When you’re writing what you love, it’s the most fun you can have with your clothing still on, unless of course you write naked. —Don Roff
Why I Decided NEVER to Write Fiction Again
–Guest post by Mary Smith
After I got over my initial disappointment the email I received from Barb was not an invitation to join her on her travels in India, I felt flattered to be asked to contribute a guest post while she is away. I thought her suggested theme of ‘Vacation’ was just slightly rubbing in my non-invite to India, especially when gazing out at skies which have been grey for weeks.
Rather than remembering holidays in hot sunny countries, though, my thoughts kept going back to the year I decided I was NOT going to write the usual boring composition (which is what we called essays in the first years of secondary school until we reached about fourth year when suddenly they morphed into essays) on ‘What I Did in My Summer Holidays’. It wasn’t only that I felt this was a rather unimaginative topic set by my First Year English teacher but things had happened on my summer holiday which I was not prepared to disclose to him.
I’d spent a fortnight with my family in a small hotel in Fleetwood. My mum preferred it to brash Blackpool a few miles along the coast. There were some other families there with boys around the same ages as me and my sister so we had people to play with, especially in the evening the adults took hours to drink their after-dinner coffee. These boys introduced me to the wonders of Superman comics and we acted out or made up our own story lines. As I was a girl I had to be Lois Lane.
One morning I awoke to find blood on my pyjamas. My first, long-awaited period had finally arrived. When dad came to make sure my sister and I were getting ready for breakfast I told him the exciting news and he went to tell mum. She was not pleased I’d told my dad. “These things,” she said, “are kept between women.” Coming from the woman who, when she’d braced herself to tell me the facts of life, had insisted that menstruation was perfectly normal and natural and nothing to be ashamed of, this reaction surprised me. I began to realise there were a few mixed messages coming my way.
Despite the discomfort of being kitted out with a belt and a pad which felt as though it was the size of half a pillow I was pleased to have caught up with my friends who had all ‘started’ before me. Not the sort of thing to put on a postcard, nor in a composition.
Instead, I let my imagination run riot and wrote a really exciting story set in Rome (where I’d never been). I can’t remember the details now, but it was about robbers, a stolen diamond bracelet and a group of children who risked their lives to capture the thieves (in the catacombs) and recover the bracelet.
I was fairly pleased when I handed it in, thinking it must make for more exciting reading than the 25 or so other compositions. When our work was handed back I was mortified. Mine had been marked 9 out of 30 – the lowest mark I’d ever had in my life. I was good at compositions! Not only that, I was called out to the teacher’s desk and publicly humiliated for either being too stupid to understand his instructions to compose a factual report on my holiday or being deliberately insolent by ignoring his instructions.
“From which book did you copy that story?” he asked.
“I didn’t,” I replied, “I made it up.”
I may not have understood the term plagiarism at the age of just turned 12 but I certainly knew copying was a BAD thing. I slunk back to my desk fighting back tears. Maybe I should have written about being Lois Lane in Fleetwood and getting my first period – what would he have made of that I wondered.
I decided, as I was so useless at it, I would never try my hand at writing fiction again. It never occurred to me the accusation I’d copied it from a book meant it might have actually been quite good. That teacher set back my writing career for years!
Barb: Okay, not only do I love this but I have a question for you. We now know why you did NOT write. What turned you into a writer?
Mary: Probably bloody mindedness! Although I did not attempt to write fiction again for many years I always enjoyed writing – journal entries (from about the age of 14), press releases and newsletters at work. When I was working abroad I wrote about my first visits to Afghanistan when I took a bit of time out after my son was born. That never saw the light of day but because I so wanted to share my experiences I started writing articles which were published in The Guardian Weekly and The Herald. Having work accepted for publication did a lot to boost my confidence as a non-fiction writer and I worked on the book which became Drunk Chickens and Burnt Macaroni. Realising not everyone reads non-fiction I finally decided to try a novel.
About Mary Smith
Born on the island of Islay, Mary Smith moved to the mainland and grew up in South West Scotland. After school she had a miserable year in a bank – all numbers and other people’s money – then did a bit of travelling in France and Italy. A holiday to Pakistan changed her life completely and within a few months she was back in Karachi with a three-year contract (on a volunteer’s wage!) to establish a health education centre at the headquarters of the Pakistan National Leprosy Control Programme.
She signed on again after the first three years but this time to work in Afghanistan where she started a small project training village women (and later, women in the city of Mazar-i-Sharif) as health volunteers. Somewhere along the line she acquired a husband and they had a son, born in Quetta, Pakistan. Returning to Scotland, where there was little call for leprosy workers, Mary decided her gap year was at an end and went to university to study for a degree. She went on to do a Masters in creative writing at Glasgow University. She has worked as senior reporter on her local paper and as a feature writer for a lifestyle magazine.
Drunk Chickens and Burnt Macaroni: Real Stories of Afghan Women is an account of part of her time in Afghanistan. Her novel, No More Mulberries is also set in Afghanistan. She has a collection of poetry, Thousands Pass Here Every Day and last year, in collaboration with photographer Allan Devlin, she produced a picture-led local history, Dumfries Through Time. They have signed a contract for a another local history to be published in 2017 and Mary is working on transforming her blog, My Dad’s a Goldfish into a book.
One day, she WILL write a follow up to No More Mulberries.
Contact and buy links:
- Website: www.marysmith.co.uk
- Blogs: My Dad is a Goldfish; dealing with dementia and Cancer Diaries
- A few of Mary Smith’s books:
Fiction: No More Mulberries: a novel set in Afghanistan:
Poetry collection: Thousands Pass Here Every Day
Non-fiction: Drunk Chickens and Burnt Macaroni: Real Stories of Afghan Women