I am a writer. Am I? by Sandra Horn

A good while ago now, when I was a very junior Psychologist, still working under supervision, I was given an office recently vacated by a Social Worker. In order to make the change clear, so that I wasn’t bothered all day long by people looking for her, my boss commissioned a new sign for the door. The hospital carpenter interpreted the instruction ‘clear’ to mean letters about six inches high. I came into work to find PSYCHOLOGIST screaming across the door. I couldn’t help thinking of Lucy from the Peanuts cartoons, sitting behind her orange box under a sign which read THE DOCTOR IS IN. This wasn’t funny, though. I felt a total fraud – hadn’t even completed my finals at that point. It should have read trainee psychologist. Now, whenever anyone asks me what I do and I say, I’m a writer,’ that writ-too-large Psychologist sign flashes into my head. If I had a sign on the door here, it would read Writer?
This was brought to mind by a recent post on Facebook – words to the effect of (can’t remember exactly) ‘Don’t call me a procrastinator! I happen to like working at the last minute of a panic-stricken deadline.’ It made me smile and cringe at the same time. Not that it’s always last-minute with me, but I do need a deadline to focus my thoughts quite often. I picture all of you, dear Authors Electric, with your ordered lives, treating writing as a proper job, at your desks in the morning... and here am I, a rank amateur, pithering about and letting myself be put off by a mood, domestic trivia, a bit of a headache, etc.etc. I find it odd – I write because I need to; to paraphrase Vila, the thieving character from Blake’s 7, which some of you may remember, ‘A writer is not what I am, it’s who I am.’ So what’s all this procrastination rubbish about? I wish I knew. I’m absolutely sure that creativity and chaos don’t need to go hand-in-hand; writers do have tidy desks, organise their research effectively, keep regular hours. Other writers, that is. Proper writers.
Strangely, give me a brief and a deadline, and I’m a model worker. I’ve never yet had to ask for an extension when I’ve agreed a finish date. My poems for BBC Active teachers’ packs were a joy to write (rewrite, rewrite), for example, to very tight requirements and timescales. I loved working like that. Leave me to my own devices, though, and I’m prone to setting myself near-impossible challenges, for one thing, never mind the moods, headaches, domestic stuff. My never-to-be-finished YA novel ‘Fire and Silence’ (running title) has a mute central character, for example. I’ve tried changing it so that he speaks. Disaster. It doesn’t work. He IS mute, and that’s it and all about it. He came like that. That means changing the POV from time to time. So be it. So be it for over twenty years now, and counting. For my play ‘Little Red Ella and the FGM’, the challenge was to write about FGM in a way that allowed discussion to open up non-threateningly for young people; discussion about owning one’s own body, about the power of tradition and cultural imperatives. Finally, with about four hours to go to the deadline (Yes, it was one of those times!) I got it into pantomime-like rhyming format and sent it off. Inspiration plus perspiration. 

I do like a bit of inspiration. That’s how The Mud Maid came about. I saw the sculpture and her story just fell into my head. No pithering about there, I sat down under a tree and scribbled the outline, then worked on it with commendable efficiency and despatch. If only it could always be like that! Many inspirations are still in note form somewhere, the initial spark having failed to kindle the fire. Or they did produce an end result which was then rejected comprehensively by everyone. Clearly, the sparks were not divine.
Tomorrow is the deadline for finishing this blog. Also for a re-submission of a play wot I wrote, which needs some re-writing. And we’re nearly out of bread. And I think I have a headache coming on...


JO said…
Oh how I recognise that feeling that, one day, someone is going to scratch the surface and find I'm a charlatan. It was like that at work - and now, as a travel writer, I'm much happier talking about the travelling than the writing-bit.
Bill Kirton said…
Well, here I am, sitting at my desk this morning, comfortable in my 'ordered life' and yet identifying completely with the feelings you (and Jo, above) describe. Yes, Sandra, we're writers, and we have the publications or, at the very least, the paragraphs of clear, rhythmic prose, the snatches of realistic dialogue, the affective poems or some other controlled blend of linguistic and literary competence to prove it. And yet the insecurity, the sense that we never quite achieve the perfect construction, the nagging feeling that 'our reach [exceeds] our grasp' - they're always lurking.

As I tell the students in workshops I give, writing is a skill rather than a gift, But being a writer is more than having that skill; it's a compulsion, a way of seeing, a need to satisfy our curiosity. I remember very clearly (and with the same rush of pleasure) the first time I had the label applied to me 'officially'. A BBC radio producer, to whom I'd sent what I now see as woefully inadequate playscripts, mentioned me to the late Tony Church, who was the director of the newly opened Northcott Theatre in Exeter. Tony got in touch and invited me to come and have a look round. Despite feeling that 'there must have been an administrative error' or 'it's a case of mistaken identity', I went along. Halfway through my tour, we met the stage manager and Tony said 'This is Bill Kirton. He's a writer'. That was nearly 50 years ago but the buzz it gave me is still fresh, as are the suspicions of adminstrative error and mistaken identity.
Dennis Hamley said…
Ah yes, charlatanry is part of our lives. Back in the 80s, after I'd done a couple of scripts for BBC Schools radio, I went down to Broadcasting House and was introduced as 'Dennis Hamley, our new writer.' However, I was very soon their old and forgotten one, so I returned sadly to my impossibly cluttered desk and disorderly bookshelves and reamed about deadlines.
Dennis Hamley said…
I meant 'Dreamed. There's always one.
Lydia Bennet said…
I think many writers procrastinate, it's a bit scary wondering if what we actually write will succeed in doing what we envisage in our heads. Some writers have regular hours etc, but not me - I write when I've something I feel needs saying, and like you Sandra work very well to deadlines on commisison or when I've got clear what I want to say. But if I was going to sit at a desk all day and treat it like a proper job, i'd be better off earning more money using my maths degree - perhaps a tax consultant (yeah, right!). Writing is often a right pain in the arse!
Enid Richemont said…
I love that title, Sandra, and the premise, too. Title-wise, though, beware of the Icelanders who describe their country as 'the land of ice and fire' (or maybe you could use that??)Anyway, WRITE IT!

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