I wrote my first short story when I was about 8 or 9 years old, if memory serves. Maybe it was a little later. I don’t know. Memory is a highly subjective thing. We think we remember a thing but that thing has been coloured in by so many other things that the thing we think we remember is not the thing that happened.
Take, for example, what I consider my earliest childhood memory.
It was Christmas time. We were at my grandfather’s house in Adelaide, in the Eastern Cape. It was cold and raining, and the memory I have is the family all huddled together in what must have been the lounge or a large living room. There was a roaring fire going. The fire was in a large fireplace, black stone mantelpiece, and a tall man was standing near it. That man, I believe, was my grandfather.
When I mentioned this memory to my mother, she corrected a couple of things. Firstly, there was no fireplace in the house. My mind had made that bit up from somewhere. Yes, it was raining and cold, yes we were in the Eastern Cape and yes, it was Christmas. But seeing as how I was three months old at the time, she said, I could not possibly remember and…yet…somehow I do. Even if my mind coloured in some of the details for me.
And writing, when it comes down to it, is colouring in the details. People ask writers where they get their ideas from and the simple answer is that it comes from our heads. I see a thing, an event, a person walking, and something in the way it happens triggers a short story in my brain, a set of circumstances. By the time I get home it has written itself in my head and all that remains is to put it on paper. The guy walking in a shop and looking confused becomes a short story on what happens when we die. The lady hooting at me in traffic becomes a Misery-esque story about my own kidnapping. It happens all the time.
But like Neil Gaiman says: “you get ideas from daydreaming. You get ideas from being bored. You get ideas all the time. The only difference between writers and other people is that we notice when we’re doing it.”
When I was at school I was introduced to many different forms of writing. We see them as dry exercises but they’re not. We are taught to read with comprehension, and re-write what we read in our own words. We learn to read poetry, and write poetry, and interpret poetry. We learn when we have used a word too often in one sentence. We learn about formal and informal letters, how to write essays and reports, how to write newspaper articles and how to put together an advert.
And we run the risk of considering that these are merely a “thing we do” along the road of education. They’re necessary because they’re in a book, and because some teacher said so. We do them because it’s in the plan but we don’t really think about WHY exposing a child to as many forms of writing as possible is a great idea.
So here’s what I think. Here is why I reckon it is more valuable than we may think. In one instance, it is vital because exploring many forms allows us the opportunity to learn to think conceptually. The brain stuff that goes into writing a factual newspaper article about a local flower show is very different to the brain stuff required to write a 5000-word fantasy epic about a ruling class of unicorns and how they tyrannically legislate the local pony population into slavery. The brain stuff required to create a haiku on the life cycle of a frog is very different to an essay on said life cycle. It engages neurons. It fires imaginations.
But the biggest reason, in my opinion, goes beyond conceptualisation. When you start out exploring all these different forms, the goal is really to learn a little about a lot. That is how most “school” works. Noble pursuit or not, it is a fundamental by-product. We learn a little about a lot. And in so doing, and as we explore different options, a compass in our heads starts to spin. It spins from one pole to another, from one form to another. It is an essay here and a poem there and a report over there and a story down here. Slowly, over time, that compass begins to slow. The spin degrades and – if we were somehow able to measure the spin – we may start noticing a pattern. If we ran odds and ratios on the compass spin, we would start to notice that the needle pointed more towards one form, and disregarded others. It is still able to point to those other things, when needed, but it is drawn to one, perhaps two, types.
A child may find that they “like” newspaper articles more than they do poetry, or that they “appreciate” poetry more than they do stories. They may tell themselves that they “prefer” this or that, that they are “better” at this one and not that one. They will rationalise, in their way, and say that they would rather do this than that, because they find this “easier”. They take the path of least resistance because it somehow makes sense, even if they don’t themselves have the words for why this is.
The compass has slowed. The needle is pointing towards a very specific something. They are no longer learning a little about a lot. Now, they are starting to become focused on learning a lot about that one thing. That one thing that allows them to make sense of their own world.
And, on that day, an artist is born.