David Mitchell , The Observer, Sunday 9 May 2010
David Mitchell, at The Guardian Hay Festival 2007. Photograph: Martin Godwin/guardian.co.uk
A life can get knocked into a new orbit by a car crash, a lottery win or just a bleary-eyed consultant giving bad news in a calm voice. I should confess now that my own life has not yet been redefined by the sort of once-in-a-lifetime experience which this column promises – sorry. The ordinary Game of Life stuff – childhood, love, parenthood – has delivered changes, of course, and sometimes far-reaching ones, but these involve people whose Sunday brunches I don't want to spoil by writing about them here. Sorry again.
Instead of a once-in-a-lifetime episode, then, what I offer is the early progression of an addiction. This addiction involves imagining places and people which don't exist, and endowing them with a sort of substance made of words and sentences. "Creative writing" is the rather-too-glam name often given to this compulsive personality disorder. In common with other addictions, it often feels less like a thing I do than the thing that I am.
When I was about 10, in 1979 or so, I went to Great Malvern Library to use a piece of alien technology known as the Xerox machine. It's near-impossible, in 2010, to reproduce (intended) the ubercoolness of the first photocopiers in an age when copying meant typewriters and purple carbon paper. The Xerox lived in a sunlit corner near the large-print novels, and it was one of these I pretended to look at while studying the Xerox instructions on the wall. No doubt the instructions invited puzzled users to ask at the desk for help, but in my case doing so was out of the question: being caught copying an intricate map of a fantasy archipelago of my own design would have meant death by mortification. I'd enjoyed chunks of The Lord of the Rings, but its Saurons, Sarumans and relentless cod chivalric register had given me indigestion. What grabbed me were the maps at the end of Volume III: the forests, drawn tree by tree, the lovingly striated mountains and all the places unvisited by Frodo et al – the Sea of Rhûn, the Blue Mountains, the Mouths of the River Anduin. I burnt to imitate these maps, so imitate I did, over hundreds of hours, with endless notes about the countries, peoples and wars. Why, when at last I had an overall map of my ripped-off Middle-earth, my 10-year-old self wanted to submit it to Xerox I can't be sure, but I suspect it was because photocopying my world was the closest I could get to publishing it, and giving it what I had imagined its own concrete reality. When nobody was watching I fed my (old, chunkier) 10p coin into the slot. Xerox awoke and awaited my order. My heart drumming with fear and guilt like Keith Moon at his most bonkers, I put my map on the glass and pressed COPY. God, it worked first time. The beam of light trundled under the big flap and a sheet of paper slid out into the side tray – and incredibly, nobody had appeared to arrest me. I folded the paper and walked casually to the Reference Room. Behind a screen of Encyclopaedia Britannica, I found my invented world had been transformed into something better: my blue Bic was a sober pen-and-brush grey, just like Tolkien's maps. Just maybe, I might one day write a real Middle-earth of my own. I put the map in my school bag, left the crime scene and met my unsuspecting mum at the car.