The Joy to Destroy

I hold myself to a high standard on a variety of things, some which others may be less inclined by. I am not satisfied unless my signature joins perfectly when I write, and will endeavour to cross out and retry if it’s not quite right (this at times can be a little suspicious whenever I’m in front of a bank clerk). I also insist on a certain style of organisation. No packets of sweets can be eaten until I have first rearranged them by number and colour (OCD is one of the fun forms of madness). When eating a good lasagne, I won’t rest until every speck of it’s delicious mastery is on the end of a fork on its way into my mouth. I simply couldn’t bear to watch a little tomato stain get washed away in the sink and will instead offer to polish it off with my tongue if need be (which has on one occasion sparked questions on my financial situation and when I last ate). When playing a video game, there’s sometimes a form of measurement to determine how good you are, and if they label a ranking system it will be the death of me. I spent endless months playing Metal Gear Solid 3 on the highest difficulty, without killing anyone, without being seen, without healing, without checking up on my soul, all just to get the satisfaction at the end when I achieved the top rank (even as I write this I feel a mixed surge of dread and insane happiness). If I read a manga book and do the very foolish thing of enjoying it, my bedroom shudders. I feel compelled to read the rest, every volume until its completion, so that I will know it’s end. The books pile higher and higher in my room until there is little room left to breathe, but I am unable to leave a climax left hanging. I’d have to throw out all those books if I did. But one standard that I find very hard to maintain, is the one I hold over my writing.

 

I love writing. But originally I loved stories; writing was just another means of expressing them. Films have told me stories, music has told me stories, video games, comics and of course books have told me stories. I cannot play an instrument, I cannot build a video game, I am not an artist and I lack the people and resources to make a film I could be proud of. But pen and paper are always there for me. Whether I am in a long car journey, at home, in a lecture theatre, in my Sheffield Batcave (cinema projector room. No robin but I get ushers instead), or outside in the street, a notepad and pen in my pocket is all I need to translate my thoughts into ink. The contents of my soul and heart staining a page for others to read and marvel at. But unfortunately, because it is my soul here that’s pouring out onto the page, it feels a little bit grander than the likes of a set of colour coordinated skittles. When I read my words back to myself, I get a glimpse of looking into myself. If I see something ugly, something ineloquent, a pile of jumbled letters that do not represent me, then I naturally feel unsatisfied. Worse still, if I suspect it does represent my soul, and the terrifying truth of it claws at me that my soul maybe isn’t all that grand to start with. Perhaps it’s just one of those ordinary and common floaty wisps that’s tethered to my inadequate bones. Which is why I destroy all trace of those words. Down to the last drop of ink.
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The graveyard of my works is extensive. I discovered my love of writing at primary school, when I realised that the likes of Final Fantasy, Greek mythology and Batman were not restricted to the screen, or pages in my hands. With a pencil I could continue their stories. So I began my trail of disappointment from the tender age of 7, and continued writing throughout my teens, and even now in my twenties. In all that time, more than 15 years of work and gradual improvement, I have only two or three stories left that have survived the purges. You see, when I wrote a reimagining of Jason and his Argonauts, I compared what I had written to what i had read before. I compared it to the film I had seen. And It became very obviously clear that what I had produced, was nothing in comparison. Less than nothing. It was the same as when I tried to copy a painting of a flower in art class, and produced instead a runny blotch of viscous paint with no resemblance to the real world at all. Although I was the one one with the brush, the thing that stained the paper was certainly inhuman. So it was with conviction at my young age, that I decided to never reveal these monstrosities I was responsible for. Although I might not have entirely understood at that age why I felt so strongly that my work be destroyed, I somehow knew that only through burning could I hope to start afresh. To the fire. Or the bin, which was far more convenient for paper disposal.
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Naturally, I was not good at writing at that age and many would therefore say that I needn’t be so harsh on my seven year old self. After all, 7 year old poncho (with a little ‘p’ because he was little) had little notion on what a metaphor was, let alone any concept of themes, or rhythm and suffered from a very restricted lexicon. But 7 year old poncho was not aware of the gulf between him and good writing, and therefore could not judge his ability. He only knew that what he wrote was not at all as good as what he read.

 

My father is an artist. He’s been drawing and painting since he was a kid and now uses it in his work. In the attic of our home, are several massive folders and stored within are the years and years of his work. Paintings, charcoals, pastels, and every medium imaginable. I asked him why he could draw and I could not, and he told me what all parents should tell their children; that I needed to practice. He would give me tips on how to draw and it’d help to a degree, but really what I needed was practice. He opened his folders and showed me what practice is and showed me how he can measure the development of his skills throughout his life. It was inspiring. Not for fine art though, I can’t draw to save my life. But instead, I would sneak printer paper out from under the family computer, hide upstairs in my room and scribble away in pencil until the lead went dull. Then I’d read it back, and feel none of what I had felt from the books in my room. So promptly crushed these pages in my hands and tossed them into the bin. Practice is practice, regardless of having a record of it. My parents often complained how quickly printer paper seemed to disappear at home. Like 6 pints of milk each week, 500 pages was barely enough to last a family of four it seems.

