In my twenties, I got this crazy notion. I suppose all of us get those at some time. Mine was that I wanted to be a writer. But I had no idea where to begin — besides reading.
So I read. Anything, anywhere, everywhere, and then some more. I think a lot of people I knew thought I was either crazy or delusional or else depressed.
I was ecstatic — an electric light with no off switch and alone with myself.
At some point I tried writing my own stuff, imitations of the masters and, as is expected, it was lousy crap that now I wince at but at the time I thought was something — the way you think death is something that always happens to others.
Then something odd happened. I stopped writing. But I didn’t stop reading. This wasn’t the odd thing. It was that I started to believe that emulating the crazy lives of the writers I loved (like Henry Miller, Dylan Thomas, DH Lawrence, Oscar Wilde, Ted Hughes, Jack Kerouac, Knut Hamsun, James Joyce, Tolstoy, Dickens, Steinbeck, Joseph Conrad, Blake, Shelley, Byron, Rimbaud, Thomas Hardy, Herman Hesse, Baudelaire, etc, etc) would make me a writer. That adventure was more important than writing. All I needed to do was jot things down in a fancy notebook and recite poetry or shock people with irreverent and diabolical ideas and thoughts all stolen from the writers I loved. It was my homage to them, proof that I was their blood brother in waiting and in writing.
The problem was, I was too timid to be like my heroes. Their lives were such a huge undertaking and too big of a call to life for me. I just didn’t have that kind of spirit in me, at least not physically, although I now realize it was beginning to emerge creatively, even spiritually.
But the biggest problem of all was that I didn’t write!
I just created a fictional me who had aimlessly stepped out from a novel. And still nobody recognized me. Did nobody read Miller or Thomas or Wilde or Hamsun, I kept shouting to the stars? How could they not recognize the writer in me? Blind fools!
It was a sort of mystical time period when I look back at it. I wasn’t writing a damn thing, just jotting ideas and quotes down and living an itinerant sort of life, not keeping a job for long, and reading lots, and trying to create this real, tangible persona of a writer without doing a bit of writing.
I blame the writers I admired. They always seemed to be off having adventures in Paris or London or Laugharne, leading wild lives, and then having a brief moment of frenzied writing that was immediately published to great acclaim and fanfare. They all made it look so damn easy! And I wanted that.
Which is a shame really, since twenty years later, I’m still struggling to free myself from that myth. Although now I look at it with a good dose of humour. Now I know the writing life isn’t anything like that. I only wish someone had told me instead of ridiculing or ignoring or worse telling me to give it up and that only a certain breed of gifted individuals become writers. Or I wish I could have woken up and smelled the book spines. Or do I?
My apprentice years have been longer, I think, because I had to work myself out of two writers: the real and the imagined. Although now I look back fondly on that imagined one. I think without that callow youth who thought he knew what it took to be a writer was simply having joie de vivre and elan and moxie and passion and irreverence and balls and attitude and despair and misery and poverty and magnetism and personality and a reckless heart and a joyful soul, I don’t think I would have found the real writer in me.
And in truth, I was already training my mind to be more imaginative. By seeing myself like a character out of a book, I was helping the writer along by always reaching for something witty to say or practising some idea out on a stranger to see how they reacted. It was all training, the way I look at it.
In a way, I’m thankful for that young man. Grateful that he made a fool of himself then so I don’t have to make a bigger fool of myself now.
And as the writer Jeanette Winterson has said, what is the “I” but a fiction, or Rimbaud with his “I is someone else.” We tell stories every day to others and ourselves.
The only difference now is that I’m much more serious about jotting those stories down. I’m becoming that writer I always wanted to be. Which is what I set out to do in my twenties, it’s just taken me a bit longer to arrive.
But arrive I will, one way or another.