Saturday, 19 March 2011

The Child is Father (Mother) to the Man (Woman) - by Katherine Langrish



Many of the stories I wrote as a child still survive.  At the time I was writing them I thought they were pretty good: and in fact I think children ought to believe their own creative work is good.  They always move on.  Anyone who has much to do with children knows the disdain with which a nine-year-old regards last year’s – or last term’s – paintings or drawings, even the ones which you, their mother or father, actually cherish and keep pinned on the fridge.  “It’s really bad,” they’ll say critically, “I can do much better now.”

I like that confidence.  It’s a great thing to believe that you’re only going to get better.  Most children up to the age of ten possess it, because, frankly, that is what experience has taught them.  Once they couldn’t tie their shoelaces, now they can.  Once they couldn’t ride a bike, now they can.  Once – long ago in kindergarten – they cried, babyishly.  Now they look forward to going off to school and meeting their friends.

When I was about ten, therefore, I saw no reason at all why I shouldn’t be a fantastic writer or poet – perhaps even as good as Shakespeare!  And so I wrote lots of stories based on whatever I happened to enjoy reading at the time.  Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and I imitated away to the best of my ability.  (This too is healthy – for children, anyway.) I wrote a whole bookful of ‘Tales of Narnia’, to augment the Seven Chronicles C.S. Lewis had already written.  I did it only because I wanted to read more Narnia stories, and Lewis couldn’t oblige, being dead.  I became vaguely aware that my own stories didn’t provide the same kind of pleasure as Lewis’s.  For one thing, I knew what was going to happen – I was making the characters do things, I was in charge. But if it was a different kind of magic, it was magic nonetheless.  I was hooked on making stories as well as reading them.

Next after ‘Tales of Narnia’ came another volume of short stories I called ‘Mixed Magic’.  The best of them – the one that’s still possible to read with some enjoyment and without wincing – was about Peter Piper who picked the peck of pickled pepper, and was light-hearted and humorous: I was writing within my limits.  Still I yearned for high adventure and poetry, so the worst of these stories is called ‘Asgard’s Revenge’: Asgard was a white-maned sea horse, with a tendency to go on like this:

“My father is dead!” cried Asgard, wildly.  “Your lord is dead – dead – dead!  And he was killed by the accursed Lightnings!  Now will we crush the Lightnings and all their race!  Do you hear, O my people?  We will take the light from their eyes, the joy from their hearts!  Revenge!”  He stopped, overcome.

And well he might.  I’m blushing even now.  But – a couple of pages on, Asgard is given a horn to blow which will call up such a storm ‘as will touch heaven’s shimmering, glittering, star-interlaced web, and wash down the Pole Star.’  Overwritten, overwrought, derivative, maybe, but – for thirteen years old, which I was at the time - I don’t think I need to feel too ashamed. 

After 'Mixed Magic', under the influence this time of Mary Renault, I went on to try my hand at historical fiction.  I was at Ross on Wye Grammar School by now, and our Religious Studies lessons were much more along the lines of ‘archeology of the Bible Lands’. I read a bit in the textbook about Egypt of the Pharoahs, and wrote a full length book about Joseph and his brothers, told in the first person by Judah.  I did my thirteen year old best to research the thing, with the result that for about a decade afterwards I could recite the names of the Pharoahs and their dynasties in order (I can’t anymore). It runs to 158 handwritten pages and has a beginning, a middle and an end.  From this point on, I knew I had the stamina to complete a book.

Then I was blown away by Alan Garner’s 'The Weirdstone of Brisingamen' and 'The Moon of Gomrath'.  Off I went to read the Mabinogion, to get in touch with my Welsh roots (I had a Welsh grandmother) and, inevitably, to write a fantasy with a Celtic theme, about a young man pursued through wet woods by minions of the triple moon goddess, and encountering golden-faced indifferent elves dancing on old straight tracks.    And that one was followed by the first book I ever wrote which was all me, original, not really influenced by anyone much (except perhaps a touch of Walter de la Mare): a fantasy about a girl who walks into a picture of a Rousseau jungle and teams up with a monkey and a yellow bird and sets off on a quest. 

