An online friend asked a question yesterday: why do writers write? Is it out of love for writing or necessity? The question made me think. Here’s my, thoughtful, answer:
I used to create cartoon strips, about our household, as a kid. I’d love to go back to this subversive activity but, as my freehand skills aren’t great, it would probably be by using some kind of computer programme. As the Benjamin of the family (perhaps as unfairly indulged as Joseph), my earliest literary creations reflected my counterfactual belief that it was me and the dog contra mundum. My elder brother, who still has all his Marvel and DC comics from the 70’s, loved them. Alas, my infant creations didn’t survive long. Neither, tragically, did our lovely foxhound and it was this early loss and the much later acquisition of my beloved tan terrier, Ben, that powered Angels With Hairy Faces – a plea for humanity in our relationships with dogs, who can inspire us so profoundly.
One afternoon in the 80’s, at St Andrews University, an American neighbour in the student residence pushed a short story under my door. I was so intrigued by this action, and by the creation of this elaborate lie on paper, that I don’t think I even commented on it to him. For this I am truly sorry. Affirmation is so important to writers. I can’t remember what it was about, I just recall my first understanding of the magical agency involved in literary creation. During these years I began to write poetry, St Andrews is an extremely poetic (and pretentious) place. I still do, although I find my own poems even harder to evaluate than my prose. But sometimes I feel a powerful emotion that just won’t be communicated any other way. I felt this, as a new(ish) vegan, watching The Levelling in 2017 and by happy accident I was working my way through Stephen Fry’s The Ode Less Travelled, on poetry forms, at the time. The result was a villanelle.
Although I wrote some liberal student newspaper articles (which I thought radical) in a confessional and impassioned style which would now be called blogging, my first attempt at short story was inspired by dreams and memories and freewriting in the early 90’s at a college in California where I received the most excellent and author-empowering advice on asking for feedback:
- Don’t say if you like or dislike it, if you think it’s good or bad, that doesn’t help
- Don’t suggest changes, tell me what it does to you
A few years later, I revisited my infantile work with a caricatured melodrama in daily instalments starring my co-workers in a hotel on the Isle of Skye. To date, they have been my most appreciative readers. Never on a Sunday survives somewhere but is not for publication! Neither is my Mormon Christmas mystery, written for American flatmates, or the various (lively) extrapolations of dreams and desires I have since written as birthday presents for various gay men. People enjoy their dreams coming true but what they really appreciate is getting a mention. Mostly. (Do ask!)
Reading the Tales of the City series back in Scotland started my long preoccupation with the oddities associated with relationships between bisexual/gay and strait (sic) men. (We’re not bent, we’re broadminded.) That had various manifestations (on and off the page!) and culminated in the Bruno Benedetti Mysteries. Tricks of the Mind was an escape from caring for my Dad who had dementia but it was also an exploration of the puzzling power of clairsentience widely experienced by empathetic people and usually explained away. This started a pairing of an aspect of esoterica I found fascinating with an underlying emotional drive. So The Lovers is a meditation on the cycle of life portrayed in Tarot but also on the urgency of love (all in a plot about hospital closures). Shades of the Sun (still my favourite) is a Scooby-Doo type adventure complete with creepy manor and masqued villain combining a now obscure branch of astrology with grief and PTSD. Qismet was meant by me to showcase my amazing ideas on education but the characters (Bruno, Justin, Imogen and Clara, principally) would have none of it and instead it became a ghost story about the evils of trying to rewrite the past. Often the motivations of the characters will remain unclear to me until the end. Then I understand not only what I’ve written, but why I’ve written it. Most of the time they just don’t let me in on their secrets until they really have to. Imogen and that crypt being a prime example! Tir nam Ban was born from the waves of the North Atlantic as they strike mysterious Hebridean isles. Of course it was inspired by many lives on many islands and in many communities, some of them mine, but really I wanted to do justice (however obliquely) to both the Celtic faerie tradition and Christianity and also to use a juxtaposition of sex and socioeconomic slavery to illustrate the rottenness of social respectability.
My academic work benefitted from my growing literary confidence (at least I thought so, a dense critical theory lecturer found my style ‘journalistic’) and Dreaming Anarchy was in the ethnographic tradition of thick description. Now I think I chose to write it for my Master’s dissertation because I was so tired of all the words about words about words, ironic lives lived cynically at a half-remove, that I wanted to live and publicise a more embodied politics. And you don’t get much more embodied than living up the Pyrenees with no electricity or plumbing.
Alchemy at the Chalkface was my homage to Dr Robert M. Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and my analysis and application of his work first bore fruit in Only Say The Word when I realised that ‘Jesus loves me so you have to accept my lifestyle’ wasn’t a good enough justification for homosexuality when conservative Christians’ main problem wasn’t theological but biological: they just didn’t think it was natural. So I explored the nature of ‘nature’. That also helped with Life-Choice when I realised that women on both sides of the man-made barricades (and those very few trying to dismantle them) had completely different views on the nature of life in a woman’s womb, which their ethics (about what could be done with this life) followed.
Trans/Substantiation started as a departmental paper putting forward the view that ecumenical understanding on the Eucharist was being hindered more by metaphysics than theology but expanded when it struck me that beliefs about gender were exactly that: non-empirical and passionately held. This I found, shockingly, also to be true for establishment views on AIDS (as well as the more outlandish conspiracy theories on the syndrome) but here there was a kind of doublethink going on that, to a Roman Catholic, was very familiar. Researchers know (and so do readers if they read carefully) that the HIV-AIDS hypothesis doesn’t stand up but views contrary to those that sell the products of the pharmaceutical industry (a modern embodiment of Phillip Pullman’s Magisterium if there ever was one) are effectively no-platformed. Meanwhile multitudes of gay men, and Black Africans, especially, die from the known toxilogical effects of pharmaceutical drugs pushed onto populations whose mortality is considered inconsequential in comparison to profit. So, having ignored the subject for decades (because it frightened me) I simply had to write Silence and Dissent.
On a lighter note, there are my plays, dealing with dementia as subversive remembrance, homosexuality in the ranks, shooting shell-shocked soldiers, carpet-bombing and cold-blooded anti-Semitic murder. At least those are the topics of the two I’ve published so far, Mrs Atkins remembers and Redemption (the others are a bit more intense). I wrote the first out of my experience working with UK schools at WW1 memorials, my memories of my grandfather, blinded by mustard gas, and reading Lyn MacDonald’s The Roses of No-Man’s Land; the second because of a remark my Theatre Studies tutor made. It caused me to reconsider Dostoyevski’s negative portrayal of the old Russian pawnbroker, Alyona, and to try to imagine her life story.
Lastly, and just this week, I received the news that my booklet on nutrition, which I wrote out of concern for so many young people starving themselves (and ending up obese) is now an audiobook! Body-Logic is my first successful attempt at reaching the required level of quality in recording and editing (it’s been a very steep learning curve) but now I hope that, gradually, my novels and other reflections may be able to reach a wider audience for whom reading is either inconvenient or impossible. My inspiration for this move has been my mother, who can read but also loves to listen to story tapes.
Have I answered the question? Why do I write? For all sorts of reasons. Mostly because I feel I must, even the stories just have to come out. I’ve never been pregnant but I imagine it must feel like that – only a lot more overwhelming an experience! Do I love writing? Sometimes. But that’s really not the point. It’s about vivid reflection on life.
Thanks (again) to Dawn Hudson who has released her illustration ‘Writing Hand’ into the Public Domain.