I joined a Writer’s Group to drink red wine with friends. I would use words like hubris, eclectic and hegemony so that it was clear to them I knew what these words meant. But, there was never enough red wine to disguise my fragile vocabulary and tangled sentences. It was clear in my head. Yet as the words spilled onto the page, I could not find one true sentence. It read like a professor nailing tattered bits of the Oxford English dictionary to the floorboards and calling it a novel.
I know the moment it went wrong. I was sixteen. Life was becoming complicated. My English teacher extracted an essay from her pile of papers and tipped her glasses to the edge of her nose with her nail-polished finger. She began to read aloud to the class. Several lines into the reading, my stomach reeled as I recognised my words. She was reading my essay aloud. I had poured blood into those paragraphs.
The story was of a painter on the brink of an overdose contemplating the oil swirls in his painting. Risqué writing for a Catholic boy in a school where priests outnumbered civilian teachers. The teacher’s lip trembled. Her voice softened. A few paragraphs in, tables ceased their creaking as she readjusted the glasses on her nose. The first paragraph eviscerated me. She had changed it. Ripped its guts out with a red pen. It made the words sound like someone else. Like someone despicable and dull.
How did she get that so wrong? My opening line was clear. Clear because I had stolen it from a song lifted from my brother’s mixed tape. They were the words spoken by a cyber punk poet before the music kicked in.
Do you see what I feel? I feel myself a god.
It was the foundation for my opening. The well spring of the piece. And my English teacher had neutered it.
“Do you understand how I feel? I feel as though I am a God.” Her words were a Walt Disney remake of Full Metal Jacket.
I stared at her as she read.
I feel myself a god is not someone with a god-complex. It was not a question of understanding or delusion. Not even narcissism. It was not the sensation of reaching a climax and exclaiming: “Wow, that’s what a God must feel like.” Not at all. It’s someone standing at the edge of the universe. It’s an adolescent after a first kiss. Amped on Red Bull and fentanyl. An asylum inmate juiced up on Lexamil and Benzedrine, binge reading Thoreau. That feeling is certainty.
She flambéed my words with her literary sparkles. It was curdling my barbed-wire poetry into Crème Brûlée. It was insufferable. In a few minutes, everyone would realise that it was mine. I would be hailed as the budding writer, someone in the ilk of Gordimer or Strydom. And I’d hide behind my hubris, proceed with unabashed sincerity to flood the room with ennui.
I closed my eyes considering the choices before me: confront the fraud, or accept the revision. She terminated the essay in a hushed tone describing the lifeless body on a gurney, a needle dangling from a spider tracked arm like a pendant heirloom. My writing was on the gurney. Off to the morgue for an autopsy , although I anticipated that the coroner’s summation would be death by cliché.
One year later the teacher inserted a handwritten invitation into my satchel. It was to attend a “weekend of English” at the school. Two days filled with Shakespeare readings and poetry. Each boy gets a hot dog and a cooldrink. I considered the hotdog. I could not shake the feeling that this was where young writers go to get spayed. Here you will be instructed how to leech the life out of writing using mixed metaphors and a cornucopia of onomatopoeia. You will learn how to strangle sentences with adverbs and garrotte originality with cliches and the passive tense. I chose not to attend the death school. I rode past the school that Saturday morning and saw my friends entering the school hall. Lambs, unaware of the slaughter that lay behind those doors. Despite my proximity, none of them called out to me. They were oblivious to my presence. As the years went by, I feared that my choice not to attend was incorrect.
In our final year of school, Bradley, the only boy who dared to call himself a writer shared some of his pages with us. Two stories were passed around. They were well received. One was about intercourse, followed by death in a car accident. The other was about dismemberment and a rogue surgeon that traded in the harvested appendages. I had found another Stephen King at the age of 17. Ideas flowed through him like a portal from the netherworld. I could not get enough of his words. I was fearful and hopeful in equal measure.
One of the boys left his essays on a desk and a teacher discovered the literary contraband. This set off a series of events that resulted in the expulsion and the vilification of anyone who had read the verboten material. A portrait of Dorian Gray it was not.
This is the work of a distorted mind, the priests had said, he has no place here.
How could this be, I thought? Here is a galactic mind. He brandishes words as an artist would his brush and oils. He was hindered by neither inability nor inhibition. He levitates. He sees the darkness that lies in the heart of Lady Macbeth while the rest of us wade through Birnum Wood, trying to memorise what the three witches put into the cauldron.
And the purveyors of this so-called education could not see their actions were not pruning but severing the tree. They had not even bothered to sharpen the axe and so each sentence was a blunt force trauma. Bradley left the school the next day. We kill our idols. We are complicit in their demise through our silence.
Writing is a treacherous business. People cut down your words. They cut you down.
If I wrote, the people would come for me. One way or another. One by one they would come. There would be a bounty on my hide. Any day now. And they would keep coming for me, and for my words. And so I had to prepare.
I joined a Writer’s Club. To arm myself. To steel myself. To drink red wine. To build my hegemony over words.
The Writer’s Club accepts my inadequacies. So, I accept my inadequacies.
And one day, soon, I will write one true sentence.