I’ve never been a career chaser. I’ve worked in post rooms, telesales, technical departments, shops and kitchens, but none of those jobs have ever been about earning a pension. Nope, I’ve always been there to pay some bills and make my bank account look a little healthier. The carrot the world tied to the end of the stick it chose for me was never a gold watch. Which is why, every so often, I find myself in a room full of people having a meeting where the best I can hope to do is look interested. During those meetings, I always catch myself looking around the rest of my fellow captives, trying to spot anyone else doing the same as me. Sadly, it appears we’re a dying breed. Even the other bored people seem happy to be there.
Well, this week brought one of those meetings with it. In fact, it brought two. One of which fell under the category of people sitting down, announcing more work that I’d be doing for them and then saying it had been a productive meeting before basically running away. The other meeting had designed to be interactive and fun. Oh yes. Fun. Like a school assembly where someone religious comes talk to you about why God is actually cool. Or the other standard, where a gaggle of actors put on a show about why drinking is bad. Those poor actors. I always felt for them. Trapped in the phantom zone of the acting world. Yes, there’s a stage and an audience, but this was clearly wasn’t where they wanted to be. I’m betting Richard Burton never stood in front of high schoolers and told them drinking was bad. Which is a shame really, because Burton knew his stuff on that subject.
The ‘fun’ meeting I got to sit through went on for a couple of hours and most of it was recorded for posterity on white boards and email summaries. The one moment that struck me as interesting came when we were asked where we saw the future. Apparently, most people see their past behind them and their future ahead of them. Whereas others see the past and future to either side of them, stretching across their horizon and allowing them to look from past to present.
It got me thinking about where I saw my past as a writer. During all the recent unpacking, I found a lot of my old ideas and started stories from when I was growing up. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure why I keep them. Perhaps there’s some part of me that dreams of the day they’ll be put on display in a museum. Really, it seems more likely I’m just saving kindling, ready for the day the zombies rise.
After I stumbled across these old fragments and scraps of stories, I started to read through them. It wasn’t easy. The ink had faded on a lot of them and the handwriting is, well, mine. Which means most of it is damn near illegible, even to me.
Most of the ideas are pretty sketchy now. They’re mapped in basic, primary colours and full of heroic heroes and villainous villains. The plots are simple affairs and often feel like me playing with my toys. There are car chases, gunfights and some real leaps of faith as the plot chases a return to equilibrium without exactly obeying the laws of logic or physics.
When I think of the first twenty odd years of writing, I instinctively cringe. Those early ideas are the equivalent to kids drawing people as heads, arms and legs. The sun is a yellow circle ringed with yellow dashes and houses are unsteady squares with one door and four windows.
They’re all experiments in how writing works. I was figuring how much reality I want to add to my fiction. Learning how much of other people’s fictions I wanted to let steer my hand. I knew I wanted to be a writer, I just had to figure out how it worked in practice.
The stories go from me trying to be Roald Dahl to me aping Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams. Slowly but surely, Arthur C. Clarke takes the wheel and then, as I hit my teens, the science fiction turns darker. Dystopia beckons. Suddenly the heroes become anti-heroes, but without too much depth to really flesh out the reason why they’re morally ambiguous people. Then the darker, fantastical stories set up shop in the fringes of the real world as I started reading Palahniuk, Barker and Gaiman. The characters get more wild as Hunter S. Thompson appears on my shelf and genre becomes a character and a path as Iain Banks caught my attention. Also, by then, the plots were looping circles of madness, dead ends and bizarre characters thanks to me reading ‘Catch 22’ over and over again.
I feel bad to say there’s nothing salvageable in my roots. There’s an idea to do with superheroes bred by the government that I still cling onto. There’s a fantasy idea that revolves around a man waiting for a bus but spotting a horse drawn carriage in the centre of London that I occasionally toy with. There are also around five series of Doctor Who in my head, but we’ll just leave those behind a locked door for now.
Even thinking about those ideas, I take a step back. It’s hard to separate them from the more idealistic young kid who came up with them. He used to sit at home and watch a lot of movies, just waiting for the world to come knocking on his parent’s door. He didn’t send anything off. He didn’t finish anything. He was a doodler. A restless dipper. He would skip from idea to idea and never question exactly how he was going to become a fantastic writer by the time he was eighteen if he didn’t lean into his chosen dream. It took quite the journey to get from that sofa in front of the TV to writing every single morning and working through the hard stuff. Thankfully, something fired up inside me and got me moving.
What surprised me when I found those old stories again recently is that I don’t think of them as behind me. I don’t even think of them as being packed in a box and kept out of sight. No, I realised this week that I think of them as under me. They’re under my feet. They formed a foundation for where I am now. I’m not sure if it happened intentionally or not, but every story I started, every plot I scrawled out, keeps me standing here now. They grounded my intentions with the knowledge of how to start crafting them. They gave me places to go, places to turn when I get stuck or frustrated. They also gave me somewhere to house ideas before I’m ready to use them. They’re sedimentary layers of fictional fossils, buried beneath my keyboard and my desk. I guess all of my stories have grown out of them. From those incredibly simplistic children’s stories to the overly complicated fantasy world I created in my early twenties, which I still might return to one day. None of them were horror stories, but they showed me how to write horror. After all, those are the pages where I learnt to develop character. I structured ideas into arcs there. I saw that not everything has to end with everyone winning. They’re hiding beneath my first novel, my first collections and every story I’m writing at the moment for different people, events and websites. They even helped me to write this.
Let’s be honest, they also help me pack a lunch and go to work every day. They help me sit through meetings and know, beneath my fake smile, that I’m really a writer. I put in the time to figure out how to do it. Regardless of whether I’m on the best seller list or not, I know how to weave some fiction and make myself smile. So, really, they paid off. I guess that’s why I keep them around. It’s always good to look down and see roots and bones when you’re feeling a little lost.