In my next to last year of high school I had become interested in history. Much of that interest was due to a recently arrived teacher. Mr. Knowles with his MA from Oxford was totally overqualified to instruct the likes of us – inmates of an all-boys boarding school, with too much testosterone and too little guile.
Many had opted for ‘History’ because it was a filler, a bird course. It did not take more than a couple of sessions for Mr. Knowles to surmise, based on the quality of assignments submitted to that point, that most of the class were lazy, amnesiac, illiterate, inarticulate, mentally impoverished, or all of the above. He decided to abandon the curriculum and embark on a weeding- out process. Future assignments were going to scare the bejesus out of the dunderheads; he would require them write in the King’s English and be original! This he knew would send many scurrying to transfer to other optional courses – there was still time to do so – and he was not a bit concerned that the cull might leave him with only three of four students. In our school system, a few teachers had no-cut contracts. They would be paid for an entire term even if no students were enrolled or attended their classes. Mr. Knowles was the latest addition to this elite group.
When we assembled for the next class Mr. Knowles was affability itself. He told us the next assignment would provide us with insight into what history was and how it has affected the human condition up to the present time. Eyes were already rolling before he announced the topic. He asked us to pick any period in history and write a short story in the first person of an event in that period. The story would have to contain enough facts to establish where and when the action took place.
“You will need to do research, naturally, but you can spend the rest of this class thinking about who you are, where you are, and either what you are doing or what is happening to you. I want no less than three pages, double spaced, and I would like them in a week’s time. Thank you.”
For someone who had never been able to remember important dates or who fought in the War of Jenkins’ Ear and why, this was like being liberated. At the time I was stage-managing a school production of Julius Caesar which inspired me to delve into the history of the time (and as a byproduct discover the liberties Shakespeare had been taking.) I emerged from the process writing as a lowly artisan watching a triumphal entry into Rome by Caesar. I turned in my essay the following week, as did the other three remaining students.
Mr. Knowles was pleased with our submissions. Mine was the earliest setting and not the most original – my good friend Kevin assumed the role of a detective interviewing Mata Hari. We shared our stories and critiqued them. Mr. Knowles when reviewing mine commented positively on my description of the lictors who accompanied magistrates and consuls. As a sign of their office each carried a bundle of sticks bound together and topped with an axe head. It was the sort of detail he approved of. These symbols were known as fasces. Mr. Knowles, with a twinkle in his eye, asked me.
“Marchand, I would like to know if your character was disgruntled with authority when you describe the lictors carrying fasces but you spelled it as faeces?”
So began my writing career and my proofreading has not improved much since. Mr. Knowles did suggest I should pursue writing, even though mine was, in places, ponderous. I think he was being kind and not saying that it was in places not ponderous. He said it was possible to be wordy and still have a light touch. He suggested that, though it might not be my genre, I should read P.G Wodehouse to ‘lighten up’. But I’m still fighting ponderousness, as you can all attest.
I did well in History but did not take his advice on writing. It didn’t come to me easily – it still doesn’t – and keeping up in school and in work thereafter, left little time for the luxury of pounding keys for the love of it. I did write, of course, proposals, manuals, technical trade articles, not the stuff any person with a soul would wish to read voluntarily.
Yet deep down there must have been an itch that needed scratching; thirty years after my Roman artisan’s account on the Via Sacra, I enrolled in a Creative Writing course at Humber College. To paraphrase the great jazz pianist Eubie Blake, who at the age of ninety two, declared, “If I had known I was going to live this long, I would have taken better care of myself.” In my case if I knew I wanted to write, why did I wait so long to see if I could?
My goal as a writer is to obtain objective assessment that my writing compares favourably with that of writers that most appeal to me. Using that criterion I know I have some way to go. The title of this piece should probably be in the present tense – How I Aspire to Become a Writer. But then I would not have written anything here because I have no idea.
by Hugh Marchand