Juliet Jacques has written a real tour de force for the New Statesman this week in which she charts and sums up Deborah Leavy’s new essay ‘Things I don’t want to know.’
Deborah’s essay in itself was a feminist response to George Orwell’s 1946 essay entitled ‘Why I Write.’
As you will see from Juliet’s piece Orwell and Leavy, and indeed everyone has our own concept in mind of why we write.
For Orwell these purposes to reiterate are as follows:
- Sheer egoism
- Aesthetic enthusiasm
- Historical impulse
- Political purpose
Juliet’s piece got me thinking about why I myself write and if you’ll indulge me I’d like to share some of those observations with you.
Anyone who knows me will tell you that I’m definitively not an egoist. I’m quite shy and still fail to see what is good about my work. I enjoy reading the work of others and marvel at it but I cannot marvel at my own in the same way. Perhaps this is because I see the words before anybody else when they come straight out of my mouth on to the page. I have an intimate relationship with my words. They are here, now and in the moment.
So then I cannot marvel at them because I already know what they are. Only afterwards can I sit back and think about a piece and contemplate and reflect upon the fact that it may have been quite good.
Another thing that I find baffling about this great art form of writing is how my writing moves people. Now if I am not an egoist I definitely am emotional. Pieces I read don’t just touch me in the brain, in my intellectual centre really great writing will move me in the heart and soul too. Good writing can often move me to cry really strong tears but yet I have learnt to emotionally detach from my own writing. It is not that I’m heartless nor uncaring it is just simply that if I was to be emotionally attached to everything I’ve written both in my blogs and in a few published articles words were never make it to the page and my microphone would be wet and tear stained.
But what inspired me to write in the first place? Quite simply it was because it was something I could do. I am an only child. I grew up without siblings and had to make my own entertainment a lot of the time. This consisted of playing my keyboard, having my nose in a book or writing on my own on a small electronic typewriter I had at the time.
What fascinated me always about writing is that people can take you on journeys and show you pictures without ever having to leave your armchair, or whatever place you happen to be most comfortable reading in. You could be transported in an instant to different worlds just by the careful use of words on the page.
When I was younger as well I also loved writing poetry. One afternoon in my final year of junior school the teacher said to us “Imagine the wind as an animal and write about it.”
Fine I thought – I’ll use the example of a tiger. I had completed the task on a full side of A4 paper inside 10 minutes. I had also arranged the words on the page and jammed them together to reflect the increasing speed of the wind.
When I put my hand up and asked what I should do, I was told that the task should have taken the rest of the afternoon. So I was left to my own devices and just wrote and wrote and wrote for the afternoon.
It was always something I could do. It wasn’t hard for me it wasn’t a struggle. That doesn’t mean I can never improve nor is it mean arrogance but it doesn’t stymie me in the way astrophysics would for example. It’s my talent and I’m proud of it.
I then wrote a story about cavemen and it was published in the school’s in-house publication known as Patchwork.
Most of the time English didn’t stretch me enough. It wasn’t until we moved to Winchester that I felt I was competing on an equal basis with other people were just as good as I was. I grew to love Shakespeare, the rhythm and the musicality of it. I also cried buckets at the Franco Zeffirelli film of Romeo and Juliet.
So after years of writing essays about other people’s work it was inevitable that I would want to do something of my own. As I have mentioned in other blog posts I moved into a hostel for physically disabled adults. There wasn’t much for me to do; nor was there much in the way of intellectual stimulation.
As a slight tangent I think I compensate for my lack of bodily ability with my mind. I crave intellectual stimulation in the same way as people crave caffeine.
Therefore when somebody suggested I write a blog I jumped at the chance. At first it was pretty mundane. It was going to be, living a hostel with no facilities to go out.
What is interesting from a writer’s perspective here though is what happens when you give somebody a computer when they are trapped in a situation which they have no control over. After University I had to stay there I had no choice because I had no home.
So I ventilated I got angsty and the blog became not just a piece of software but a way for me to keep my sanity. Don’t forget I had come from a world where I was regularly used to having arguments of 2000 words plus with just a mere piece of paper I had come from a world where it was encouraged that I debate and justify every belief I had for the purposes of gaining a degree. So emerging from that world of academia was a wrench. Essentially, I was coming from a world where everything that was right with me was focused on. I had to adjust and adapt to a world where I was reminded of everything that was wrong with me. The pungent odour of disability, or should I say industrial strength cleaning products hung in the air.
