What makes a person write? Is it a hobby, free and easy? Some people say they write when they’re sad. Is it an obsession? An addiction? A species of masochism?
Well, I have various reasons – perhaps excuses – for a) writing and b) being a writer. I don’t know if they’re identical; all I know is that I wanted to be a writer since I have considered ‘doing’ anything in my life.
I was ten or so. (Everything important in my life happened ‘when I was ten…’ and don’t ask me what that’s all about – that’s something for a psychoanalyst to pass some fun time on.) Yes. I was ten or so, and a pretty good classical guitarist (really! I kid you not.) So there we were, me, mum and dad, driving home from a guitar lesson, when father asked, off the cuff, “What would you like to do when you’re older. For a career?”
“An actor.” (I was a lousy actor and never got a part that allowed me to say more than one phrase. In one school play I got to say, in my public school Britishness, “Now look what you’ve done.” The audience laughed: not so much at me but at the failed action. Boy from back of gym throws ball to me. It misses and hits window, to sound of breaking glass. Well, yes, ball flew, hit some part of the backdrop, but definitely not window, sound effect of breaking glass. Audience laughs gently, I say my line. Every scrap of drama in my line destroyed by a ball and a backdrop. Did Anthony Hopkins start that way? (My God! I’m writing again! – Well, digressing anyway…)
So no, not an actor. Says dad, very pragmatically, in a soothing way, as you would speak to a drunk. “Well, that’s a bit risky, isn’t it? A bit out of the ordinary. What else would you like to be?”
“A writer.” The car smells of petrol and the vinyl seats are a sad, worn red.
“You wouldn’t like to be a classical guitarist?”
“Yes” says mum. “You’re very good at it.”
I know. It’s the first thing I haven’t been pretty hopeless at, besides climbing trees and cliffs.
The point is, I wasn’t the least bit interested in having a career as a classical guitarist. It had never crossed my mind. But being a writer had. Again and again.
Well, I did write. Late at night while in high school – after my parents had gone to bed. I wrote predictably bad poetry: But the thing was, I was in love with words themselves. Poetry was just right. Every single word-choice mattered. Every phrase. Every rhythm. I not only wrote until the early hours of the morning, I wrote mesmerized, as though words were my womb, and each phrase a kind of birthing.
I quit poetry. I read Dylan Thomas, John Donne, T.S. Eliot, Al Purdy, William Butler Yeats, Tennyson, Pablo Neruda. I was a crap poet.
I moved on to prose, and day by day, got closer and closer to finishing something begun with something close to lust, or perhaps to a living Magic Realism. I wrote pages, binders full of aborted short stories (Oh how I hated short stories, and still do, although I write them, just to keep the exercise going…) and novels less than a tenth written. I could continue, but should shift aside a little.
Yes, I wrote almost all the time, and for years it was bad. Then something popped in my head, as silent as a soap bubble. Something, as I wrote, took hold of the nape of my neck, from the inside; and I had altered. From then on, I had to write, could only write somewhere close to half decently, from inside the story. Despite the fact that I was a horribly failed actor, this new work of writing was something like method acting.
Someone asked me to do a short Q & A session on writing, how and why and so on, for the edification of maybe 20 people. I prepared notes. I rewrote them. I printed them in 18 point font so that I could read them off my lap, so as to seem unprompted. I worried that I had nothing at all to say about writing, despite copious notes. They all came back to the same thing.
So I threw the notes away and sat on my stool as calm as a still tennis ball.
“So, can we start by talking about what you write?”
“Blah blah short story, blah blah essays, blah blah novels blah.” I wanted to get to the one good thing. The one true thing. The kernel of truth about myself as a writer, and how and why I write.
I write directly from my subconscious. I method act from in there. I am swallowed by the whale, and drowned in its words, caressingly sucked under. I celebrate that drowning through an aching joy, an expectant tension between one sentence and the next. I am moved, galvanized by each character. I inhabit their skin, their minds, clothes, sex, depravities, prayers, atheism, their very toes, naked, like little apples touching dewy grass.
If it doesn’t come from there, it isn’t real fiction. (Now there’s a lovely oxymoron for you.)
Have I said enough? I have said too much perhaps, to get to this one, tiny, infinitely vast place; the subconscious marrying my mind and tongue. That is where I get to. Even in the disciplined, thorough, rigorous place of university thesis writing, I drown. I love every phrase, every sentence choice, even if, while writing, I know it is doomed, useless. I live the spiraling (not circular) logic, the climbing of idea on top of another, of the words supporting one another into surprising sense and power. There, in academia, I also drowned, my mind grinning a wide, cosmic arc as I played with analysis and the critical faculty.
I write from inside the imagined logic of fiction, argument, discourse. And it is all driven directly by my subconscious. Every subject I took up in university promised that, demanded that, and delivered that. Every scrap of fiction, aborted or given lovely birth, is driven by my subconscious; that blind, fecund place.
I am a mole snouting blind in the earth of image, vocabulary and life drama.
That is my story. Too long getting there, perhaps. But there it is.
What is your story? Do you care to tell me why/how you write; what made you a writer? I am listening, absolutely silently. Write me a note, a tome. Whatever it takes. I would love, I do love, to hear your legend of your writing.