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The Book of Tom – or how to see a halo

As you all know, I have about a million kids. (Don’t ask me for an exact number; I haven’t counted recently.)

The older boy, Tom, is bright, imaginative, interesting, kind, wise – and absolutely hopeless when it comes to anything involving pens, pencils and paper. He’s coming up to nine years old and his hand-writing is worse than that of his six-year-old siblings. It’s not just bad, even. It’s bananas. When writing his name, he’ll write a giant T, a teeny-tiny O, and then an M placed orthogonally to the other two letters. He’ll then probably colour in the O, add a bird, drop his pencil, then forget completely what he was doing.

The process is joyous, and liberated, and inventive … and unlikely to pass any exams.

In part, we’ve decided to address that challenge by side-stepping it. OK, he can’t write. So help him type. He’s learning to touch-type and is about 100 lessons into a 450-lesson course. He already knows the placement of every key and is reasonably accurate in using them.  The process remains slow, so it’s a labour to produce a sentence – but there’s definitely progress.

But what about his experience right now? Just this week, my wife and I realised that Tom’s inability to write meant that he couldn’t see his thoughts. His twin sister, for whom writing comes fluently, has the ability to come up with poems, think great thoughts, write cards, make jokes – and to see those things on paper. Tom’s never really had that joy.

Nor is it simply that Tabby can see the product of her mind. It’s that, seeing it, she can refine it. You can’t easily hold a poem in your head. But if you get the first line or two down, you can stop thinking about them and move on to the next one. If all you have is a fragile memory to rely on, the anxiety around your ability to retain that material essentially disables the production of further content.

All that’s been heavily studied, of course. Plenty of purely oral societies don’t have a word for ‘word’. How could they? And why would they? To a non-literate culture, the notion of a word feels like a dubious scientific hypothesis. As soon as you’re literate, the existence of words (and sentences, and clauses, and verbs, and everything else) looks like accomplished fact.

Because oral cultures don’t have a way to pin down the spoken word, they tend towards fierce conservatism (“No, that’s not how we build a barn”). They value mnemonics, no matter how dodgy (“Red sky at night, shepherd’s delight”). They venerate collective and ancient wisdom over anything else. Preservation of knowledge is way more important than challenging and, possibly, improving it.

Up till now and in some respects only, our little Tom (whose reading is absolutely fine) has been like an oral-only child living in a highly literate world.

We realised we needed to give him the gift of seeing his thoughts.

So I sat with him with my laptop at the ready. We created a new document – The Book Of Tom – and I told him that he could simply dictate anything he wanted: thoughts, poems, jokes, inventions, ideas, songs, sentences, anything.

For about two minutes he was shy and uncertain, but then we got going on “An Invention” – and he lit up. He became fluent. His words became text, and not even the scrappy text of normal eight-year-old handwriting, but the text of a beautifully sculpted font (Gill Sans, if you want to know.) His words didn’t just take on permanence, the perfect typesetting lent them a kind of beauty too.

The Book of Tom is now a document that’ll grow a little bit longer every day. A mostly-oral child has hopped over the fence into full literacy and he loves it. It’s like there’s a halo around his writing, which means around his thoughts, which means around him. Tom has seen his own halo, and it’s wonderful.

Now, OK, that’s a beautiful story, but what does it have to do with you? (I’m taking a wild guess here and am assuming that you don’t yourself labour to generate text.)

More than you might think, I suspect. We all share the joy of seeing our words take shape on the page. Tom, it’s true, experienced the pleasure particularly sweetly, because this was the first time he’d had that feeling, because it overcame a deficiency he knew in himself. But still: seeing our thoughts take physical shape – that’s still a reliably golden experience. You have it. I have it. We all do.

What’s more, though you’ve most likely been a confident writer from childhood onwards, the first time you wrote real long form text – that novel, your memoir, your whatever – you did have something of a first-born experience:

I thought up a story in my head, and here it is, and it’s wonderful.

