it’s an end. As I helped him record an audio-book version (he’s a big fan of the audio book), he commented, “It’s like a real book!”

In the end, it’s the story that really matters not the process – though that helps. I’m reminded of Neil Gaiman’s advice: “You have to write when you’re not inspired. And you have to write the scenes that don’t inspire you. And the weird thing is that six months later, a year later, you’ll look back at them and you can’t remember which scenes you wrote when you were inspired and which scenes you just wrote because they had to be written next.”

Not that writing should be a slog, is some rarefied achievement that can only be done through blood, sweat and tears. That’s not a weight I want to pass on to my nephew. I want him to keep that joy of writing and reading for as long as possible – and I’m hoping to rediscover some of that utter absorption and unquestioned prioritisation of writing myself.

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