Why I write, (or, Don't Tell Your Mother...)

 

Here's how it starts.

 

You're three and a half years old. Everyone seems to be asking you what you want to be when you grow up. Gainful employment seems a long way off, but hey. You're a Taurean. Even at this age you like to plan. The available options seem to be Zookeeper, Nurse, Train Driver or Astronaut, although you've long ago dismissed the last one outright on the grounds you get car sick. You're not a big fan of performing operations on your dolls; imaginary blood really makes you gag. So you tell your parents that you've thought about it, and what you're going to do is write books. You're not entirely sure why - you can't actually write. You can barely read, although you do know Alfie Gets In First off by heart, and you have recently risked life and limb to stack your toys against the bookshelf to reach what turned out to be Jaws by Peter Benchley. You don't yet know about cliches so you have no problem with 'risking life and limb' such linguistic guilt, destined to ripple into an exhausting pseudo-Modernist phase of 

rejecting anything so ugly, is a blissfully distant tsunami not due to hit the fragile shores of your writing self until around the age of seventeen. Anyway, there are bigger problems to confront. "That's not a job," your mother says, and immediately your little heart is crushed into something hard and black, with roughly the creative abilities of an amoeba. She doesn't say it to hurt you. She's just imagining a lifetime of poverty, professional rejection and possibly an opium habit. Your mother is a sensible woman, a teacher, who any day now is going to do wonders for your understanding of phonics and is therefore about to unwittingly boost your trembling ambitions still further, even as she thinks she's distracting you back on to the straight path, one leading towards 'The Law' perhaps, or something admirably vocational. But here, now, something else is happening. You are making rapid steps deep into a darker wood. Your father smiles. He retains a characteristically astute silence. He swaps Jaws, gently, for The Tiger Who Came to Tea. You know that look and it makes your soul sing. It means; Don't tell your Mother, but we'll see.

 



It is not a job, but you are going to require training and your father is just the man. Your father is a linguist in the Royal Air Force. Lessons are unconventional. He teaches you that Brezhnev said Niet and Jimmy Carter said Ahbulieve and abandons nursery rhymes in favour of counting in Cumbrian shepherd dialect. He has you memorize the many professions of one Percy Trezise, author of The Quinkins, an Aboriginal Dreamtime legend that quickly becomes your favourite book. It turns out to be a particularly informative challenge, if one that daunts you when you contemplate the myriad professions you didn't know writers might be called upon to master; Trezise was a pilot, an anthropologist, a painter, explorer, racing cyclist, air ambulanceman and a historian, which surprises you. Aren't writers meant to pursue isolated existences of Spartan frugalism, trapped in tall towers and sleeping on straw like highly literate Rumpelstiltzkins? You're a firstborn with a charming, ringleted, joyfully mischievous younger sister; you were quite looking forward to a life of poetic sacrifice and a good helping of martyrdom. Still. You take Trezise's CV seriously - years later it will be one of the reasons you make an ill-fated application to read history at university - and start to work on building a broader portfolio of skills. Isn't it conceivable that such a multi-talent might also have been a baker in his spare time? You already know how to make fairy cakes, so it would be quite convenient. 

 

And then time moves on, and the financial reality of obtaining a pilot's licence looks like becoming a real stumbling block, so you remember to get back to the point: you've made a decision that you want to be a writer. You want to be an expert in Making Things Up. And no, you don't want to be a politician, used car salesperson or banker. You need to practice writing. You write a twenty five page account of What You Did On Your Holidays for your first summer project, which will test your primary school teacher's enthusiasm for free creative expression to the limits. While you're still learning you sometimes forget to differentiate between real life and the lives you've invented, (actually, it's always going to remain something of an issue - in years to come a particularly bewildered OBGYN will be unsure how to respond to the lengthy worst case scenario you outline to him as he frantically tries to mute you under anaesthetic), so at six you're going to have many sleepless nights worrying about the old lady who lives in the house that backs on to the end of your garden, the one you can see from your bedroom window, the one where the curtains are never opened. She eats batwing sandwiches and maggot cake, which scares you only marginally less than the Ladybird Dracula that you buy, aged seven, on a school trip to Whitby.  You particularly fear that sharing a name with the tragic Lucy Westenra might make you prone to a similar fate - a fact which, once revealed, promptly causes the book to be banned from the bedtime story shortlist. At eight you write your first proper narrative, or at least something suggesting a nascent understanding of plot, character and resolution, and despite an horrendous deus ex machina in the form of a Cloudmobile and the arrival of Father Christmas, you win a Sindy doll in a competition in your local paper. Riches indeed. It's becoming a little addictive. And it's your father's fault. Each Christmas he gives you The Writers' and Artists' Yearbook, handed over at a quiet moment of the evening when the more frenzied unwrapping of presents has sent everyone into a consumerist stupor. Don't tell your Mother, he says. You do, every time, because nothing gets past mothers. But your father's lasting gift to you is something more internal, something that no-one can see or change. It's that endless, ever-renewing compulsion to tell stories. There's got to be a parallel universe out there in which you are an awesome poker player.