Because you can’t hold 100,000 words in your head, or anything close, there’s a step-change between day-dreaming a novel and actually having my_great_novel.doc live on your computer. The aroma of that first story is intoxicating. You’re like Tom, seeing his invention come to life in Gill Sans before his delighted gaze.

Cherish that joy! What a gift it is to have such a deep and reliable pleasure on tap – and where the only cost involved is the tiny effort involved in opening a laptop. We’re writers; we’re lucky.

But also: beware, oh beware of that that joy.

The joy can easily trick you into thinking that what you’ve written is actually good. And maybe it’s not. The invention that Tom wrote about? It’s rubbish. His first story? It’s terrible. Of course they’re bad: he’s eight.

For Tom, right now, that doesn’t matter. What matters now is our giving him a power and him learning to use it. It’s the learning that matters, not the outcome.

You’re not like that. You want some actual readers to read your actual book. You want them to like it. You might even want to get paid.

But because you’re giddy with the joy of seeing your story unfold in rich and beautiful detail on the page, you may not see its inadequacies. Agents – those brutes – don’t feel your joy and they’re keenly attuned to the inadequacies. Editors are worse. Critics are horrible. Readers are fickle.

In a strange way, the process of maturing as a writer is one of retaining the joy while developing your critical eye. You have to love your work and harshly critique it, both at the same time, and, ideally, without your head exploding.

Love your work too little and you will never finish it. Critique it too little, and what you have will never pass muster in those cold commercial winds.

Finding the balance ain't easy - but it's also one of the most crucial tasks you face.

Good luck.

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Comments (5)
    • 'You cannot bestow too much praise...'

      'In a strange way, the process of maturing as a writer is one of retaining the joy while developing your critical eye.'  Worth a book in itself, Harry. Thank you.

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      • An interesting way of looking at writing, and an event that humans went through in history on a grand scale too I suppose. Is writing the new meditation, the new spiritual path, where progress is only possible with accurate self-reflection?

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        • Thank you for sharing your story Harry and much fuel in Tom's creative tank as he moves forward. 

          Your story reminded me to share my experience of learning from the world before books. I came at it from a curious route, applying a sceptical eye to things supernatural, and discovered the Tarot originated in the universities of classical Greece and no doubt long before then, when books did not exist.  

          Indeed, when books came along, it is said many complained that they would destroy the creative and laborious 'palaces of the mind' when learning and remembering involved the imagining of a limitless palace with never-ending rooms, each containing thoughts and ideas to remember. 

          So it was that the Tarot, not in the least spiritual, became a tool of tutors, where the student chose cards at random, not to tell their future, but to set up a random situation from which to riff on possibilities and ways to handle predicaments. 

          It is a powerful learning tool.  I know this because I make a small living by training others how to deal with complicated situations.  Nowadays, my students choose from my pack of characters and stories as the day progresses and have to make sense of what might be going on.  Not only does it keep them on their toes, but it keeps me fresh, staying one step ahead of the ever-changing scenarios.  I don't include a death card. 

          It is one of many reasons I got into writing too, for the task of creating character and dialogue for my deck of random cards caused me to hanker after a longer-form story. I don't tell fortunes, and I doubt I'll ever make one, but there's a lot of fun to be had on the way, making narrative sense of this random world. 


          Kind regards,

          Just another Harry

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          • Stone me, and I discover today somebody has written a piece on tarot and writing...although, in this case, the writer appears to gain some spiritual or supernatural support that I do not. 


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            • Love this piece, very inspiring. 

              The balance! OMG so true. I've been working on my manuscript for three years. My writing improves everytime I do a class. That means that everytime I do a revision of my WIP I realise how much I've improved and therefore how much revision I need to do.

              In between all of these revisions I've published two collaborative books (one is out 14th May), which demonstrates, sometimes you just have to get the work out there and move on!

              Thank you for everything you do

              JB Hollows

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