I sent that one off to an agent, but it came back.  And the next one was set in a modern (well, then modern) school, and involved bullying, psychological and physical, and a haunting, and wasn’t at all bad in places except that I had no idea where I was heading with the plot.  And the next one –

Well, the next one was 'Troll Fell'. It took me a very long time to write, as I’ve told elsewhere, but in the end it was published, and is the first part of my trilogy ‘West of the Moon’, republished this month in one volume.  Set in a Viking-Scandinavia-that-never-was, it’s a historical fantasy which incorporates all sorts of folklore and fairytales.  It weaves together the elements I’ve been trying all my life to write about.  It’s romantic, dramatic: in places funny and in places tragic.  I owe so much to all the wonderful writers who’ve influenced me: yet this is mine, not theirs. 

Through practice, through admiration and imitation, through writing and writing and writing, I finally found something of my own to say, and knew who I was: and it turns out that I am still pretty much the exact same person who wrote ‘Asgard’s Revenge’ all those years ago – but it doesn’t embarrass me any more. That story was really bad, I know.

But I do it better now.


25 comments:

Miriam Halahmy said...

Lovely lovely post Kath and I quite agree that its great that children just write and don't worry if they are imitating their favourite authors. I have a books of poems I wrote ( and often illsutrated) all through school and I love looking back at them and seeing all those passionate dreamings. One or two of the lines are almost ok too!

Nicky said...

Wow I am so impressed - I read and loved the same books but was far too lazy to attempt to write any !

Katherine Langrish said...
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Katherine Langrish said...

Sorry, messed up my previous comment. Miriam, thankyou, and I'll bet some of your early lines aren't at ALL bad - like I say, the child is mother to the woman! Love the idea of the illustrations too.

Nicky, thanks, but there you go, you probably didn't need quite so much practice! And at least you didn't mangle your favorite authors' styles the way I did...

Stroppy Author said...

So true, Kath. And it's lovely to have your first attempts to look over. I recently found all but the first of mine - and I started with picture books, which I illustrated inadequately. Most are rubbish, of course, but I took the central character from one last year and put him in a new story which might even be published. (Thirty years to write a book 400 words - is it a record?)

Thank you for sharing your early writing with us, too - very brave :-)

Savita Kalhan said...

Kath, thank you for sharing your early work with us. It's brave and inspiring! Mine was all lost in a house move, but even if it hadn't I'm not sure I could share it with the world! I had a world like Narnia that I created when I was about 11 years old - though mine was a terribly dark and unforgiving land. I guess my writing hasn't changed that much after all...
Thank you for sharing.

Liz Kessler said...

Beautiful post Kath!

Katherine Roberts said...

Oh, I love Asgard the Sea Horse! I'll have to introduce him to the mist horses in my new series sometime... for now the unicorn says hello!

I think the writing we do for fun as children is the freest kind, because there are no worries about editors or readers liking it and trying to make a living from it. I based my earliest stories on Black Beauty and other pony stories, later followed by science fiction. Ended up writing fantasy... since very few horses in space!

Lynn said...

Thank you for a lovely post, and for sharing snippets of "Asgard's Revenge".

I think you're absolutely right about this wonderful confidence that children have, which allows them to create without worrying in the moment how it will appeal to others. They just do it, and their enjoyment of the process - something which I think is essential in all arts - gives their writing a freshness and feeds that confidence.

(The few pieces of old writing of mine that survived our many, many moves have by now all been burned, shredded, scrunched, or otherwise banished. Now I rather wish I'd kept them, even just to see what was of interest to my young self.)

Katherine Langrish said...

Space Horses, Katherine! Now there's a new idea!

Lynn, I think the reason my bits of writing have survived may be because I was unreasonably secretive about them and hid them away at the bottom of drawers, etc. Anyway, I'm glad thery're still around, and I don't feel the need to burn them - unlike my journals: those are TRULY embarrassing.

Liz, I know some of your childhood writing has survived! Poetry, too! :-))

catdownunder said...

