Thursday, June 17, 2010

Road Trip Wednesday: when and why did you start writing?

AKA the post that somehow turned into Leila's life story.

It started with self publishing when I was about four. I didn’t have a printing press, so each book was a one off limited edition, handmade with scrap paper, felt tip pens, and the stapler*. Most of the stories were about little girls named Celia or Delia, witches named Celia or Delia or dinosaurs named Celia or Delia**. And also about magic. Later, I extended my subject matter to include mermaids named Celia and Delia and princesses named Celia and Delia.

I don’t think anything really beats that discovery you make as a kid, when you realise that if you write a story, it’s there as long as the paper is there and you can read it over and over again. Or someone else can read it and know exactly what you said word for word, even if they weren’t in the room when you came up with it.

Originally I didn’t want to be a writer. I had other plans. First I wanted to be a professional witch. Then I wanted to be a teacher. Then, when I was seven, I wrote an unbelievably long play about two princesses and a dungeon, and also a poem about putting syrup on porridge, how the syrup runs slowly off the spoon and makes little golden corridors through the porridge. And for some reason my teacher was absolutely delighted with them, and then my parents were absolutely delighted with them, even though the play was full of nonsensical rambling dialogue and the syrup poem was, well, syrupy.

That’s when I realised that writing was not only magical. It also impressed grownups. And because of that, it would make me rich and famous. I was a vain kid, and also one of those notoriously weird kids. You knew one of those kids. The sort of kid who cries if her new book falls on the ground, and disappears to the edge of the playground for hours on end to play intensive make believe about orphan girls from large families during Victorian times. I have never ever in my whole entire life been cool. So the prospect of being rich and famous made me happy, if only so that it would make the mean kids regret being mean.

Someone gave me a second hand typewriter. A manual one. I bashed out page after page of description of characters and their whole families and their whole families’ families, including middle names and eye colour. I didn’t include star signs, but I probably would have, if I had known about them.

Then I got sick of the typewriter, and wrote stories and songs and in large spiral bound exercise books which always fell apart before I’d filled them. I’d grown out of dinosaurs and I’d grown out of naming characters Celia and Delia by then***. But I couldn’t stop writing about magic. Magic and transformation and people dealing with dark stuff. Being a twelve year old girl is one of the hardest things in the world. I knew dark stuff.

Then high school. I wrote epic fantasy in maths class when I was meant to be doing algebra. I wrote poetry in my study period when I was meant to be doing homework. I never finished anything unless it was a class assignment. But I made up for that by starting approximately one million novels. I had one particular story that turned up when I was meant to be doing French homework and tangled with me and wouldn’t go away.

My French is still terrible.

In university, I was still writing that story, and it was still tangled. I went to cafes and drank enormous lattes and wrote and wrote and wrote. Over the years I changed almost everything about it except for some of the characters’ names****. Then, in a year of turmoil, I decided the story was a lost cause and abandoned it. Even so, that story still calls to me sometimes. One day I might go back to it, when I'm less bothered about whether it's publishable or not.

Abandoning my novel was one of the ugliest things I've ever done. It took me two and a half agonising years before I could work on anything novel length again. Then Aven and Elias turned up, and I spent most of 2009 working on their story. Then some different people turned up, and I’ve spent 2010 so far working on their story.

I see things through to completion these days, and it’s slow. Slow like a sleeping snail is slow. I want to get everything pretty and polished and perfect, and that takes a long time. In fact, when you’re in the middle of working on things, it feels like the longest time in the world. So I go to my favourite cafe, I buy a large latte and cake, because cake makes everything better, and I pull out my notebook and write for hours on end. And I enjoy every moment of it as much as I can.

Writing is like many things in that after a while, it becomes part of living. You don’t know your own breath without it. Stories wait in dark corners, and under beds, and inside the linen cupboard, and sometimes the cats bring them in and leave them on the rug. And every time the stories leap out at you and insist on being written. They bring out their most intriguing people, and their most beautiful events. And you know that they’re absolutely right. They absolutely must be told. And if you don’t write them, there is no one else who will.

Honestly? I write because I no longer know how not to write.

You want to hear about how my fellow highwayers started writing as well, don't you? Head this way straight away!

*This was before I entered the bookselling world and realised that stapling is probably not the greatest form of binding in the world.

**I also named my guinea pigs Celia and Delia. I was obsessed.

***Mostly. I think a few Celias and Delias still snuck in occasionally.

****Incidentally, none of them were called Celia or Delia.


Virginia @ Where You Hang Your Hat said...

Wonderful post!

Kate Hart said...

I always went with the scotch tape binding, myself. I did love the typewriter though.

Michelle Schusterman said...

As always, I love reading your posts. And oh my god I must beg you to show me that syrup poem! Seriously, "golden corridors?" Sounds so amazing, particularly coming from a child!

Leila Austin said...

I never tried scotch tape. But that was probably only because my parents wouldn't let me borrow it ;-)

I think the syrup poem is buried in my parents' attic somewhere. If it ever emerges, I'll scan it in for you. I think I tried to draw the syrup as well.

Amanda Hannah said...

I happen to think you're wrong. You sound like the coolest kid in the world to me. Perhaps because it sounds like we were very similar lol

Erinn said...

I think its great that you kept naming the characters the same thing. Whenever I need a bad guy I name him Derek after my first boyfriend who broke my heart. Whenever I need a good guy I name him either Josh or Jason.

I also thought it was great that your writing impressed grownups, it's amazing how important that is to kids.

Well done. Keep writing

KO said...

"And every time the stories leap out at you and insist on being written. They bring out their most intriguing people, and their most beautiful events. And you know that they’re absolutely right. They absolutely must be told. And if you don’t write them, there is no one else who will." Love this quote

Kaitlin Ward said...

"I write because I no longer know how not to write."


Alexa said...

Lovely post, I love your journey and I love how you describe how you feel about writing.

Your sister said...

I love this post Leila!

I remember that poem, mum made you repeat it everytime we ate porridge and I think your draft ended up on the fridge, it is one of the first memories I have of trying to read something handwritten. I always thought it was beautiful, even if I was only four at the time.