An Attempt At Destroying My Creative Writing
by John Diamond, M.D.
My writing creativity was destroyed when I was eleven years old. My father had enrolled me at the same small grammar school where he had been a pupil, and where he became a “dux,” which is a top honors student. The headmaster and teacher was the same man who had taught my father, but who was now, of course, quite elderly. He was highly respected for the outstanding academic achievement of his students. Every year, from his small school, more achievement of his students, and more scholarships to the major secondary schools were obtained than from any of the larger primary schools. He was an amazing man. He conducted three classes simultaneously. Each class had twenty students, and we were in three blocks of desks in one long room. He was able to teach each class in rotation. It was quite an extraordinary performance.
But he was also a very cruel man. He always wore a tightly-buttoned waistcoat and was a very short man with a very determined walk. What I remember about his facial features now is the same as impressed me then, and that was the prominence of his lower canine teeth.
Every morning we waited outside the school for him to arrive. We would watch him as he walked across the park and with his pocket knife cut off a series of branches from a palm tree to be used as his punishment sticks for the day. Regularly after morning assembly and at the morning break, and usually after lunch and any other time that he felt it was required, punishment would be inflicted. This was usually what he called “six cuts”—three to each hand. The boys would stand before him with their arms outstretched and their palms out. He was shorter than most of the senior boys, and he would jump to get extra height so he would be able to bear down forcefully with the stick as he would “cut” them. This punishment spectacle became a regular part of our school experience. Some of us, like me, were extremely frightened of it. Others seemed to take it as a test of manhood and seemed almost to encourage him in his attempts to “cut” them. He ruled by fear, never by love; and taught by fear, never by love.
For some reason he always seemed to be worse on Fridays. One Friday a number of the boys purchased some glass tubing from the local pharmacy and were using it as pea-shooters. This really incensed him, and after the lunch break he lined up all the offenders in front of the class at the large flat oak table in the middle of the room, and put all the glass tubing on the table and proceeded to smash it into slivers using one of the sticks. And he then proceeded to give each of the students “six cuts” with that stick. And this time they were literally cuts because pieces of glass were embedded in the stick. They all had bleeding cuts on their hands and obviously were in great pain. They spent the remainder of the afternoon with their handkerchiefs wrapped around their hands and were unable to write.
The following Monday we were assigned to write an essay composition describing a view. This was to be written at home and brought in on Thursday for correction by him on Thursday night. The results would be announced on Friday. I remember extremely well my composing that piece, and in fact I can clearly see myself sitting at my little study desk writing it, and I can very clearly re-create exactly the feeling that I had at that time. It was a feeling that I had never had before in my life.
We had been assigned to write a composition on a country scene. And when I wrote it, I was in that country scene. I could hear everything around me, smell it, and see it all so vividly. It was all real. I was totally one with what I was writing. Before I knew what I had done, I had written three pages. It seemed to flow straight from my fountain pen. The experience was new and very, very exciting. I can still bring up the scene, which was an imaginary scene, in my mind today as I saw it in my mind then. I knew I had done something wonderful and exciting, and I was awed by the experience. I was also very proud of it, and I read it out to my family, a rare event for me. They all complimented me on it (which of course they would have done regardless of its quality) and I knew that something very special had happened to me.
On Friday after lunch, usually the headmaster’s worst time, he returned all the corrected essays and announced the marks—all except mine. I thought that he was holding mine back until last because, like me, he was so pleased with it. And at the end, when he had announced all the other fifty-nine results and passed comment on each of them, he called me up to the front of the class. I thought that he was going to shake my hand or reward me in some way. Instead he turned on me and grabbed me and shouted out, “Where have you stolen this from?” I could not believe what I was hearing, and I mumbled that I hadn’t stolen it, I had composed it myself. He said, “It’s too good for you. You have stolen it from some book. Which book is it?” I could not believe what was happening. I was totally surprised. Instead of receiving congratulations I was being attacked. This was not what I had expected; this was not what I deserved. I could not believe it. The man that I trusted was accusing me of something completely untrue.
He then pushed me forcefully into a chair (and he was smaller than I) which he had pulled up at the oak desk. He put a piece of paper down in front of me at the same place where at the same time the week before he had laid all the glass tubing when he smashed them to pieces. He said to me in a very sarcastic, mocking tone of voice that if it was really my own work, then I should be able to reproduce it all from memory.
