The road to becoming a writer
Mark Charlton completed his OCA studies and graduated with a first class degree in September 2012. His first book, Counting Steps, Journeys into Landscape and Fatherhood is published by Cinnamon Press this month. Mark blogs regularly at Views from the bikeshed and has just tutored at Ty Newydd, National Writing Centre, Wales with the acclaimed travel writer Rory Maclean. Here, he writes about his 10-year journey to becoming a published writer and asks what ‘being a writer’ really means.
A few weeks ago, the final proof of my first book arrived in the mail. ‘So you’re almost a bona-fide writer,’ said a friend, meaning it kindly, but unaware how limiting this attitude can be. For the notion that only published authors should be considered ‘proper writers’, seems to me to be very wide of the mark.
My book was ten years in the making. In a sense, it began when I started scribbling words in my sketchbooks. Soon after I enrolled with OCA, and it’s no coincidence that when I attended the graduation ceremony last month, my book was nearing publication too. Much of its content is drawn from essays I submitted in the level two and level three modules – other essays are developed from my blog, which began as a sideline experiment and last year received over 50,000 page views.
So if it’s not publication that matters, what is it that makes us ‘proper writers’? In the feedback notes of my first course – Starting To Write – my tutor made the assumption that I’d already made that step. In her view, the act of putting pen to paper (or fingers to keys) for almost anything beyond paying a bill was qualification enough. We are writers when we send letters, draft emails, make up ditties for our children – even lists in the right context can be creative material.
I agree to a point. First steps are important and setting eligibility criteria is not helpful. In his early teens my son bought a ukulele, and within a week casually referred to himself as a musician. You’ve only had it a few days, I countered. ‘So what,’ he replied, ‘I can play some tunes and I’ll get better with time.’ He was right of course, and three years later he can play and compose on almost any fretted instrument – the irritating talent of youth!
But in truth, I think there’s a second step to becoming a writer. It’s about loving the process as much as the output. When we take care with the words: when we read and reread what’s on the page, returning for the umpteenth time to replace a verb – that’s when the writing has become truly important. I looked back the other day (for I keep everything on file) and realised I’d written more than a thousand drafts over the course of my studies. Similarly, my son’s talent for music comes from hours and hours… and hours of practice.
If I ventured a third step, it would be welcoming feedback. Most of us swell when receiving praise, but it’s constructive criticism which takes us forward. Without OCA I’m not sure I’d have learned to embrace that so openly – and frankly, I’m not sure where I’d have received it either. All of my tutors balanced encouragement with more critical appraisal. The trick was to be open to both – even if that meant starting over – after all, it’s what I was paying for!
My journey as a writer is inextricably linked to OCA. Like many authors, I relish the solitary hours with my keyboard (I’m writing this in a shed as rain lashes its windows) but without input and interaction our steps are likely to falter. Being published is a delightful extra; a validation that my work has some objective worth – but through OCA and the magnificent support of my tutors, I’ve come to understand there’s much more to be being a writer than seeing our words in print.