Initially at least writing was a coping strategy. It kept me alive and it kept my mind alive too. It would be so easy to sink into the mundane and worry inanely about what was for breakfast, or lunch or tea. I must admit I was guilty of that at times as well but I managed to bring myself out of that mindset in the end.
Such obsessional behaviour is the hallmark of institutionalisation.
I also wrote to deal with pain and difficulty emotional events such as my stepfather’s abuse and the lack of a father in my life. Writing and seeing your words on the page is a kind of purging of the soul and of self. It is a and catharsis and something of a delayed ecstasy. Once you let the genie out of the bottle regarding your past you experience a sense of peace and a sense that the world can no longer her to. That you are in charge of how you respond to life’s events and that no matter how much the events that have happened have emotionally crippled you that that crippling does not have to be never-ending.
I write to tell my own story. There is too much anger in the world nowadays regarding how stories are told in the media. You can passively complain or you can take the bull by the horns and thus take control of your own narrative. This way it is not a question of me opening my soul to another person and them scribbling furiously i}nto a notebook. It is me telling my story and how much of it I want to share. Therefore if I am not happy with the way something has been written, I have a good working relationship with the author. This gives me the luxury of knowing I can berate them at leisure.
Even though I have minority areas which make me distinct from other writers I never want to be defined as a disabled writer, a trans writer nor a lesbian writer. But having said that, those three things do change and alter the way I view certain events. I may be able to cut through a lot to understand more than a writer who is not in minority groups could. I also think that belonging to more than one minority group and working alongside the majority helps me a lot in my writing process. It means I neither privilege the interests of the minority group over everything else nor am I biased in favour of them. My style is to sit back and interrogate the facts and give opinions.
The reason why I said I did not want the three minority areas above to define me is because people often expect that if you are in a minority you will represent their view. It is impossible for every minority group to have an entirely homogeneous view on a given issue. We are all individuals with biographies and opinions and influences that shape our thoughts. The greater challenge for the minority writer I think is to step outside their own stuff if you like and to look at things from the opposing or different perspective.
Of course it is possible to be very biased when you write or speak. Outlets like Fox News in America demonstrate this. I’m just glad that I will not go the same way.
The other thing about writing which I love is that often you’re not just writing for yourself you’re writing for others about things you believe in. For example I’m completing a series of blogs at the moment on the BBC Three television series ‘Don’t Call Me Crazy.’
A big source of sadness for me is the lack of understanding in society about mental health. So I can least use writing to play my part in remedying that in my own small way. I can use writing to talk about things I am passionate about and I care about. I know it touches people. I know they care about it.
Sometimes people thank me for writing and saying what I’ve said. I find this perplexing – it’s not as though I’ve climbed Everest nor completed an act of altruism. I have just done something that comes naturally to me. The fact is many people gain pleasure from writing and reading. It may be that a piece of writing reaches out to somebody in their darkest hour, makes them feel less alone or helps to clarify their own situation when the fog has descended.
Essentially I love writing. I always have. I get a real kick out of it and always feel really enthusiastic when I write. I love arguing and I love the ability that writing gives me to ventilate on any issue I feel strongly about not only for my own benefit but at times for the benefit of others.
I love the fact that when I write I’m not judged as a disabled writer or the very least I hope I’m not. I am judged I think by the same criteria as every other writer: simply whether my words are interesting enough.
The acid test I always apply to my own writing is this: a simple question really. Is it something I would want to read? Further to this I often ask would I enjoy reading it, does it make me think and would I want to read more?
The final point I want to make about why I write is this. I love it because it is the one thing I can do, and do well in complete privacy without any reliance on anyone else. In writers mode I don’t feel disabled, I don’t feel lesbian and I don’t feel transgendered. I just feel like me. Free of labels and free of shackles. What you see on the page is me, Hannah the person, Hannah the human being and Hannah the writer. You get to see me without seeing the things that are wrong and judge me alongside all the other writers you see.
But my different circumstances don’t drive me to plead special treatment. They just drive me and give me the impetus to get better at what I do which is the thing I love most in the world followed by reading. When people said I could make a career out of it if I wanted I laughed. I’m not laughing anymore. They may be right. Words are beautiful and wonderful and I feel privileged to be able to use them every day. I have seen my words affect people make them laugh and make them cry. I’ve seen people analyse what I’ve done and like particular bits of it. I have seen people thank me for writing about certain topics.
Me? I’m like Nike. I just do it.