On not writing
I have very few memories of being young. My brother, four years my senior, has far more vivid memories of his youth than I do. It’s been my anecdotal observation of about five families that the eldest child tends to be the family historian. They seem to remember intricate details of holidays, pets, friends, and other things from very early in their life. They’re often the ones reminding the rest of the family, including parents (who were there, too, at least in body), about details they’ve long forgotten.
One of the memories I do have from being young is sitting in a classroom in year three, aged about seven or eight. A supply teacher was covering the lesson. We had to write a story, something I found intensely challenging. I looked at my page and willed words to come out. But they didn’t, not in any great volume. At the end of the lesson we had to show the teacher our work.
The boy sitting next to me went first. I sat looking at my half page of rubbish that had taken the whole lesson and had made my brain ache, listening to the teacher discuss my table-mate’s story. Much to my horror, I heard her turn the page. “He’s written more than a page!”. I panicked.
The teacher, very impressed with my colleague’s Ulysses, beamed and invited me up to be judged. I walked the three meters to her desk in what seemed like 20 minutes, and presented my workbook, full - or rather lacking - in tripe to the teacher. It was quickly obvious that her style wasn’t soft and encouraging.
“Is this it?” she enquired. It was, I reassured her. She invited my classmate back to the stage. My classmate, let’s call him James, returned carrying his heavy tome.
“Do you think yours is enough compared to James’?” she asked me as she flicked between the three pages of his modernist literature masterpiece. At this point the whole class was looking at me, while the teacher looked at my half page, and then back to James’ great work.
I can’t remember quite how I replied. I do remember 30 sets of eyes looking at me when I took my book back and sat down, and prayed for some kind of cataclysmic event to take place to remove me from the room.
Although an event I remember well for bad reasons, this episode taught me an important lesson about stage order: be first, or last, but never in-between if you can help it.
In year eight, when I was 12 or 13, my class took a spelling test. I looked forward to spelling tests in much the same way that a confectionary connoisseur looks forward to visiting the dentist.
This was a surprise test; a surprise to us all, and to my cortisol levels. “Just 40 words”. My English teacher walked around handing out pieces of paper for us to enumerate our great wisdom upon. I received my blank A4 and thought silently about how it knew as much as I did about how the words should be spelled (spelt?).
We began the test and it was clear that I’d end up with a “clean sheet”, in that I wouldn’t know how any of the damn words were spelled and my piece of paper would only contain the numbers 1-40.
The test included words that I was very familiar with. I have always had a great vocabulary, but I have no idea how to turn spoken words into text. People often say “spell it like it sounds”. This line of advice doesn’t work for me, at all. Any word I know how to spell is from muscle memory and practice, not from first principles.
We get to the end of the test. It’s over, I think. I’ve actually managed to write a lot of “words” down, but I knew many of them were letter soup thrown at the page. I get ready to give my test to the teacher, for her to mark and give me the terrible feedback another day. It was over.
“Swap your test with the person next to you for them to mark”, my teacher instructed.
My neighbour marked my test. There was a 40 on the page, but sadly it was only the denominator. The number above it was 1. It quite quickly got out that “Tony got 1/40 on the test”. I was sitting at the back of the room, and the news travelled to my teacher at the front; I remember her saying “no, no, he can’t of, that must be a mistake?”. It wasn’t.
As I’ve grown up, various professionals, and my mother, realised I have symptoms of dyslexia (a word that I always have to Google to spell correctly, including just now as I typed this).
I don’t exhibit all the common symptoms, and some I do have are only mild, which I believe prevented a formal diagnosis when I was younger.
There is an enormous power to dyslexia that isn’t generally recognised. I definitely see things differently to other people, and make connections where others wouldn’t. I think the most important thing by far in life is relationships and connections, not knowledge and data retention. The phrase “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know” feels very natural to me. The creativity that stems from dyslexia has enabled people like Richard Branson see through what people often think is entirely impossible.
My inability to write at an early age, issues with spelling, and numerous other delights of being an undiagnosed dyslexic at school, prevented me from growing up to be the sort of entrepreneur who chronicles their journey in a public blog. It’s not all bad: my lack of expertise in the written word pushed me towards computer programming, the greatest skill I’ve ever learned.
It wasn’t until last year when I read Stephen King’s On Writing, from where I took the name of this post, that I realised writing, like many skills, is easy. Simply practise everyday, work really hard at improving it for an extended period of time, and just like that you too could be an ok writer.
During the pandemic I started writing for work to distribute ideas and plans, that previously I’d communicate in-person. It’s an essential skill for any leader, and one I want to continue to hone, covering many topics here. Despite the fact that it takes me longer than others to create the same output, I’ve found I enjoy it.
I’m moving to a new chapter in my professional life, and I’m looking for a way to explore what I will do next. I’ve decided to try writing in this blog as a way to publicly learn more about myself, and share ideas.
Thanks for following along.