It’s my English Language O-Level exam. As always, I spend a few moments looking around at my fellow candidates while the papers are being handed out. There’s the girl with a ghostly-white face, sitting so far forward that she looks like she might slip off her seat. There’s the boy who is so relaxed that he ought to be on a recliner, and doesn’t seem remotely concerned – he either knows he can pass easily, or has already accepted a fail. There’s the blank-faced gazer. There’s the personification of calm readiness. There’s the shaker, hanging on to her bottle of water. Dry mouth, no doubt.
I could go on, but I now have my paper and am focused on spelling my own name, not quite trusting myself to be automatic today. I take extra care with my neat handwriting, which is different every time I write. Perhaps one day I’ll find my style.
I jumped straight to the second part – Creative Writing. Five options. One essay. My choice is a thematic prompt. I can write about ‘Red’, but couldn’t care less about ‘What happens to the man when he walks into the sweet shop’.
I write a sentence; short, unflowery, simple. I read the sentence back and it does the job. I try to think what comes next, and as I write manage to forget what I was saying and have to reread from the start, adjusting words along the way. I check the clock every five minutes; it helps me to know that there’s an end in sight.
Half a page so far – come on, Hannah, focus!
My brother is right across the other side of the room. David can be… ‘loquacious’. That’s an excellent word, and the sort of word he is perfectly comfortable using in his writing, which inclines towards ‘verbosity’. I don’t know half as many words as he does; he just absorbs them. I am concise; I wonder if I should try to make my writing more interesting?
I glance to my left, because I can’t help it, and I see something I don’t want to see. Ghostly-White raises her hand – more paper, please. She continues, writing furiously, turning out page after page. How long before there’s a stack of paper? The words flow out of her. Easy.
I put down my pen, stretch my hand, and rub my finger which is dented from gripping too hard. Three quarters of a page.
The strange thing is that I learnt to write longer ago than I can remember, and have always loved words and books and stories. Mum tells me I practically learnt to read through writing. Yet this is so hard. What is wrong with me? If I was a proper writer I would not be feeling this way.
It will take me a few years to realise that I’m wrong; completely wrong. It will slowly dawn on me, starting with the exam results. I will be delighted when I see my ‘A’; David will get an ‘A’ too. I will start to realise that there are many ways of doing things; as the saying goes, it takes all sorts.
But it will take me much longer to accept my writing style as it is, understanding that everyone has a different process and knowing that it’s okay. I will try on different voices for a while, willing myself to make them work, instead of embracing what I have. In a few years I will read the self-conscious attempts and laugh at myself: it didn’t work. I will then take a piece of paper, write a few short sentences, using simple words that I fully understand, and something will click into place.
I love to write, and, more importantly, I do write. It’s because I need to write that the joys and the agonies are so extreme. I may churn out fewer words than some people, and take more time doing so, but I’m still a writer. And that’s what matters.