Reticent and uncertain; are my ideas any good? I’m sure it’s a question many speculative writers ask themselves. The writing starts in uncertain circumstances, notebooks under the pillows of childhood, then creative writing homeworks for school, which must pass the red pen test of one’s English Teacher.
Mine wrote poetry – good poetry, at least the snippets he read to us in class on the brighter of his days, the days when he was not so scowly-stern. I wanted him to like my writing too, my poetry. That I respected him, feared him a little even, it meant a lot to have him pen good things in the margins of my homeworks. And of course it hurt when the marks slipped below C for things I’d laboured long upon, while managing to miss the point entirely.
Mr. Jones. It was approval I sought back then from him. In my eyes he was a literary genius, benign sage, and caustic nemesis rolled into one. He was a man I could both hate and love, this man who whipped me through my English O Level. He was a God, or rather the channel through which I sought the approval of the Gods for my words – his red pen the arbiter of permission to think the way I thought.
But after the brightly coursing stream of education, one is discharged into the stagnant, murky mill-pond of life, and with no Mr Jones, the image of Godhead moves to the faceless publisher. For the next twenty years I sought approval there instead, but to no avail, for the God of publishing does not exist; it is therefore healthier to be an atheist in all our dealings with them.
In retrospect, I am glad now for the red pen of Mr. Jones, bright-curling round my spelling mistakes, even the pointed “see me” and the ensuing stern lectures on my use of grammar and punctuation, with ears burning, and the girls in class I adored all listening in. Oh, the humiliation! Could he not see how much I wished to be like him? that words for me were thoughts out loud, and my thoughts did not seem like the thoughts of other boys. Are my thoughts all right, Mr. Jones? Is it all right to think and feel this way? Why can I see the story of a man’s life in a worn out shoe, when others see nothing? Why is there pathos in a girl’s discarded bow? Tragedy in a rusted spring? What see you there, Mr Jones? And is that all right? Is that normal?
Revise use of comma, apostrophe and semi-colon, Michael. Watch your spellings!
But once you have the mechanics, what you think is what you think, what you see is what you see, and you need no approval to think or see, or write an account of it. Then writing becomes a matter of style and long practice, years of practice,… decades and decades in the dusty notebooks of adulthood. But the thoughts are yours and the fact of your existence alone is sufficient for them to be written. If anyone agrees or not, is moved or not, is a matter for the Gods.
You have no power there.
Mr. Jones never told me this. It’s something we have to work out for ourselves. Perhaps he did not know; perhaps it was approval he sought for himself, through us, by reading us his poems. With the benefit of long hindsight, I think this might be true, for I am much older now than he was then, and age, if nothing else, brings insight.
Do not write for approval. Ask yourself only this: in seeking publication am I chasing validation of my ideas? If the answer’s yes, you’re labouring under a delusion. Nobody cares that much. If a publisher likes your work you are one lucky scribe my friend, but if he does not, it does not mean you cannot write, that your mind is dim, that your thoughts are third rate – only that the publisher cannot sell them.
So where does approval come from? One’s online readers? It helps if readers say nice things, but it’s as well to bear in mind they might not mean it – same if they assault you with brickbats. Of course the only approval that means a damn comes from you. Only you can give yourself permission to think out loud, to have the courage your thoughts are worth the writing down. It sounds complicated and crinkly-weird, but it’s really very simple. Just be yourself, sincere, then the Gods might come and speak to you, and ultimately through you.
Isn’t that right, Mr Jones?
Good poems they were, your poems.