 

Somewhere along the line you begin to learn that words are more than just the things we use to communicate our needs. You discover the beauty in precision - that weeping is not the same as crying, that it matters very much if you say nice when what you mean is amazing, rapturous, or remarkable, and that you would never say 'looking back in retrospect' because, well, that would be ridiculous, frankly. You realise that it is possible for the hairs on the back of your neck to stir with the words Quinkin-haunted caves, to be properly afraid of the shadows in the valleys and gorges of velvety blackness. Your father shows you that books are foreign worlds and that it is not just the past where people do things differently. Through him you discover adjectives such as logorrheic and serendipitous, although as it turns out this recollection of them will be only the second time in which they are anything approaching usable. At secondary school you discover that by opting to take Latin you can miss one period of Physical Education each week and although it means you're never going to be in the hockey team with the popular girls, you will gain a new awareness of cadence, word order, rhythm, and the general musical properties of language - which is a fair, if expedient exchange. Thomas Grey's 'Elegy in a Country Churchyard' blows your fifteen year old mind one lunchtime under the poplar trees at the bottom of the school playing field. To the Lighthouse reassembles the shattered fragments, dusts them off - and blows them apart again as you embark on a painful campaign to be the Next Virginia Woolf. Writing becomes something of a longing, a recovery, a kind of mental gymnastic challenge at least in part set down by Coleridge's famous observation that poetry is the 'best words in the best order.' For a little while, The Remains of the Day will leave you aching for the lights on Weston Pier and the heart of the coolest boy in Sixth Form. And if writing hurts, then so much the better, you will congratulate yourself. If it wakes you up in the night to have you scrawl ideas, words, hieroglyphs in the dark, on the back of till receipts (and the wall, one time) then you can only be doing it properly. You learn that writing rivals jealousy in its ability to consume. It is more physically draining than a migraine. Not many other activities compel you to eat quite so much. You read that Raymond Carver, talking about the breakdown of his first marriage, felt that - for a time at least - 'writing had done him nothing but bring him grief.' You nod sagely, even though you have not yet experienced marriage. You're wedded to your words. For now at least.

 

Your three year old self cannot possibly have ever imagined that other side of the dream. The paralysing agonies of writer's block. The brooding, existential panic that sets in when - assuming Hemingway was right when he said that 'all you have to do is write one true sentence' - you suspect you don't really know anything at all and therefore are doomed to creative failure. As a child you were always one for offering a constant commentary of your every move, but these relentless internal narrations are something new - and they can be tiring. Suddenly there's an unwanted houseguest squatting in your own head, insisting on providing a voiceover for your life even as you're out shopping for toilet roll, like some sharp-eyed gold prospector hungry for 'material'. You go to the Zoo with Karen Blixen whispering in your ear. You hear Margaret Mitchell every time you walk down a particularly long staircase. Raymond Chandler shadows you about the underground corridors of one of the largest libraries in the world where you work for a time, lost amongst seven million books all clamouring for attention. There's a stuffed horse's head in one of the rooms there, a staircase that reaches the ceiling and then stops, a room in a tower full of 1930s literary erotica. Endless, silent tunnels of books hidden in rolling stacks, books in boxes, books in dusty cases, with lights that flicker and shudder out behind you as you slip in between the shelves. Chandler would appreciate that, you think. You come to realise that you'll always be on duty this way, always looking for a story. It's draining. It's exhilarating. You think back to what it felt like, at three, alight with the thought of this strange, almost mystical not-a-job, to want to write. You realise it was no more a choice than being born with hands, or having an overbite. And you can't correct it with expensive orthodontic work. You just have to go with it, fall into it, sink down into its folds and be lost. You feel like a shark who will die if it doesn't keep swimming. You swim on through the pages, breathless, watching the words flow out and over the edge of the paper, away into a place where they are not yours anymore and you have to trust that someone will find them and care for them the way you do. It's going to hurt. But then you realise you have, in fact, already realised that wanting to write is going to make you hurt. Somewhere around the time you tumbled off the baby walker whilst trying to reach Jaws. Still. You wouldn't change it. Break your skin and ink will flow from your veins. This is what you do. This is why you do it.