No fiction today. This piece is about writing. It’s the first in a series I’m planning that will consider different aspects of the process. Today I’m going to look at writing in challenging times – writing to survive. This is just personal reflections, nothing academically rigorous or literary. Nothing political either but if we take challenging times to include the state of the planet then I think we might find we’re all living through them. Anyway, I hope this interests other people who write, or who think, perhaps, they should.
When I was fourteen, my sister died. Death, especially sudden death, detonates reality. Life becomes a series of vivid but unreal images. Time buckles, telescopes and stretches. In a few hours, my past became a longed-for, lost world. My future became terrifying. And the actual moments of being alive were mostly a roar of the unbearable, beating in from the outside. Perhaps a younger child would have found comfort in play but I was adolescent, play was lost to me, though I do remember longing for the escape it had brought when I was small.
I was hardly talking to anyone and then one day, a couple of months into my grief, I started to write. Each day after that I rushed home from school to carry on. I wrote images from my life, from its ugliness – my shoes under the desk, the mud smeared down the corridors, up-ended pot noodle, drying gob on the wall. I wrote what unhappiness looked like. I wrote metaphor for my feelings – falling down a steep slope, being lost in the dark – nothing very original but attempts to find a way to name it, to make the unspoken real. I wrote memories. I learned the trick of sealing things forever in words. Neat trick. Very neat trick. Bottled time.
Then, as I started to recognise my queerness, I found I already had what I needed to survive that too. I had learned, by writing about grief, that we could write our realities and own them that way. What felt choking in your mouth could be screamed in the movement of the nib of a biro. I came out onto the page first. I wrote ‘it’ before I ever said ‘it’. Then I wrote it over and over, pressed daisies ‘she’ touched between my words, noted every grown-up lesbian I saw in the world like she was a passing prophesy. There was a possible future and I felt it running through my mind as I wrote – something to reach for. I wrote sensation that I didn’t understand. I wrote fantasy. I wrote fear. I sent abysmal, anonymous poetry to Spare Rib. I created characters out of women I watched from the window. I kept the whole lot hidden for years, long after I came out, because being an obsessive writer turned out to be more of a faux-pas than being a lesbian, a lot of the time.
If I say that there have been moments when I’ve used writing to survive, I don’t mean that this is ‘the point’ of it for me. As much as I’ve produced some of my best writing when distressed, I have also produced some of my worst. Pain, like love, can be a terrible cliché. A lot of what sparks in darkness will burn too hard and fast. Some of it will just spit and die. But the act of writing, the finding and spinning of words, is as good for me as any drug. It can capture my head when my head seems determined to do nothing but churn and heave and turn out of my control. It can clear my eye. It can slow my heartbeat.
Writing continues to be this for me in hard parts of life. If I can’t eat, sleep, stop crying, find breath, tolerate the emotions for one second more, I can put a pen on a page or my fingers on a keyboard and words will come. Sometimes they will be a battle call from a harsh reality. They will drag me to the fight and bloody my nose. Sometimes they will be the ultimate refuge. They will be the warm green paint on a back gate in a garden I never knew. They will deliver me to heaven.
So, that’s what writing can be for me in challenging times. That’s one of its incarnations. Tomorrow I want to get playful and share a few of my thoughts about the link between the imaginary worlds of childhood and our writing as adults.