When people want to know why I write, I look at them blankly. It feels like they’re asking me, ‘Why breathe?’ or ‘Why eat?’ And all I can say in reply is that it seems as necessary and sometimes as problematic as either of these life-sustaining activities.
For, while it is true that it doesn’t usually lead to asthma, acid reflux or obesity, writing has the capacity to cause extreme pain when blocked, distress when rejected and, when finally put out for the public gaze, an uncomfortable sense of exposure … or worse.
Who’d want to do it, you ask. And when it’s not going well I often ask this of myself. Then I remember or experience again one of those precious, fleeting moments when the words perfectly match an idea I want to express or a story I’m compelled to shape … That’s it. The rush, the high, that keeps me hooked and will do for as long as I breathe or eat. There’s nothing like it, no endorphin or pharmaceutical or gourmet experience to touch it.
Yup – it’s an addiction I’ve labelled ‘scribomania’. I write because I must.
And, like all addicts, I keep going back for more because I’ve never yet (and probably never will) do it well enough to satisfy myself – and when I’m not doing it I worry about it, until the compulsion to return to it is too great to resist. This time, I tell myself, I’ll produce a substantial literary work or a story that touches a universal chord or, at its most basic and popular, a piece of sheer entertainment …
Not only do I tell this to myself, I also repeat it with passion and conviction to all the many new writers I tutor and mentor in classes and on courses at home and abroad. ‘If you want to write, if you feel you have something to say, I’ll help you,’ I declare. ‘Bring me your new-born idea and your raw curiosity, and I’ll give you the tools to transform it into fiction; I’ll share with you all the tips and techniques I’ve gained along my own tenuous path.’ Does this make me a literary pusher? Am I fostering new lifetimes of addiction or (looking at it more positively) enabling artistic expression, the possibility of someone creating a great novel?
Impossible to know. Writing defines and inhabits me, and I’m not quite sure why I believe so strongly that in spite of the risk of dependency and disappointment and frustration, it is important for new writers – and a generation of new readers – to be given the tools and permission I offer. So I do it and I teach it – and now it sometimes it feels as though my head is crammed with other people’s stories entangled like narrative spaghetti, and my own hesitant creations are throttled at birth.
Then – halleluja – out of that morass pops out a shiny new idea: it’s strong, it is tantalising, it’s a survivor.
And the compulsion kicks in again. I eat. I breathe. And I write.