by Jim Belshaw
Back in Armidale on a visit, I went down to the Newie (Armidale’s New England Hotel) for a Friday night drink with Uncle Ron and some of his country mates. The stories flowed, some of them very entertaining indeed.
“Why don’t you write them down," I said.
Everybody suddenly got very self-conscious.
“We’re not writers”, they said.
This is a not unusual reaction. The problem, I think, is that we have mystified writers and writing, turning it from a simple process into a capitalised art form. This is compounded by school experiences that have taught us not that we should write but that we must write in a particular way, that focus on the mistakes we make in writing.
I am not being critical when I say this, nor am I downplaying the importance of grammar and spelling. Schools need to teach people to read and write effectively, to communicate in a variety of ways. However, I am concerned when school experiences create a barrier that stops people doing things. The reality is, as our politicians would say, that most people write and are therefore writers. In fact, with the internet, I think that there is more writing (and writers) now than at any previous time in human history.
To illustrate. There has been a proliferation of special interest groups across the internet. On Facebook, for example, the Armidale Families Past and Present group has 2,246 members. Not everybody contributes, but hundreds do, exchanging reminiscences and information in threads that can run for pages. Some members of the group had to leave school at twelve, others rebelled at formal schooling. In this friendly, supportive atmosphere, nobody critiques spelling or grammar. What is important is what is said, not how it is said.
We also live in the age of the family historian as more and more seek to discover details of their past. Many are older, seeking to preserve family details for their own interest and in the hope that what they discover will be of interest to younger generations when they choose to become interested. All these people write and are, by definition, writers.
At this point I need to plead a special interest. As a regional historian, all these things are gold to me. They stimulate me, they tell me about the past and provide the evidence I need for my own writing. I don’t think people realise just how important their own stories are. I also think they don’t fully understand just how good some of their writing is. A turn of phrase, an interesting anecdote, grabs my attention and cause me to chortle with laughter. This can be dangerous in the evening if I have just taken a sip of wine! So I wish to encourage all writers and writing regardless.
I am sometimes asked how people might improve their writing. I have one simple suggestion. Keep a pen and notepad. This needs to be small enough to fit in you bag or pocket. Date each page and jot down things that are important to you from shopping lists to turns of phrase to random thoughts. The audience is yourself. You will be surprised as you look back at how much you remember, at the increasing value of those notebooks.