My first written sentence was a lie. On Saturday I went fishing. I had never been fishing in my life. I was six. That Saturday I had stayed in and watched TV and played in the garden. It sounded too boring, yet also too complicated at the same time. Which is most of life when you come to write about it. Fishing sounded more like the sort of thing a boy should be doing on a Saturday. When we went on holiday we looked at fishermen on the beach in Walberswick, patiently digging up ragworms signified by their loamy casts on the flat sand. My Dad explained about worms, and fishermen but we didn’t go fishing. I paddled in rock pools with a net and caught nothing except seaweed. Even shrimps seemed an exotic impossibility to me. In the following sentence I wrote my second lie: I went with my Dad. Years later, it seemed, actually it was only two years later, I would go fishing regularly with my Dad and grow to dislike it, find it dull and wet, a bit muddy, the best bit always being the hard boiled eggs; I loved picking the tiny bits of shell off. We still hardly caught any fish, and when we did they were always small and bony, almost inedible though I insisted on killing and eating them. As my interest waned my Dad’s waxed; he even got a special waxed cotton overcoat so he could fish for eight hours in unremitting rain, which he did, quite often. He read a great many books on fishing and turned himself into an expert. He caught so many fish he had to put most of them back. Years later he told he didn’t even like the taste very much.
When I started taking photographs, aged twelve or so, with a Russian 35mm camera called a Cosmic Symbol- great name- I found it was depressingly like fishing. Mostly one ‘caught’ nothing. My pictures were usually humdrum and dark, the details obscured by dark shiny shadows. Even writing that makes them sound better than they were. About once every 36 snaps I’d take a shot (I was going to write accidentally but it was more a combination of hope, vague intention and happy accident) and I would like it and others said it was good though even then I had grown suspicious of adult praise as it was usually always positive and encouraging. I had grown addicted to its thin nutrition. If I got anything different, like a kid not getting his usual and favourite cereal, I’d be revolted and annoyed and usually give up instantly the task being appraised. Yet, though I craved this sugary praise, I knew it lacked something, what, I was not sure. When I got negative ‘goals’ such as ‘you can have X if you can prove you can do Y’ I’d immediately give up. I try never to forget the complicated and mysterious way that encouragement operates when I try to encourage my kids. It seldom works as I imagine and I am often rebuffed, then, out of the blue, a casual suggestion takes root and flowers. And now, thinking back, it was like that with my Dad. He said in an offhand way I might like the books of Idries Shah- a writer he had never read but had heard about on the radio. It started an interest that had a significant effect on my life and writing.
But back then, writing my first sentence, all I knew about writing was that the unvarnished truth is seldom enough. Truth needed some polish, even ‘truth polish’, which often turned out to be the best kind of varnish. The unvarnished truth is our response to boring, dumbass, familiar, over-familiar questions (all writing can be considered an answer to some kind of question) and you know you’re delivering it because you feel trapped, small, at the bottom of some deep dark well calling out in you loudest voice that still somehow sounds weak and thin. When people ask us a perfectly normal question, being friendly or polite, nothing forces us to respond this way but we usually do. It is the writer’s task not to. Like a photographer eschewing the usual position for the camera- eye level- for something more creative- maybe on the ground or up in a tree- the writer must wriggle out of the usual questions, take a step back or a step forward and add some ‘truth polish’ to the answer (or simply make something up but we’ll go into that another time). Truth polish is where slow things down, or speed them up, highlight something odd, unpack and unpick what really happened and reveal it was actually fascinating and unexpected after all.
That’s one point, another that occurs after re-reading my first written lie is that writing is magic. I had never been fishing but I wanted to go, with my Dad. I wrote it, and a little while later it happened. Often, too often for it to be sheer coincidence, I have written fiction and it has become fact. Once I wrote about a man taking people on tours of the desert; three years later I was living on the edge of the desert and doing just that. Writing, some writing, is a form of magic, divination, telekinesis: what you write happens. So beware.