Writer On A Train: Being a ‘Real’ Writer


I went to a posh girls’ school last month, with a team from my university’s outreach programme. I put a bit of effort into how I dressed, trying to fit in. But when I arrived, the receptionist looked me up and down and then said, ‘Oh, you must be the writer.’

It made me wonder. Was it just because my clothes weren’t crisply ironed? Was it that my hair had blown about a bit in the wind and got too curly? Was my lipstick too bright? Or did I actually look…in some way…arty? Writery? 

Today is my day off from my mammoth train journey. I’m at my in-laws’ house. I’ve written here quite a lot over the last 30 years, but now that they’ve both died, I’m finding it hard. 

Not being able to stop noticing things is what made me start writing to begin with, but it’s getting in the way today. It’s not like I can turn it off, though. It’s not like I can’t see that the bird feeder still has the cup for toast crumbs that my father-in-law went out in the snow to provide. It must have made him gasp for air…he was dying, even then, though we didn’t know it. I can’t keep myself from imagining him reaching, bracing himself on his stick, flopping down breathless and satisfied on the sofa when he was done. I can see just how his face would have looked. 

Not only can I not stop noticing things, I also can’t always stop imagining things.

My imagination has been strengthened by my writing practice.  I may not want to think about my mother-in-law, but every time I see the copper jelly moulds on the wall, I can see her standing back and regarding them with satisfaction. I can hear her say, in my mind, ‘I think that looks effective.’ And it breaks my heart. 

It’s my dreams, too. Since I started writing seriously, my dreams are no longer random silly images and vignettes. My dreams are well-structured and very three-dimensional. Sometimes they carry on from each other over several weeks, expanding into a huge coherent narrative. They’ve very convincing. The one about the rather large kitten I brought home that turned out to be a tigress was particularly disturbing. In it, my poor family kept trying to tell me that we were in danger from the rapidly growing cat…

There’s this concept that artists are driven to create – that ‘real’ writers ‘have’ to write. I’m not so sure about that. However, I do think, as in my previous post, we choose. And I also think that once we’ve chosen, there’s really no going back. 

In adolescence, humans begin to make huge, largely unconscious decisions that will affect the rest of their lives. We chose what is most valuable to us from our own brain structure. The brain, which has up to that point overdeveloped its synaptic functions, then begins to prune itself. This process lasts, according to a recent article in The New Scientist, well into our late 20s, but is largely irreversible. 

I think this is the basis for all of our Romantic assumptions about ‘genius’, or our ideas about some people ‘having’ to write (or paint or whatever). Once you develop your brain in a certain direction, to do certain things, it’s very difficult not to do those things. Part of your pleasure in life, and your comfort with your own existence, is to utilise those carefully constructed synaptic patterns. 

It reminds me of when, shortly after I ended my well-paid career to write seriously, the bank took away my Gold Visa card. I was on hold while the lady in the bank’s call centre looked up the procedure for me to return the card. Thinking I was inaudible, I sighed and said to myself, ‘Why did I ever want to be a writer in the first place?’ The lady answered. She said, ‘Well, dear, I suppose you always felt a bit special.’

We aren’t, of course, special. But we are a bit different, in the same kind of way. I imagine if you put two chess strategists in a room with a hundred other people, they would find each other…or two linguists…or two dancers…or two farmers. I can certainly find writers. Even when I’m on a panel of media practitioners or at a slimming club or a church barbecue or at my daughter’s school, I find I’ve made new friends with…yet another writer. It’s gotten so that when I meet someone at a wedding or a pub and we chat for more than five minutes, I just go ahead and ask, ‘So, what kinds of things do you write?’ And they answer. They say, ‘Poetry,’ or ‘Fan fiction.’ Before I even know their names

When I was young, I thought that real writers lived in Paris. They were solitary, like polar bears. Or they had country houses and big shining walnut desks. They were nearly always men, or slim, unattainable women. They never had children needing to be picked up and taken to tap dancing class. They never had jobs, or worries about the damp in the extension. 

Every since my first publishing deal, I’ve been trying to find this ‘real’ writer in the mirror. I never could. I found her in other people’s eyes, instead, because of my rumpled clothes and my untidy hair. But really, I found her inside me, long ago. And I loved her so much that when the time came to prune her away, I couldn’t do it. 

And that, as the poet said, has made all the difference. 



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