 

School made writing easier. I started to learn new techniques and reading an hour each day (under parental enforcement) improved my ability to express myself (unlike my sister who used the hour reading time as an opportunity to take a nap. But she’s an English language graduate now, so top points to irony). Homework included creative writing which I tackled with some gusto, and poured over the teacher’s comments in search of hope. In that blur of red criticism I might learn and write better next time. A quick tear later and next time was my new first time. Early on in secondary school I won a writing competition within the county. There were four winners, hand picked by lecturers at Kent University and in celebration, we were invited to the university along with parents, teachers and even the local press. I got to get up and shake the hand of an old man and I still have no early idea who he was but he gave me a certificate, Perhaps this was the point when I needn’t destroy my words. Then he lifted my story up, as he had done the other winners, and read it out. Rasped out my words like claws on a chalkboard. Mumbled his way through poor adjectives, mediocre symbolism and terribly hideous dialogue (ah dialogue; the Moriarty to my Sherlock). This trash was not worthy of winning. Poe wrote better than this and he was my inspiration for it! (I had a Poe phase. I didn’t look very goth in my bright flowery shirts and beads, but I certainly sounded like one on paper). So after the photos were taken and after we had driven home, I snuck up to my room, and then very determinedly ripped up my story into screaming shreds.
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My father spoke to me at dinner. (You feel how painful this is, don’t you?)
“Poncho, where’s that story you wrote that won the competition? You should let me have it, so I can keep it safe in my office. It can go with all the newspaper clippings we got”
“It’s gone” I said
“What do you mean gone?”
“Gone” I repeated, as though that were the most obvious thing imaginable. And it obviously was. “I threw it out”
“What? Why on earth would you do that?”
Some brief explanation later, which nobody but me could seem to comprehend, I was forced to swear that I would never again discard my words. Being an honest hippie sort with a penchant for Poe, I was unable to outright lie and resigned myself to the false compromise ‘we’ll see’. What followed was a long set of months where my parents tried to rescue anything I might have written. As I sat in my room and jotted away, I’d look at the door and wonder if they were waiting for their chance to stop me before I committed textual murder.
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I later took lessons online with the open university (paid for by the school which was nice. Almost fooled me into believing they did it for my sake). I studied on the basic unwritten rules of writing, or rather the rules of competent writing. Then it hit me that this might be the key to my destructive habits. I desired to be a great writer but had yet to understand what good writing is, let alone competent writing. So with a slightly more mature skull propped atop my gangly 14 year old frame, I readjusted my ambitions and put my words into a clearer perspective.

 

It might have gone well, this twist in the crossroads if not for those pesky no-good classics we all know are great without ever understanding why. The Hemmingways of this world. The Fitzgeralds, the Orwells, the Brontés, the Kafkas, the Huxleys, the Shelleys and Poe (you only get one of him) and so many more in past and present that trampled over me in their brilliance. I have read but a fraction of what I should, but as much as I might take from them, the thing I took first, which glares defiantly down at me, was the scale of my progress. These are the people who found the colours in their souls and painted the pages of their books for others to know them. They wrote of truth and heart, and I hold little ability to convey what they expressed and maybe even little ability to fully understand them myself. They taught me that if the pages are bones then ink is blood, and somewhere within as it flows, lies the nature of my soul and its connection to the world about me. How could I dare to dream of greatness, while I haemorrhage my conscious onto the page. Every word I write serves to remind me that what comes from within, is not as special, not as good, not as worthy and until it is and more, can I read it with any whisper of pride. So I lifted my bones and crinkled them up, smudging gore and all, into the bin once again.
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So my invisible writing career continued, silently yelling my words into the bin until I was mid way through university and I was required to write a dissertation. Non fiction, sure, but that might be fun all the same. I started early, earlier than most, to research and to put my points together until I had something coherent. I heard previous students had abandoned their dissertations to the Sheffield libraries, and I went in search of them, to improve upon my own. They sat gathering dust on the shelves, with their names hidden under the grey moss on the spines. A flick of a finger later and there they were. The names. Some of these texts were five years old. Ten years old. Forty. And here they remain, a testament to the mind of a student that wandered between these shelves once long ago. They might not be perfect but they were accurate. Accurate to who they were in that year that they wrote them (unless they spent all year getting hammered in which case it could be anybody. We really cannot know). I considered if I would destroy my dissertation upon its grading and completion. It would not sit among these if I did. An invisible writer takes up no space on a shelf. I had no accurate records of what I felt and thought the year before or the year before that, and for the briefest craziest moment, it tapped into one of my most haunting and enduring fears of not existing at all (I’m really fun at parties, can you tell?). My writing did not exist before this day. I had written a lot of course, but without the ink, that history did not exist, awful as I believe that history of ink is. So I completely forgot about reading these dissertations (which really helped me out later) and went home to write, to write badly, and then to let whatever ugly, mangled creature I had poured out to live.

 

It was difficult. More difficult still to edit, a skill I had somehow miraculously avoided (I lead a charmed life where Ponchos are cool, writers don’t edit and chocolate belongs in the fridge. In the fridge dammit). But I worked a bit more on it and it improved (crazy as that sounds). I had just come back from Japan and I had a very clear concept that I wanted to express, a feeling I shared amongst my peers and meant something quite dear to me. I wrote some more and it got bigger, until the pages swelled from breathing. I had begun other projects of great length and had destroyed them in their prime, but this one I would let live. Even for its own sake, this one would survive my judgement. Then I remembered I had dissertation to hand in and very quickly abandoned it in panic.
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A year or so after I graduated I started this blog as a means to practice and discipline myself. I would not erase these words, whether or not they succeed in making me laugh (although I hope on occasion they do you). With every post, I fight the urge to immediately delete it for not achieving what it should have. Destroying my work may well be the most cathartic, joyous experience I can imagine, where I reduce myself to the fresh page and all its dizzying potential. It’s all I can do to resist it, if I ever I want to be more than a competent writer. Maybe not a great writer, but I might settle for a good one.
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