In the introduction to this series on my forthcoming plans, I suppose I gave you a brief idea of my personal history involving my sense of the world as a whole — nature, culture, animal, mineral, vegetable — and for this piece I shall continue in this vein. Some of you will already know much of this, but I think it better to repeat myself here, rather than skip details that will later prove important.
I left Orkney and headed for university when I was eighteen. Looking back, twenty years later, I seem impossibly young, naive, hedonistic and, at times, idiotic. I suppose, however, this is much the same with many eighteen year olds. I chose the wrong university course, in the wrong place, but that did not really matter. What I got out of that time of my life was far more important; I collected emotions, experiences, ideas, voices, and observations, as others collected stamps.
Even then I was a writer, even then I knew I wanted to make my living from words. After a series of misadventures I took a long hard look at myself and decided that if I wanted to write well then the best thing to do would be to live a full and interesting life — before I felt entitled, or ready, to do so. To clarify, I virtually ceased to write fiction, instead reading (less and less as the years passed), writing down ideas and notes, keeping a journal, and experiencing all the highs and lows life could throw at me (many of these were unplanned and, at the time, unwanted, but have certainly helped with the writing).
With the oh-so-clear power of hindsight, I am not sure this was sensible. I think I should not have made my ridiculous vow (”to experience things and wait until I was thirty to try writing fiction again”), but instead kept learning how to write through the activities I list above, and also through extensive practice. I would not recommend any one else follow my route.
I would still tell stories, but they were now true stories, a rendering of experience into words or tales that captured a moment in time. And, even with my diktat, I managed to sneakily craft poetry, write short stories when I thought there was no alternative and generally try and find a way to add fiction to my life.
And, throughout all this time, I knew there was a world out there, a world beyond the country I lived in, languages beyond English, and cultures beyond the fragmented society the United Kingdom was becoming. No such thing as society, remember? It was always there, always at the back of my mind, the question of when I would go exploring. Not if.
At one point myself and a close friend considered moving to Berlin. At another my wife and I decided to spend a year travelling around the world. Neither of these things happened, nor did other similar plans — instead, life happened.
When I left the city and walked out from that remote railway platform, heading into the woods and hills to spend late summer, autumn and early winter, my intention had been to visit my family up here in the far north of Scotland for Christmas. I had meant to stay for a few weeks, a couple of months at most, then move along. After this time with my family, I had intended to travel, to work my way around the globe, volunteering here, WWOOFing there, walking a section of the way and sleeping in my hammock, hitching elsewhere then resting in hostels. I had no plan beyond “see the world”.
Instead other things came to pass. Indeed, life happened, again. As it is wont to do.
Infeasibly (as I write this I realise I alternate between “infeasible” and “unfeasible”), it is somehow five years since I was living out in my handmade home that first time. I have used the vast majority of these years to hone my craft, catch up on those years of foolish fiction-writing abstinence (the abstinence being foolish, not the fiction).
As I mentioned before, it is accepted that there is an apprenticeship to writing, as there must be to all things that matter. In this case, it is words on paper (or screen) that matter most. How long this training and honing period lasts varies depending on who you talk to, who you read — some people say seven years, others ten thousand hours. Still others put a numerical figure on word count, rather than time. All of these could be true, and all could be false.
The real answer is that it varies from person to person — and I believe the final result is that you reach a point where you realise you will NEVER be an “expert” (thanks to Terri Windling for the fitting link), never be a Master (and we should be exceptionally wary of self-proclaimed experts, in any discipline). That, for me, was the moment I knew my apprenticeship was over, and also that the journey was actually only just beginning.
This time has not been wasted, on the contrary, it has been invaluable to working out that, yes, this is what I want to do and, yes, this is who I am. I am not a fan of regrets, instead preferring to see what I can do to remedy any situation for the better. I have never seen the point when others wish they had done things differently — I would not be the same person without the sum of my experiences. Much better to say ‘I didn’t do this then, do I still want it? If so, how can I do it now?’
And the remedy to my not having seen the world is, quite simply, to head out there and see it. But how? Where? And when?
ADDENDUM: Tomorrow I will be journeying southward for the first time in some months. Winter has nearly arrived up here in the north, the leaves nearly all gone, stripped in the recent gales. I love winter — it, however, does not always love me. I will not be returning north until December and I cannot help but wonder if there will be snow before then, the thought sending a shiver and thrill of anticipation that has not diminished with age. I also cannot help but think about the future, make plans, notes, and sketch ideas. In the next few posts I shall address the wheres, the hows, and the whens, as well as look at specifics, share details I already know and discuss those I do not. Eighteen months today I shall turn forty.