Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Why I Keep Writing

I was going to title this post "Why I Write" but there are already major league essays by premiership-calibre writers called "Why I Write" so I changed my mind.

"Why I Write" sounds like a piece by a writer who has a grand vision or "mission statement" rather than somebody like me, who is pretty much meandering along the road, stopping off in places that look interesting, taking a break when needed, or scrabbling, when necessary, over tough terrain.

So here are the reasons why I keep writing, in no particular order.

1) If I didn't write, I'd have to something else, like clean the house, or cook, or weed the garden. You want a great excuse for being a total slob? Become a writer.

2) If I didn't write, I'd never have the chance to eat book launch cake, or drink book launch wine. Please note that not everyone has a book launch, and that non-writers can also go to book launches, but by becoming a writer you will increase your chances of attending (if not hosting) an event where these lovely treats are served.

3) If I didn't write, there's virtually no chance that I'd be able to go back to the writers' yurt at the Edinburgh Book Festival (and use the writers' toilet) without donning a Carol Ann Duffy, Ian Rankin or Teri Terry disguise.

4) If I didn't write I'd have to grow up properly. I wouldn't be able to temporarily channel the mind and body of a child or teenager (OK, I could try, but frankly, I'm no Grayson Perry.) I'd just be middle-aged --boring!

5) If I didn't write, I'd have to change out of my writer's uniform.

6) If I didn't write, I could never reveal to the world the glimmering insights buried deep within my sensitive poet soul...HA! Almost fooled you, didn't I?

So, seriously, why do I keep writing?

I'm not sure. I love stories--I love hearing them, reading them, watching them, making them. I love the way writing takes me to so many places and allows me to be so many people. I love the fun of writing--the "where will this take?" me development of a story or "who the hell this?" emergence of a character. I love the wonderful people I've met since devoting serious time to writing. And these "loves" far outweigh the frustrations and heartbreaks of writing--the rejections, the disappointments, the sheer hard slog, the anxiety, the self- doubt.

But the most important thing?

I really, really want to use the Edinburgh authors' toilet again...

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Why I Quit Writing--Part Two

Last week I wrote about the unhappiness and frustration that caused me to take a writing break that lasted  over five years. It was a difficult post to write, as it dredged up painful memories and rekindled a still-palpable sense of embarrassment and failure. Many lovely readers made kind and thoughtful comments, and I promised that I'd follow up with an account of what brought back my desire to write.

I hope that what follows doesn't disappoint you too much. There are no words of wisdom, no real insights, there is no glorious epiphany....

The story, however, is completely true...

It was warm summer's evening in Venice. I was sitting outside Caffe Rosso in the Campo Santa Margharita, having the first of several spritzes before dinner. My husband and children were with me, and, somewhere at a nearby table, a chunky 30-something American bloke wearing a green CBGB T-shirt was braying rather loudly, regaling his listeners (a trio of young Belgians, as I recall....two men and a woman) with tales of his many marvelous experiences and achievements. He was too young to have hung out at CBGB when it was anything more than a tourist trap or a cheap T-shirt, but the Belgians didn't know that, so he could go on about how brilliant it all was back in 1976 (when he was five years old....) and he saw the Ramones and/or Patti Smith every night.

Meanwhile, I huffed and puffed and tsked with with irritation, annoying my family who felt that our night out was being hijacked not by a obnoxious loud mouthed American bloke, but by an obnoxious, complaining, intolerant (and loud mouthed) American woman--me.

We had dinner. The kids went back to our hotel. My husband and I returned to Campo Santa Margharita.

The chunky guy in the CBGB T-shirt was still there and so were the young Belgians. Within seconds, my ears became fixed (and fixated) on his even-louder intonations. I think by then he was bragging about his job (science lecturer at a state college). I bristled with irritation and so did my husband--not with Mr. CBGB, but with me!

The night wore on. The obnoxious Yank--all right, Yanks--got drunker. The Belgians did too. The men were slumped over in their chairs, the young woman looked wobbly and disoriented.

Although I had one ear tuned to the chunky Yank, my husband and I chatted away. Our conversation turned to something we didn't discuss much in those days--my writing. Jim mentioned a conversation he'd had with someone who'd said it was a "total shame" that I wasn't writing any more.

This was a well-intentioned, totally positive thing to say, right? Of course it was. There was no reason why such a comment should have made me so uncomfortable or aroused such intense and instantaneous hostility.

But it did.

And, seconds after Jim uttered the words "a total shame", the Yank at the other table began making disparaging, offensive, sexually explicit and LOUD comments about the young Belgian woman who'd just stumbled into the caffe. The words were extremely nasty, and I can only describe what happened next as an out-of-body experience.

Rage hurled me out of my chair, sent me weaving through the crowded seating area until I got to the Yank's table.

I don't remember what anyone did, or how anyone looked.  I remember nothing except for the words I shouted and how difficult it was keep my balance.

But anger trumped alcohol and I told the Yank that I was SICK to DEATH of having to listen to his ABUSIVE and INSULTING and OBSCENE language about some poor WOMAN, who wasn't even able to DEFEND herself,  so why didn't he do everyone in Venice a FAVOUR (only I was saying it in an American accent so I spelled it FAVOR) and just SHUT UP!

When I got back to our table, my husband's eyebrows were raised considerably. He may have said--he was certainly thinking--something along the lines of, "Well, I've seen you do some crazy shit over the years, Jane, but this..."

I ordered another spritz. Jim asked for "Il Conto." My fellow American went quiet. The Belgians staggered off into the night.

But "this" wasn't over.

Just as we were paying the cheque, the Yank came over to OUR table. Seemed he could do the whole "apoplectic with rage" thing, too.

He stood firm, scowled at me and said, "You picked the wrong town, man."

I pulled a face and said, "Huh?"

He said, "You heard me--you picked the wrong town."

"What are you talking about?"

"I know people in this town, man."

"You know people?"


"Like, the mafia or something?"

He nodded. Glared.

"So you're, like, threatening me with the Venetian mob?" I sounded more and more like Joe Pesci with every word I spoke. "The one you hear so much about? The one in all the gangster movies?"

He glared some more. I scoffed.

"Maybe if we were in Palermo, I'd be scared," I said. "Maybe if we were in Napoli."

"Yeah, well you just watch your back," he said, before shuffling away...

That's it, people.

One crazy night is what made me want to write again. Some weird Venetian alchemy that I can't explain. A totally bizarre story that just had to be written down and told, over and over again.

At breakfast the next day, Jim jokingly warned the kids about "the price on Mum's head".

Afterwards I popped out to a little stationery shop and bought a lined notebook and shiny silver pen...

I started to write and haven't looked over my shoulder since.

Except when I'm in Venice, of course!