I do not have any of my childhood writing - and there was rather a lot of it. My mother threw it away, along with all the things I wrote in my early adult life as well. She went ruthlessly through everything that belonged to me while I was far away. Later she destroyed computer disks and, once, an entire book manuscript that was ready to be posted to a reader. She always told me "You will thank me for it one day."
I do not. I wish some of it had survived. I have vague memories of some of the earliest writing. I would certainly cringe but I would still like to see it.

Katherine Langrish said...

That's awful,Cat! What a very intrusive and high-handed thing for your mother to have done. I'm so sorry!

Gillian Philip said...

Cat, you've got me worried now! I must ask my mother where my ancient attempts at fiction are... Kath, you're so right. I like remembering how, as a child, I just started to write and didn't give a toss where it was going - I was having adventures. I stole shamelessly too - the Silver Brumby, Captain Scarlet, the Man From Uncle. (When I tell school classes this, I have to apologise for my extreme age). Then eventually I made up my own Russian spy, and a right babe he was too. It was all AWFUL but I'd still like to see them again, to find out what, if anything, survived into Reel Books... What a fabulous post - I'm fairly wallowing in nostalgia!

Gillian Philip said...

PS I too rather like the idea of Asgard. And the Space Horses...

Katherine Langrish said...

Aha - a sort of ur-Seth McGregor, Gillian!

Re the man from UNCLE (btw what DID that acromym stand for?) I hope you were an Ilya fan?

Gillian Philip said...

But of course! All red-blooded women loved Ilya the best, eh? You've got me wondering about UNCLE now. I think I used to know but I've forgotten. Was it United Nations something something Espionage?

Emma Barnes said...

Lovely post Kath - the evolution of a writer. I'm a always a little surprised though that people genuinely enjoy Alan Garner - when I was a child I couldn't get on with him at all and was convinced it was all a plot hatched by teachers (ours read us The Wierdstone of Bringamen). Maybe I was just the wrong age and should have another go.

Nicky said...

Emma! He is one of my favourites along with Rosemary Sutcliffe and Andre Norton and a couple of others.

Linda Strachan said...

Okay so I am now officially a very 'sad ' person ....

U.N.C.L.E. stood for the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement. Just don't ask me where that came from, some long forgotten pocket in my brain.

Yes, I was an Ilya Kuryakin fan,too. I like the way he has weathered into 'Ducky' in NCIS!

I wrote very little when I was young, some angsty teenage poetry that was pretty dark at times and I do have a couple of attempts at science fiction that deserve their place in the bin.

michelle lovric said...

Kath, what a great post. I am so glad you still have access to that writing and that you can live in peace with it.

And just think, when the University of Texas, Austin, comes knocking on your door for your archive, what a lot you'll have to show them!

Me – the archives are empty. I was so self-conscious about my juvenilia that I even wrote my diaries in the third person. Then destroyed them.

Now Asgard is out of the stable ...too late to bolt the doors. You'll have to let him be written.

Pauline said...

I love what you have to say here. I've been a published author of novels for young people for over twenty years now [my novel MIDNIGHT BLUE won the 1991 Smarties Book Prize] but it all began at the age of nine, and the apprenticeship I went through was just the same as what you describe, loving books and trying to write just like the 'proper authors' who had written them. I'd have given anything to have been Emily Bronte and written WUTHERING HEIGHTS. And, like you say, I lived with criticism as a daily fact of life. Doing better next time was what drove me on.

Do look me up on paulinefisk.co.uk. I'm new at blogging, and am enjoying discovering what's out there. AN AWFULLYBIGBLOGADVENTURE looks like a great site.

Katherine Langrish said...

Pauline, I know Midnight Blue - it's absolutely lovely! Thanks for commenting.

nat said...
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Pauline Fisk said...

Thank you for your nice comments about Midnight Blue and thanks, too, for looking me up on Facebook.

Lunar Hine said...

Thanks for this, Kath. My blog's charting my adventures as I move through these phases. It takes a bit of courage to be so public about it because I'm sure I'll look back and cringe, but it's inspiring and encouraging people so I keep on daring to show where I'm at now... and now.
It's a treat to read about this growing experience from the perspective of a published author.
I do it better every time :o).