This week, Writing Wicket is showcasing Tom Robson.
Tom says this about himself:
Eighty-two and still writing. And most of it makes sense. Not bad for an only child raised in World War Two.
Sixty years ago last week I started a teaching career in Jane Austen country in England. I learned nothing from this, even after just two years of training. The two years prior to that had given me more useful, never to be forgotten life experiences at sea.
My formal schooling had me writing as notetaker and regurgitator, in essays and exams, of what had been taught. Creativity was ignored in favour of facts, grammatical accuracy, correct spelling, and good penmanship. Writing was a chore. Reading was the escape. History was the adventure, and mysteries always had a solution.
The year before I got married, I lived and studied in Liverpool. Another unforgettable experience with the “living” outweighing the value of the study.
Not wishing to remain as a teacher where I had grown up, I quit teaching at thirty to work with delinquents removed from their homes for custodial reform. After five years in suburban Surrey, I was recruited to do the same work in Quebec. My wife welcomed the move. Our three children offered no opinion but loved the snow of the 1971-2 winter.
In much of these ten years, I was involved in writing and editing detailed reports, assessments, and recommendations on the needs of the non-conforming clientele. The ladies of the typing pool were editors par excellence. I did a lot of specialist writing where some histories were more incredible than fiction.
As I burnt out at work, my marriage disintegrated and I returned to the classroom and a second forty-plus-year marriage. Somewhere in those years I completed another three years of study. The degrees that the British system, at eleven-plus, said I might get and at sixteen determined I was not competent to achieve, was wrong—again.
I thrived as a student and teacher when we moved to Nova Scotia in 1979. Children were encouraged to express themselves—even in writing. Ideas were welcome, and the errors and omissions could be fixed later. Even the teacher enjoyed writing, and I began to do so for the sheer satisfaction, at age forty-five.
My wife tolerated this foible. My new daughter loved her father’s stories. My grade six’s (well, the girls anyway) enjoyed and learned the story-writing process and performed in plays I’d written. They weren’t as proud as me when I won the WFNS award for writing for children for a novel. Motivation—a class of demanding pre-teen girls expecting the next chapter read to them each Monday. I kept pace for ten Mondays and my ego followed their demand that I submit “Am I Dreaming” for competition and publication.
After my grade six teaching days and into retirement, I continued to write and to run early-writer workshops. My own writing was for my enjoyment until I joined the Evergreen Writers Group. I had a receptive audience that wasn’t my wife. They pooled their ideas and skills on publication. My writing could “go” somewhere. Short stories fitted into two anthologies we published. I collected autobiographical and family tales into a patchwork memoir titled Written While I Still Remember, some thirty stories and poems long.
And then my ego rose above itself. How many writers believe that somewhere inside their creative souls is a novel waiting to be written? I reached my eightieth year, convinced that my novel had to be written now, before time betrayed it. My reading tastes indicated I favoured history or mystery. My character has no tolerance for the amount of research a book in either genre demands.
Then my inflated ego heard someone say that a short story I shared could be the first chapter of a romantic novel. And so it became, but the plot was reaching for infinity and had to be curtailed. The ego believed there was a compensatory sequel. This writer knows he should have reached for a better, more conclusive ending because the sequel is a struggle at eighty-two.
Q: What’s the most you’ve ever edited out of a book?
A: Before I had a chance to submit my prizewinning teen novel, Am I Dreaming, to publishers, it needed a rewrite. The fickleness of my target audience had turned the adored, real-life pop singer into one of the most despised has-beens in a matter of months. Rewrite one had to create a generic boy-band to replace the actual original and provide a new, anonymous romantic target.
Rewrite two had to change the venue of the concert to which the heroine had won tickets (plus a hotel stay) from the Montreal Forum after it closed. I had to do quick research and relocate much of the action to the Bell Centre. Rewrite three never happened. The cellular phone radically altered teenage and other telephone communication, even before texting, etc. Reading the twice-revised novel from 1990 dates it even after the 1995 revisions.
Q: What motivates you (either in writing or otherwise)?
A: I could make up reasons why I write. Somehow it is connected to the extreme shyness and chronic embarrassment, plus the difficulty with stringing two oral sentences together, as a young teen. For me, it’s no oversimplification when I say I write because I enjoy it. Specifically, I love using words and stringing long, convoluted sentences together and making them work.
Q: Are you ever upset when you’ve finished a story, that your characters have said all they’re going to say?
A: I’m still upset that I got tired of Wait and See and did not develop the story lines, relationships, and characters more.
Now and then I feel I’d like to write another short story featuring some character I created. Too many of my pieces are about real people or family. I reminisce too much and don’t invent people to populate my stories and create fiction.
Q: Have you read anything that made you think differently about fiction?
A: I am too aware of my limitations as a writer to believe I could ever write like someone whose work I’ve read and admired. Having said that, I believe I have a writer’s voice which is distinctive and was acquired through reading osmosis. There are writers of history and mystery I envy. I admire those who had to write in quill or even fountain pen and ink. Knowledge of these tools retires with my generation. Computers simplify the writing process so the focus is on the words and ideas, not the mechanics of ‘scribbling.’
I felt cheated today upon hearing that a famous, past author had the privilege of dictating his words in the days before this was the norm, the days when a writer wrote. Not fair!
Being aware of the toils and tribulations of pre-typewriter novelists compared with the expensive team approach of researchers and editors and advisers and gofers and problem solvers and sub-editors employed by generic best sellers, I want to redefine writing but wouldn’t know where to start.
Q: What are the ethics of writing about historical figures?
A: Historical figures that feature in fact or fiction need a full accounting of their actions, attitudes, and behaviours. Such is seldom available, the truth being distorted by gossip, inadequate recording, political or class bias, envy, and blatant lies designed to discredit. Having said this, the task is nigh impossible.