So in front of fifty-nine students, at his punishment desk, with him standing beside me and forcefully rapping his cane on the table just inches from me, I had to re-create on demand. I did the best I could. He pulled it from me and compared it with the original, and he was then convinced that I had indeed written it, as they tallied. He rolled up the second version and threw it into the corner. In a large scrawl he wrote “95%” over my essay. He spat out, “Nobody’s perfect, and no one is getting 100% from me!” And then he said, “You say in the description that you can hear the bees buzzing, but from your viewpoint you are obviously too far away to hear them. Therefore I am not going to give you 100%.”
That was the last time I ever wrote freely and creatively. The transcendent experience was gone, destroyed by this envious school teacher. I tried to retaliate in my own way, but it was a complete failure. For the next composition we were assigned, I chose as the central character a vicious, destructive, punishing German whom I called “Kerr Von.” It was a play on German brutality, (this was just after the war) and also a play on “cur”—because I was impressed with his doglike teeth. But it failed. He was not hurt, and he probably did not even understand what I had written. Nor did it overcome my feelings of having been destroyed. My writing creativity was extinguished then and there. That is the devilish power of envy.
All during secondary school, as previously, I loved literature, but I never again tried to write. The feeling that could have transformed my whole life was gone. Through all my years in medical training, that sort of feeling was never encouraged, as the writing that we did was what is called “scientific” writing. There was no feeling of passion of the evoking of emotion, or of being at one with what you were writing about. It was cold and detached, like the organs of a post-mortem subject being weighed on the scales in the autopsy room. It was not possible to have that transcendent feeling again.
After I graduated, whenever I wrote I was unable to re-create this feeling. But it was not called for, as my scientific papers had to follow a predetermined format. I was continually told by editors and committees that I could not write. But just like with my school teacher there was something else involved. For example, I presented a paper at a meeting of our College of Psychiatrists on a completely new way as looking at patients’ communication. The key note speaker was a world-renowned professor of psychiatry from the United States. He commented most enthusiastically on the originality and merit of my paper, which received a very warm reception and standing ovation when it was delivered. I then had the task of sitting down and re-writing it in a “scientific” way so that it would be accepted by the editor of the journal of the college. But the paper was rejected on the grounds that it was “dangerously speculative.” One member of the journal’s review committee thanked me for how much he had learned by reading the paper and then said he regretted that it could not be published. The work was original, it was creative, and it was probably valid, at least it has remained so on repeated testing for the last twenty years. Yet my own college rejected it, or rather the editor of the college journal did. Another headmaster?
At that time I discussed the problem with a very wise old psychiatrist who had written a number of books. He advised, “You should do like me. Don’t be concerned about your professional colleagues, because they don’t want to know the truth. And they don’t want you to write with feeling. Write for the layman. They are the people who matter. They are the people who will change the doctor when the doctor will not change by himself. And when you write for the layman you can forget about the narrow confines of peer review and write from the heart, write what you believe.” And that is what I try to do now. Whenever I write now I try to re-create that feeling I had when I wrote the description of that scene when I was eleven years old. I try to be as creative as I can. Sometimes it is successful. Many times it is not. But at least I know that what I am writing is my true feeling. I am writing from the heart, writing with what I believe is passion.
We were always told how wonderful it was that the Lancet published Krebs’ revolutionary paper on the citric acid cycle after it had been turned down by the British Medical Journal. But how many thousands of other creative papers have been turned down, denied the readership they deserved, because of the envy in the judgment of one’s so-called peers? It is envy that destroys creativity, as that headmaster destroyed mine for so many years.
What I write now may not stand the test of time. You may not like it. But it is written from the heart. When one writes from the heart there should be passion in what one writes; a deep concern. And this frightens an editor. Passionate concern does not survive in the stainless steel and white tile of a hospital of a post-mortem room or in the sterility of most editorial offices. I would like to think that I have finally overcome the near-fatal attack on my expressive creativity inflicted by the schoolmaster. I suppose time will tell.
What can we learn from this? What basically matters is that what is written is creative. Then see if it meets the criteria of what we call “right” or “wrong” or fact or fiction. My evocation of that country scene was creative. Whether I could hear the bees was not the point. If there is true creativity, unstressed dual-hemisphere activity, then the writer and perhaps the reader will gain by it. Collections of facts are of course important, but we must also nurture that creative leap beyond the “norm”—and thus perhaps encourage a major breakthrough in the understanding of the human condition and its treatment.
I am here reminded of a manuscript of mine which was recently rejected by a publisher. The final criticism was that I had quoted Meister Eckhart when I should have realized that Meister Eckhart was merely paraphrasing St. John and thus I should have quoted St. John. I am reminded, too, of the time some years after the grammar school incident when I wrote at secondary school that Abraham Lincoln was a very humane being. The work was returned with the “e” deleted.