Why write?

In childhood I was not a writer. I was a daydreamer, certainly, forever composing stories in my head, but I never contemplated writing them down. When asked to write a creative piece in school, I invariably wrote of that quaint subsistence lifestyle I once yearned for. I was frequently castigated by my teachers for penning essays too brief to satisfy their exacting standards. I was too lazy in those days to pen long paragraphs about anything of any worth.

My awakening began at around the age of fifteen, in my final year of secondary school, as I prepared for my GCSEs. Encouraged by positive reviews at a youth festival on the Isle of Iona, I turned my hand to whimsical comedies for a time; other festival-goers said I was a playwright in the making, with a wicked sense of humour. Then, with access to an Amstrad PCW, inherited from my brother, I began penning political articles about human rights, racism, refugees, equality and justice. My ideas then were quite immature, but it was a beginning…

Approaching writing with a passion so late in my schooling, most of my output was infantile and unimpressive. Due to poor teaching early on followed by long periods of sickness later, I had several gaps in my understanding of English grammar. Nevertheless, at sixth form college, my English tutors encouraged me, believing that I was capable of producing something great. It was the first time since junior school that I felt a teacher had recognised I might be good at something.

Thus more comedies followed, and more political writing. My A-level English project focussed on a semantic analysis of the speeches and sermons of Martin Luther King — probably not that surprising, having been raised in a family of sermon writers — but my real passion was a comedy series about a time traveller called Dan the Man. I had hit upon the first viable commercial application for time travel and had penned a series of short stories following the adventures of Dan the Man in bringing his venture to life. Ah, but alas, that series took a dark turn in the final instalment, reflecting a significant shift in my state of mind.

That was the moment when my writing shifted from a quirky hobby which brought me pleasure, to personal therapy, first pushing me towards despair, then lifting my spirits. As I hit eighteen, there was a perceptible change of subject matter, amusing plays making way for dark and bitter manuscripts. Slipping into a morose gloom, I did not apply for university; it was a surprise when I got an A, a B and three Cs, for I had convinced myself that I was an utter failure. Instead, I set about writing a screenplay, unimaginatively titled, Big brother is watching you.

That manuscript was bad — very bad — but I wrote it as an act of self-counselling. All around me, everyone else had moved on, but I was stuck back in a moment long gone, still trying to make sense of events which had affected me so profoundly. In truth, it had become an unhealthy obsession, which occupied me for months on end. When I finally sat down to write, it was to counsel myself in the face of a growing inner insanity. Instead of talking to others about my feelings, I poured words onto the page, writing an alternative timeline, which was to say: “Had things panned out otherwise, this would have happened, then this and this, therefore wasn’t it great that you were saved from all that by the threat of violence you took to heart?”

A few months later, I turned that screenplay into my first novel, which was even worse than all that went before, but it had served its purpose. From a literary standpoint, it was utter drivel and so poorly written as to cause me to cringe at its mere mention, but by the time I had finished it, I had almost outgrown my obsessions: I had almost fixed myself, counselling myself back to normality. In any case, on dispatching a copy to an old friend, he sat me down to explain that I had misunderstood absolutely everything that had happened back then. If only I had spoken to him earlier, I could have been saved a year of serious depression.

But no matter, for I had started something: a life-long relationship with writing. As I emerged, renewed, from my great obsession, I found courage to apply for university after all, securing a place in the heart of London. Shortly afterwards I set off to spend forty days in Tanzania, keeping a diary of my experiences. On my arrival at university, I discovered that my year spent writing had prepared me for a three-year degree and post-grad spent writing essays and dissertations. To my surprise, my tutors and lecturers commended my style, and the student magazine published my articles and social satires. I had, it seemed, found my groove.

Naturally, looking back now, most of what I wrote then causes me to wince and cringe. Back then? Most of what I wrote a week ago causes me to cringe! I have spent my life a man of perpetual regrets, forever withdrawing what I have written moments after the ink has dried. Perhaps that’s why I was never able to pursue a career as a writer, relegating it to my private realm alone.

But if I were to ask myself why I write today, as I set out to first thing this morning, long before I steamed off on a long diversion, this would be my answer: I seek refuge in my writing to counsel myself through all that life throws at me. Long ago, writing lifted me out of a painful rut. Later, it led me towards faith. Over the last few years, it carried me across troubled waters. Daily, it allows me to put voice to inner thoughts. Writing helps me make sense of the world around me.

I may not be a very good writer, ever likely to be formally published, but that to me is immaterial. For me, writing is therapeutic: it is an extension of me, fundamental to my very existence. Why write? Because we were born to. Because man was taught by the pen. Because from writing I find the inner strength to carry on.

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