All a writer can do is tell both sides of a historical figure’s story and not use inflammatory terminology. What is essential is that actions, especially those being condemned, are told in the light of conditions and beliefs of the age.
Q: As a writer, what would you choose as your mascot/avatar/spirit animal?
A: Don’t know what an avatar is or a spirit animal. My knowledge base is not expanding. Mascots bring you luck and/or good fortune. At my age? I’ll go with the Liver bird. May I live long enough and write well enough to see it flap its wings.
Q: Do you ever have trouble coming up with a title for your books?
A: I change titles often during or after writing or editing but finding one that suits me and the story is seldom a problem. I have fun with chapter headings (see Wait and See).
Q: Do you read your book reviews? How do you deal with bad or good ones?
A: I write for me and I give good, if biased, reviews. Most reviewers haven’t a clue what went on between the book and the writer’s life.
Q: Do you hide any secrets in your books that only a few people will find?
A: Occasionally, I give a name to an obnoxious character of someone who “did me wrong.” Exaggeration of happenings and my role in them will remain a secret.
Q: What was the hardest scene you’ve ever written?
A: I imagined my mother’s day of moving from the house my father had set up for her before he died. I had long avoided this emotional story that begged to be told because her only “child”—me—had abandoned her while she was still mourning. At 59, without a husband, and her son and grandchildren moving to Canada, she moved to be near her sisters. I imagined that final farewell to the house, its memories, and ghosts in “Kitchen Window Memories.” I can’t re-read it without crying.
Q: Have you set goals?
A: Hoping for more time and more inspiration for stories, essays, or poems.
Q: Does a big ego help or hurt writers?
A: I think that everything I write is worth someone, other than me, reading it. This egotistical belief covers an insecurity that has struggled to find consistent success in life. I feel I am a successful writer because I have written and shared and been applauded. I am also more successful elsewhere than my insecure personage allows. I believe my exploration by writing has boosted my ego and made me more content.
Q: Do you Google yourself?
A: I haven’t done that for about ten years. I may do it when I’ve finished this.
Q: When you were growing up, did you ever expect to be a writer?
A: How my generation ever produced writers, given the prevailing education system of chalk, talk, learn, and regurgitate, is a mystery. I loved reading stories. There was no connection in my mind between these creations and me trying to do the same. First class Monday morning, age eleven: “In one hour, write a story on one of the six topics on the blackboard.” Not always said, but generally implied, were the words: “Remember good grammar, correct spelling, and neatness are important.” Further intimidation came later in the week when red-illuminated essays, blessed with an arbitrary grade, would be returned to you. There was seldom praise for ideas or content. I never had any because I was so obsessed with making my Godawful penmanship legible and fearful of misspellings.
Q: What one thing would you give up to become a better writer?
A: I am the writer that I am at an age where change is resisted and bad habits ingrained. What would I give up for miracles to occur? Can’t play that game if you don’t believe in miracles.
Q: Have you ever cried with one of your characters?
A: I’ve been angry and frustrated at the actions of a character I’ve created. Only what’s happened to real people that I’ve told tales about has brought tears to my eyes on occasions.
Q: If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?
A: “Have you ever thought of how much enjoyment this person had in writing the story or book you’ve just devoured? Why don’t you use that imagination and try it?” Nobody ever connected the process to the product for me.
Q: Is there a genre you wish you could write that you can’t?
A: I am an impatient writer who is too lazy to undertake research. Thus, although I enjoy historical fiction, which takes me happily off at all sorts of factual tangents, I could never write it. I envy Ken Follett, Edward Rutherfurd, Margaret MacMillan, and Simon Winchester but would need to borrow one of their production teams to write in this genre.
Same applies to mysteries. Detailed and accurate research is essential, but beyond me. Pity!
Q: How long on average does it take you to write a book?
A: The thirty pieces in my patchwork memoir, Written While I Still Remember, were written over more than thirty years. Assembling, rewriting, editing, and revisions occupied another year. My teen novel, before the revisions and rewrites, took about seven months. Starting an adult novel in your eightieth year encourages speedwriting, which produces a hurried text that needed time to marinate, develop, and conclude. This too-short novel took only a year. I had time to nurture it longer, but I quit on it.
Q: What books have you self-published?
A: This is a literary secret that needs revealing. In the spring of 1956, the first lieutenant of H.M.S. Concord of the Queens Far East Fleet ordered me to assemble and produce a book detailing the activities, exploits, and journeys of the destroyer Concord and its crew, for the current, eighteen-month commission.
With a lot of help, especially from the Hong Kong Chinese publishers, some four hundred copies appeared before we went our separate ways in June. If you think my sentence structure, spelling, and editing skills are weak now, you should have seen me as a nineteen-year-old editor and compiler. Somehow the 53,000 mile voyage ranging between Fremantle and Yokohama, with myriad stops and situations along the way, was recorded. I have a closely guarded copy, now in its sixty-second year.
Also, check out these books:
Out of the Mist, a publication of the Evergreen Writers Group, has three of my pieces in it. (Published by Stone Cellar Publications, 2014)
Off Highway, the second collection of works by the Evergreen Writers Group, has two stories and a poem of mine on its pages. (Stone Cellar Publications, 2017)
Written While I Still Remember: A Patchwork Memoir. (MacKenzie Publishing, 2014)
Wait and See. A story of a romance and its effects on those related. (MacKenzie Publishing, 2017)
Visit Tom’s blog, Robson’s Writings.
C.A. MacKenzie is the author of WOLVES DON’T KNOCK, a psychological drama with elements of thriller, suspense, mystery, romance, and family dynamics. Buy it on Amazon. Also available locally from the author and at other local retailers.