How to work out who’s on yours, and what to do with it
Screenshot courtesy of the author, via bbc.co.uk
Your name will also be added to the list. What is it?
Don’t tell him, Pike.
— Dad’s Army episode The Deadly Attachment, by Jimmy Perry and David Croft
We all write for different reasons: it’s the itch we’ve got to scratch; a way to express ourselves; a means of exploring and processing our lives. One writer I know once said he wrote for “revenge”. Someone observed that this was “quite negative”, but it resonates with many. I’ve realised only recently that I’m still trying to prove something to the kids at school. Some of them are on a list, along with others from my life. You’ve probably got a list too, whether or not you realise. Such lists can work two ways.
Our lists can be populated by a variety of people: teachers; bullies; colleagues; relatives; exes. The kids from school.
I didn’t enjoy my secondary school life. Not one little bit. It started off well enough, with some positive comments on my reports talking of “potential” and so on. All I had to do was try hard. Very hard. But as time passed the comments changed.
They were just years I had to get through. When you’re not cool or arty or academic, not good-looking, hard or sporty, what are you? You’re just making up the numbers, that’s what. And when there’s no way to stand out, all you want to do is fit in. But sometimes a quirk or characteristic or situation means that’s not possible either. I was the kid with the greasy hair and the sleepy eye. I don’t think greasy hair ever became cool, and although Thom Yorke made a sleepy eye at least acceptable, I’d long since left school by them. I wasn’t bullied as such, but I didn’t have a fun time. So I guess that was when, without realising, names started to appear on my list.
But lists can also be positive.
Tell about what we’re gonna have in the garden and about the rabbits in the cages and about the rain in the winter and the stove, and how thick the cream is on the milk like you can hardly cut it. Tell about that, George.
Lennie from Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck
Teachers, particularly English teachers, can be key figures in writers’ lives. There were a couple on my list. The first trashed a story I’d written when I was about 14. I’ve always wondered why. Wouldn’t you just encourage creative exploration, whatever its form? I remember that prefab like it was yesterday. The damp smell. The condensation on the windows. The hole in the door that was punched by the angry kid who lost his shit.
Teachers can fall at the other end of the spectrum too, though. Those teachers inspire and introduce, motivate and encourage. And so another name appeared.
This was a teacher with acting aspirations. Rather than getting unwilling, self-conscious, mostly uninterested teenagers to read curriculum books to the rest of the class — Of Mice and Men, The Crucible, The Long and the Short and the Tall – he effectively performed them to us. In double-English on a Monday afternoon, he’d stride, lurch or bound between the desks, shifting seamlessly between characters to bring those stories to life.
Some people might become actors because of something like that. Although I’d always read and written loads as a child, he rekindled my interest in literature, and eventually writing. He made Mondays bearable. (There’s another teacher from that time, too. Someone I’ve been in touch with since. Also instrumental. She knows who she is.)
Save yourself a lot of effort and pain, and drop the baggage now
But while there can be people on our list we want to thank, it’s those we want to flick the finger who dominate. But the truth is that all but the most important people we encounter are fleeting. Our paths cross then diverge. Over time we become unrecognisable strangers, distorted recollections in our unreliable memory. Ghosts. Most people will never hear about or have any interest in what we do in our adult lives. We’re all too focused on our own little worlds. Just getting on with it. And for them it probably wasn’t that big-a deal anyway. For those of us carrying lists, recognising this fact can be liberating.
Many people reach their deathbed laden with emotional baggage, then just want to drop it. The list is baggage, and the burden can be huge. Save yourself a lot of effort and pain, and drop the baggage now. It’s easy to do.
Take a pen and paper and actually write your list. You probably won’t have to think too hard. If possible, don’t think at all — just feel. Then, when you’re satisfied the list is complete, take that piece of paper and burn it. Or screw it up. Or tear it into pieces. Whatever gives you the greatest satisfaction.
In doing so, stop writing for irrelevant people who didn’t care and never will.
Start writing just for you.
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I’m a writer, Royal Literary Fund Writing Fellow and Advisory Fellow, workshop lead and creative coach. Subscribe to updates, unique content and sneak peeks.