When my son was four years old he drew for hours of every day. We spent a week in a house in Cornwall that year and he drew a ream’s worth of pictures, which we posted home to save carrying them on the train. It calmed a sometimes fiery little person very well. He was fiercely committed to his drawings and requested certain types of pen and so on. We had already decided to home-educate him from the start and we were interested to see what this passion for drawing might become. It evolved. Once of the features of child-led home education is that things do evolve. A passion for one thing becomes a passion for another: Scooby Do to Egyptian mummies to fossils and so on and so on. And, along the way, skills are acquired. Out of his drawing, grew his writing and reading. I have been thinking about that process and what it taught me, as a person who loves to both read and write.
From the drawings, like most little children, he wanted speech and labels. He acquired a fairly full knowledge of phonics without systematic instruction. I can remember him working out a phonetic spelling of meteorite (meteorit, I think) to label a drawing of something plunging to earth – probably towards a dinosaur’s head. Speech bubbles sprang from the mouths of characters, in all directions. He would write from left to right or right to left, depending on the direction of the bubble from the mouth. He added lines of story. Bit by bit he developed writing skills. At the very same time, he was decoding text in his favourite books. Again, there was nothing systematic coming from us. He used phonics and whole word recognition together, as far as I could work out. He went very fast. By the time he was six he was reading long chapter books to himself. The Edge Chronicles were his particular favourites. And his drawing eased off a little as writing surged forward.
When he was, I think, around nine years old, he wrote a book of many thousands of words – using the computer. It was a pretty tangled tale of a boy who lived near Stanmer Park and encountered magic and dragons among the trees. It’s in a box in the loft somewhere. It was heavily influenced by the fantasy books he loved.
I could go on and on about what happened next on my child’s journey to becoming an ever-more literate and creative person and it wouldn’t all be about reading and writing. But I want to look at what that early part of the journey taught me.
I think the first, and most powerful, lesson was that drawing and writing came from the same urge to express his inner world. This world came to him in image and story. He was never set writing as a task. It burst out like his pictures. So the words he wrote were weird. They weren’t often the, mum, boy and so on. They were more often bracule (Dracula) or gost (ghost) and they ran along without punctuation in a wild mix of upper and lower case letters. We didn’t correct him. If he asked for spellings we gave them. Over time and years, many years, his spelling became orthodox and his skills in punctuation developed. But, at first, writing was his mind coming onto the page.
How many adults can pick up a pen or put their fingers on a keyboard and, without anxiety, pour out the images, the emotions, the stories in their head? It’s terrifying for most people. On creative writing courses you will encounter free writing – just writing without stopping. Out of free-writes come sequences of words, images, characters that can sometimes be the seed of a poem, story or novel. I’ve found voices there that I had no idea were inside. It’s just the start of the process of writing something you might call finished. But it’s a necessary start, for me at least. And, when I learned to do this, I realised it was the sort of free access that I saw in my child at the age of four. He would disappear from the room onto the page – silent, absorbed.
The second lesson I learned from watching this child was that reading and writing are two parts of the same thing. And that thing is linked to visual images. The images in my son’s drawing reflected a lot of the real world but probably more of the world he encountered in books, films, cartoons and graphic novels. He adored Phantom Cat – a cartoon cat who wielded a sword and came alive from a painting. He loved vintage Batman and I read him several books of reproduced strips. Particular illustrators were reflected in his drawing, in particular Chris Riddell. And then the words, the themes of the fiction he chose, started to come through into what he wrote.
I know that, for me, the periods of prolific writing in my life have coincided with periods of prolific reading. The space in my mind in which I imagine the worlds created by others (like the street in my current read, Jon McGregor’s, ‘If nobody speaks of remarkable things’) is part of the same space in which I create worlds. It is a light box in my head which opens up around me and lays itself over the real world. When I’m deeply in there, the world around me can disappear altogether. When I’m more tentatively connected, it will overlay the view from the bus window or the face of the person in the shop, like a filter. It is part of being alive for me. Without it, life is flatter and far, far less interesting.