They say a good writer should also be a good reader, so I suppose I must have been off to a good start when I had already learnt to read before beginning school. In those days Ladybird books, in the Peter and Jane series were the bread and butter for early readers.
On my first day at school, I was disappointed to find I had to start back at the beginning with the one-word-per-page school books from the Roger Red Hat series. I sat and read the first book on my own with ease. When I told the teacher I had finished, the notion was dismissed with a ‘We’ll see. You’ll have to wait until we can hear you read.’ I waited. Three weeks. Undeterred, I worked my way through the series and on through many more childhood favourites.
I must admit some of the best stories I’ve read have been those treasured books of my earliest memories of reading. Mrs Frisby and the rats of NIMH, Gobbolino The Witches Cat, The Chronicles of Narnia, 101 Dalmations and its lesser known but equally, if not more so, brilliant sequel, Starlight Barking.
My love of words was not limited to stories. One year I asked for a book of poetry for Christmas and received the most delicious hardback copy of Robert Louis Stephenson’s Illustrated Verse. Some of these poems still reverberate inside my head such is their rhythmic brilliance.
I went on to read all sorts of fiction from Nevil Shute to Iris Murdoch, Oscar Wilde to James Herriot, Dickens to Daphne Du Maurier. Having discovered a second-hand bookstall in our local covered market, I even consumed the Mills and Boon back catalogue with a guilty voraciousness.
This, all before I’d even started formal studies of literature for English ‘O’-Level. At first I found the dissection of each text, for the purposes of examining characters, themes and literary techniques, a disappointing experience. I couldn’t see the point in stripping the stories back to reveal their innards; a forensic inspection, illuminated by harsh florescent light, surely spoilt the mystery and magic of a beautifully crafted tale? It was only once we’d pieced Gerald Durrel’s My Family and Other Animals or Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White back together again, I saw the true merits of this intimate study. Those lessons have stayed with me on into my adult reading life and prove valuable to me still more now as a writer.
So when did the reader become a writer? Rewind the clock, back to my junior school years and the seeds of my writing were sown in poetry. Probably about the same time as I fell in love with Robert Louis Stephenson. We practiced all sorts of forms from limerick to free verse. The best examples were written out in our neatest hand and decorated with repeating patterns of scrolls or daisy chains, ready for proud display on the classroom walls. Often mine were praised and chosen.
Encouraged by this recognition, I began to write more poetry at home. It seemed to come naturally and in abundance. Before long I had gathered quite an anthology. The result is a large lever arch folder, covered in autumn leaves wrapping paper, crammed full of poems written between the ages of 8 and 11. I even took to typing some out on my Dad’s old typewriter. The folder is still in my possession, in a box somewhere in the loft.
Around the same time, like many other primary school children, I discovered music. Starting with the recorder, then guitar I made tentative attempts at composition, writing my first song at the age of 9. Performing in the school percussion band, led by the talented Mr Waterman, I was later inspired to write a piece for the school’s Christmas Carol writing competition. My carol, Christmas Bells, was declared joint winner and was performed by the choir at the end of term concert. Whilst I continued to play guitar, write lyrics and compose songs throughout my senior school years, my most prolific writing moved away from poetry to a teenage diary. I wrote an entry every day from 12 to 19. These are also safely stored, ready for me to dust them off and incorporate as rich source material into a future novel.
You might assume the next chapter in my writing story would have taken me into journalism or even song-writing. Perhaps if I had known the royalties payable from the latter, my path to professional writer would have been far more direct. Instead, after science A’levels, a Chemistry degree and a three year training contract in Chartered Accountancy, I fell into a long and successful career in corporate recruitment. I remained an avid reader favouring Patricia Cornwall, Elizabeth George, Freya North and the fabulously inspiring Mary Wesley. Way before Kindles and e-books existed, I’d be the person whose holiday suitcase almost contained more books than bikinis.
Sadly, my long-hours at work and parenthood formed a pincer movement, significantly reducing my available reading time to one book per holiday if I was lucky. I was able to revisit my cherished childhood classics by sharing them with my own children, wheeling out ‘Fatty-puffs and Thinifers’, The Mallory Towers boxset and The Phantom Tollbooth, amongst many others, for bedtime reading.
Creative writing took a backseat for a while too and whilst I crafted many a persuasive marketing email or helped others to elevate their CV’s to the stand-out option in the pile, my love of words languished somewhere buried beneath the home admin pile!
I am delighted to say, I rediscovered it some years ago with an idea for a novel which eventually grew, from that first lightbulb moment, into the inspiration for a full-blown career change. The story of the book and my journey to its completion deserves its own post, so for now I will leave you with this thought:
It’s very easy to tell yourself you ‘have no time’ or to hang on to the criticism of a teacher and carry it with you all the way to adulthood BUT it is possible to realise your creative potential, if you pursue it with the passion and determination to succeed.
© Nikki Vallance 2017