Through Brno: On dreams of writing, inspiration, and bad influences
Hi, it’s Lee here. I normally do the movie reviews, but with the Brno Short Story Writing Contest coming up, Bruno has let me use his column this month to talk about something writing related. So, I would like to tell you the story of how I came to Brno and ended up losing a little part of me, and how it helped rekindle a childhood passion for writing.
Everyone knows the saying, “Write what you know”. I started writing pretty much from the moment I knew how to hold a pen, and what I knew at that age was castles.
My preference was always lonely, windswept castles with crumbling parapets, spiral staircases that were only half there, deep dark dungeons, and even deeper wells. Wells so deep that when you dropped a pebble into them, you never heard it hit the bottom. Words like Barbican, Rampart, Crenellation, Motte and Bailey fired my imagination. I liked peering down through Murder Holes and picturing pouring boiling oil on invaders; peering down Privy Holes and imagining what it was like going to the loo with your butt sticking out of a castle wall sixty feet above a rocky moat.
I never cared about the history or who lived there or what battles the castle was involved in. All I cared about was the look and the atmosphere, and the act of Castle Hunting. By the latter I mean when you’re edging down a country lane somewhere, half-lost, looking for a forgotten pile of old rocks, and you’re about to give up when…there! Above the tree line or hedgerow you catch a glimpse of a curtain wall or turret, solemn with the weight of centuries.
Sometimes we’d drive a hundred miles to look at three slabs in the middle of a field, two stones propping up a third. I still preferred that to stately homes, though. Nothing bummed me out more than heading out to see a “Castle” and finding a big house with a bunch of old furniture behind a velvet rope, and not being allowed to run around.
Even stately homes had their benefits. Sometimes they’d have a hedge maze, and usually they’d have peacocks. I loved driving down a long gravel path towards a castle and hearing that forlorn cry of a peacock in the distance. Sometimes you’d get a combination of the two; it’s a strange dilemma when you’re going through a hedge maze and suddenly come face to face with a peacock blocking your path. What do you do – go back, or try squeezing past, hoping doesn’t rip your arm off?
So Castles were my first inspiration, and when I learnt how to write I filled notebook after notebook with stories about them. Writing was always what I wanted to do, and my life was mapped out from an early age – I would grow up, go to university, get a degree, and write books for a living. Simple.
Things didn’t quite work out that way. When it is was time to go to university, I chickened out. I was a shy kid, and I simply didn’t have the guts to leave my family behind and pursue my dream. So instead of getting my degree and becoming a famous writer as planned, I stayed home in Ipswich, worked a variety of menial jobs – postman, baker, pool cleaner, garage attendant, greengrocer, etc, etc – and became a frustrated writer instead.
I developed an odd attitude to the whole thing. I wanted to write a book, a big book, an important book, a book that would change the way people thought about the world. The problem was I never figured out what the book would be about, and didn’t really have anything to say. So that project was a non-starter, a whole bunch of navel-gazing chapters that amounted to a total sum of nothing. I was both naïve and arrogant. I posted stuff online and expected the whole internet to go crazy for it, and got angry when it didn’t. I was in a weird head space, and I saw being humble and submitting work for publication as a form of grovelling. I expected people to discover my work out of nowhere then approach me with offers of jobs or money!
The booze didn’t help. Nor did Prague, or Hunter S Thompson.
I rolled into Prague on an overnight bus one bright summer morning in 2001. A friend had suggested that since I wasn’t doing much with my life, why didn’t I become an English teacher? And since I wasn’t doing much with my life, I said “Why not?” and signed up on a TEFL course.
Prague was a revelation for a young guy who’d spent his whole life hanging onto his mum’s apron strings. Back then Prague seemed like a town where anything could happen. I’d also just started reading Hunter S Thompson, and thought Gonzo journalism was for me. I interpreted his ethos as: go somewhere different, get wasted, behave antisocially, get into bizarre adventures, then write something awesome about it. I succeeded on all counts apart from the last one. I enthusiastically aped Thompson’s style, without realising that when you start writing like someone else it becomes very difficult to write like yourself again. I didn’t understand that it took a special talent to live that lifestyle and actually produce something worth reading. So once again, I didn’t actually write anything.
So from 2001 to 2011, I barely wrote a thing. The teaching failed and I went back to Ipswich. I stumbled into a job selling PCs at a computer superstore, and was bloody good at it. I got a girlfriend and we had lots of fun, and went on holiday whenever we could – usually to Prague. The hope of writing was a thing of the past. I hadn’t given up exactly, I’d just resigned myself to the fact that after all my early passion and promise, I never really got started.
By sheer serendipity my salesman role brought me back to the Czech Republic, although to Brno this time. My company had relocated their back office out here, and one day I called up and said: “Got any jobs?”. They said yes, so I went home and said to my girlfriend, “Fancy moving to Brno?”. She said yes, so we quit our jobs, sold everything we owned, gave away everything we couldn’t sell, and shipped out to Brno. We’d never been to Brno before, and arrived with one backpack each and just enough money to last three months if my girlfriend couldn’t find a job. Eight years later, we’re still here.
Then one autumn morning in 2011, I was getting ready for work and discovered a lump on my right testicle about the size of a pea.
I was straight down the doctors, and to begin with he treated it as an infection. After three weeks it was about the size of a kiwi (the fruit), and the doctor finally admitted defeat and referred me to another guy. Sure enough, it was what we’d feared – a malignant tumour.
They didn’t hang about, and had the whole thing removed quick-sharp. Further tests revealed that the cancer hadn’t spread any further, but to be on the safe side they rinsed me out with a couple of cycles of chemotherapy.
For many people the word chemotherapy is almost as scary as the word cancer, but it wasn’t that bad. One cycle was sitting in a hospital bed for six hours, five days a week, while the nurses poured several bags of chemicals into me via IV. The worst thing about it was with so much fluid going into my body, I had to shuffle off to the bathroom every ten minutes, still hooked up to the drip. Every time I moved the alarm went off. On the plus side, they gave me Diazepam each night before bed, so I enjoyed a nice little buzz before I went to sleep.
I decided to make positive use of my time in hospital and recovering at home. I’d studied film at college years before, so started my own movie blog. I also started writing a children’s book, and some short stories. It took me ages to get back into it – I hadn’t written for so long and it was a real effort at first. It was about a year before I was halfway pleased with anything I wrote. Part of the problem was that I was still trying to write like the angry young man of a decade before, and I simply wasn’t that person any more. Plus my ambitions had changed – I no longer wanted to write a ground-breaking novel to change the world. I just wanted to write something that might make someone happy.
Six years later I’m still clear of cancer, and I write movie reviews for the Brno Expat Centre and a few other places. I’ve got a beautiful two year old daughter and there’s a little boy on the way. I’m pushing forty and I haven’t achieved what the younger, angrier, more ambitious me had desperately hoped for. But I’ve got a couple of things over that person – I’m happy, and I’m actually writing!
If you’re a writer or aspiring writer, how does this compare to your own experiences? What inspires you, and have you encountered any bad influences?
Don’t forget there’s still time to enter our writing contest – the closing date is 30th April. Get stuck in – it could be the start of something big!