I was maybe nine or ten when I first wrote a story. The fiction bug had already bitten me a few years before, I was a voracious reader. Mostly horror stories, or the juvenile equivalent. Anything with slime or fangs suited me fine. My teachers had noticed this of course, mostly because I would spend half of every class holding that day’s gory story open under my desk and constantly bobbing my head down to read. I thought I was the pinnacle of subtlety. It was also impacting on my schoolwork though, gifting me a budding vocabulary and the crudest possible form of wit. I remember the beaming pride I’d felt when I used the word “dilemma” and was congratulated for what may have been the first time in the entirety of my education.
The result of all this was that I was drafted into a “Gifted and Talented” class, wherein a few children would get sat down on a Thursday afternoon and given rudimentary lessons on how to write fiction.
I got to skip a maths lesson, so that was a plus. Other than that, I didn’t really know why I was there. I didn’t know what a writer was.
Writers weren’t people you’d meet on the street, not round my way. Writers were off in the nebulous somewhere, inhabitants of another world that didn’t intrude on mine.
Asking scuffed-shirted, pack-lunched me to be a writer was like asking Batman to have a nice sit-down and a cuppa with the Joker.
In hindsight, I was a lucky little bugger. Just a decade before, when my brother had started at that same school, they had to warn the kids not to pick up used needles off the street. Now they were trying to poke daydreaming little sprogs like me into actually using the creativity that would otherwise go to waste. So I wrote. I had my first brushes with drama and comedy and fantasy, all in a little terrapin hut at the far-end of the playground. I’m not usually one for memories but that poky portable classroom is still vivid and always shining.
Those first few times I scrawled out a story, it felt like I was casting a spell.
Maybe I was. By some occult definitions, all a spell requires is intent and effort. The effort was there and the intent, though I didn’t fully understand it at the time, was to simply escape. I had this idea that writers, wherever they were, prodded at the walls of reality, stretched them just a little bit. Without even realising it, I was beginning to do the same. If I was older, and even more achingly pretentious, I would’ve said that I was suffering from ennui.
When facing down the existential barrel of a life filled with limited prospects and endless terraced mazes, children fantasise.
Being lost-lost royalty or saving the world with your superpowers, these are the things that sustained us. As I continued to fill my schoolbook with loose vignettes and strange characters in that stuffy classroom, I started to become aware that what sustained me could also save me.
Not too long after, there was a writing competition in the school. Participation was mandatory for the students of the Gifted and Talented class. Tiny, burgeoning anarchist that I was, I tried to worm my way out of that one without much success. There was no real reason to, I’d fallen in love with writing by now, but I just hated anything that was compulsory. That impotent spirit of revolution is probably what inspired the story I ended up entering for the competition. A young boy moves to a new school, in which almost every student is vacant, docile perfection. A night-time trespassing reveals that the headteacher is a hideous lizard-being, hiding inside the skin of a middle-aged man. Our intrepid protagonist is taken and eventually converted into another ideal student. Like I said, pinnacle of subtlety. Yes, if you’re wondering, I did think I was a punk visionary sticking it to The Man. The Man was apparently into that sort of thing because the silly story only went and won the competition. It was a bizarre feeling, standing up on stage and being handed a certificate. It didn’t matter that it was just a piece of laminated paper, didn’t matter that the teacher said my brother’s name instead of mine (A common occurrence, he a was a much more memorable student), didn’t matter that this would be forgotten by the next day.
I had discovered something, a rudimentary door to that other far-flung world where all those writers lived.
What’s more, I had been rewarded for it. This child had only excelled at one thing before, getting into trouble. Making a mess is what was expected of me. Tousled and grubby working-class kids aren’t usually taught that fiction can be an outlet. Honestly, we’re not given many outlets at all. Not ones that are legal, at least.
To learn that there was something inside me capable of creating rather than just destroying, something that I was good at… I hate to sound cliché but it truly changed my life.
Annoyingly, I can’t remember the names of those teachers now. If I did, I would thank them here. Those nameless wonders gave me the means of production, if you will. They showed me that I could do better than borrow other people’s worlds for a temporary escape –
showed me the art of flailing wildly at a page and presuming it’ll be editable later.
I hope that those teachers influenced many others over the years and are still doing so because they don’t know it, they probably never will, but they took me by the collar and flung me onto the road that I’m still travelling down today. It’s not well-lit or very well-paved, someone should probably talk to the local council about that, but it’s got a certain charm to it. It feels like home.
J.H. Hook is still raging against the machine and still hopelessly obsessed with monsters. He was born and raised in Liverpool and can confirm that Penny Lane is not worth a visit. He and his published stories can be found at @MrHookman, ignore all the tweets about underpants and Twin Peaks. He’s currently writing The Cavendish Files, a short story collection about a hardboiled P.I. facing Lovecraftian horrors with nothing but bare knuckles and sarcasm. Your pirate jokes do not amuse him.