Why write at all?
It’s hard work – the hardest work I’ve ever done. It’s not a way to earn a living. It’s hard to get published – and although self publishing is now an option that’s more hard stuff you have to learn and do or pay for…
Yet lots of us do it. There’s a figure floating around online which suggests there are currently about a million novels looking for homes with US publishers at any one time and that less than one percent will ever get traditionally published.
I’m sure there are lots of different reasons. These are some of mine.
It all stems from why I read.
Learning to read is one of my earliest actual memories from childhood. I remember the feeling of joy and accomplishment as I read out loud a single sentence about a red double decker bus to Mrs Shepherd.
In childhood, and now, I read for two main reasons. One is for escapism and distraction from all the difficulties of life. The other is pretty much the opposite. I read to understand life. It’s a survival thing. How to make sense of people, of the way the world works? Especially when you work out very early that you can’t rely on the people in your actual life to make sense – when they deliberately twist reality.
Reading fiction – fairy tales, childhood classics, cookie cutter romances, crime fiction, and literature – all of these give readers a glimpse into another person’s mind, and enable us to see the world through the writer’s eyes – at least partially, at least for a while.
So writing becomes an extension of all that. I write to understand the world and the people in it. Often I don’t understand until I’ve written it down – usually if it’s something I am confused about, it has to be scribbled in pen and ink in my notebook. There’s some better connection between brain and pen for me than between brain and keyboard. It’s possibly to do with my age and the fact that I didn’t start using keyboards, even on old fashioned manual typewriters, until my late teens.
The other aspect is escapist. Losing oneself in writing, especially in creating fictional characters, is to become someone else temporarily – to escape the limitations of being tired and ill, and to live another life in imagination.
It also comes from a desire to become a part of a kind of conversation – one with all those writers who one has admired and who have influenced us – who we might agree with or have differences with. It can be intimidating – or at least it has been for me. Why do I think I have the right to an opinion expressed in a less fleeting way? Why would I think anyone would spend their time reading what I’ve written? It requires a certain confidence or even arrogance to even consider it. Possibly that’s why it took me so long.
Writing the memoir has made me aware of a deeper motivation – a more personal drive.
I grew up in a family where reality was constantly altered to suit the purposes of my stepmother. Now we’d call it gaslighting – then, when I worked it out as a child – I called it re-writing history.
I hid what was happening to me from everyone. From my Dad, because of the way my stepmother manipulated everything – I was told that talking about it would hurt him, that it would – literally – be the death of him.
It was difficult for me to have faith at times in my own memories, in my own understanding of what happened. I was helped by various people who witnessed and tried to act to help me. The church ladies. My Auntie Minnie. The warden of my Hall of Residence at University.
As a child, I didn’t speak my truth – I needed to survive, I longed to belong, and I was frightened of being sent away. So when anyone asked I told my stepmother’s story.
Once I left home, at University, I started, gradually, to speak out, to be myself. There were lots of people who didn’t quite approve and who suggested I should be less open. (As if I wasn’t always controlled. I usually am, even now).
I didn’t tell my best friend from school – the girl I shared a room with at University– until I was in mid twenties. I can understand now why she didn’t quite believe me then. I hid it all so successfully.
All through this time, I was writing. Badly. I wanted to tell stories that would reach other people – to give them an escape, to give them support and validation and to give them a glimpse into my world, as other people’s stories had worked for me. I had some small encouragement from shortlisted stories, but I was missing something. I thought it was talent, and I gave up. For a while.
Later my OU Creative Writing tutors, my agent – they told me I was keeping emotion off the page, the key scenes were happening off stage, I was skimming through the scenes that really matter.
I was always told I wasn’t good enough as a person. I wasn’t lovable. That even as a baby it had been so obviously true that there was something deeply wrong with me, that my mother abandoned me.
I was afraid to be myself in case it happened again. I kept people at a distance. I kept myself protected. As in life, so in my fiction. I wasn’t ready to risk being myself on the page, any more than I was in life.
It’s impossible to write true without revealing yourself.
So here I am, in the middle of writing a memoir. Writing about that childhood as honestly as I can.
It’s scary. I still have those fears of being too much, too needy, too unlikable. “But people like you. Don’t be silly,” my friend said, back in those University days. “That’s only because they don’t really know me,” I replied. Okay, I was (as so often) going for the cheap laugh – but underneath, there was a truth.
I can survive it now. I know not everyone likes me and it’s not as scary as it was. There’s still residual fear – what if my self repels those few people whose good opinion really matters to me? I’ll survive that too. I’ve lost friends I care about before. Having a chronic illness like lupus can do that without any special effort being required.
So this is arse about tit, I know. The usual writerly defence is to say, ” But it’s not me. It’s fiction.” I’m writing a memoir to acquire the courage and skill to write with emotional depth and honesty. To find my own true voice by telling my own story.
Then perhaps I’ll be ready to write the novel I’ve always dreamed of writing.
Comments welcome, as always . I’d love to know whether anyone shares any of these reasons, or if you have very different ones.