I was in my loft. The ancient tin of paint upon which I was sitting was gently reprimanding my backside while the wind from outside whistled without remorse through the soffits.
It's a part of my home I seldom visit, but thanks to an odd mixture of boredom and curiosity, and the imminent move playing on my mind, a sort-out, I decided, was probably in order. It's a strange place to be, that dusty darkened hub in the eaves, surrounded by the abandoned years-old relics of not only my life, but the lives of households prior, their provenance questionable, and ultimately amounting to a frowsty museum for the sacrosanct and the shit.
Amid the dusty boxes languishing between 1980's chairs, threadbare camping ephemera, well-travelled battered suitcases with missing zips and cobweb strewn dumbbells was, perched perilously on a rolled up Moroccan rug, a deep green plastic crate.
A wry smile broke across my face on realising it was packed full of diaries and journals from the last 15 years. Flicking through, and my 20s and some of my 30s were flashing before my eyes; endless musings on quotidian work hassles, unsatisfactory relationships, depressing parties etc. What had begun in my formative years as simple private travelogues had become essays of travel writing combined with mordant social observation and self-exploration. It was heartening to see that in some I skimmed, the unabashed delight in being young and alive was absolutely communicated.
But amongst the acres of poetic whimsy and the ignominiously faux literary blah was some quite nice writing, decent turns of phrase and the occasional sparkling metaphor. This I told to a friend, who urged me to revisit and edit some, which I've since started to do and even publish here on this very site – those, at least, which won't get me into trouble. If nothing else, it will strengthen my editing muscle. Everyone knows editing oneself is a process fraught with difficultly, but yet doing so years afterwards is, admittedly tons easier – given hindsight and the abject shame that one's younger self's thoughts often produces.
For some, myself included, writing is a compulsion. Like masturbation, or stuffing your face with cream buns, one is still compelled to do it. As WH Auden once said ‘I write to see what I think.’ For others, writing can cause more torment than satisfaction, and yet it's absolutely necessary for ones understanding of oneself, and as such can become a life-draining addiction.
Most start their writing life with the simple diary. Here is when one first discovers their voice and its often a watershed moment. Being able to write the personal, spontaneous and uncensored in diary form is therapeutic. There's a cathartic element to the process of recording ones thoughts, regardless of how well one is able to write. Quentin Crisp said everyone should keep a diary, not only of events but also of opinions, ideas, dreams – a record of the soul.
Filling a diary hones the art of writing and perfects the skill of prose and other forms. Reading an interview with Lena Dunham recently and seeing her described as the voice of a generation, I conceded - what writer doesn’t dream of becoming an avatar of a new generation of restless youth? Every writer worth their salt has that compulsion to expose their humanness, communicate a universal truth matched with an urgency to express oneself in a way that feels relevant and effervescent. Purging a mind in disarray of its ills is the best creative outlet for a tormented soul.
For a friend of mine, its all he wants to do, and seems intent on being nothing but a writer, despite not producing anything tangible in recent years. I suppose there are some, like actors too, who use their lofty and grandiose ambition as justification to avoid the realities of the real world, like getting an ordinary job. All I know is that not finding a publisher has left him deplete and despairing of ever achieving recognition. He says he'd rather be dead than capitulate to doing a job which doesn't meet his exacting standards creatively. I, on the other hand, have a more realist approach to such a precarious career. Having ones work discovered and vaunted would be nothing short of miraculous, hence why I'm still found contracting in a back street office in Palookaville writing about pot holes.
What sane soul would be a bona-fide writer full-time, though? Enduring a life-long essay crisis in solitary confinement where the sole aim is simply not to rend ones parchment in despair. Yes, there might be fleeting moments of creative fulfilment, but on the whole the writing process is a torturous activity which undeniably stirs insecurity, disillusionment, depression, obsession and boredom.
There's also that daily battle with the internet. Being self-disciplined versus staring at one's Facebook news feed to the point of inertia as if waiting for the Holy Ghost to appear between the lines. Or how about cleaning the toilet, because quite frankly, any writer I know would rather be doing anything other than write.
The life of a writer is often one of failure as one scales mountains of self-doubt, dissatisfaction and self loathing with each sentence produced, your mood purely dependent on finding a fresh or unique turn of phrase or way of shaping a line - anything which doesn't hit you as being 'the same old' or 'that sounds exactly like me' or 'that's just imitating such and such.' Nothing must be unconsidered, and above all else, every cliché must be detonated. It's hard! It's not just about throwing words on a page, its about conveying one's splintered psyche in the most inventive way without giving rise to people believing you're berserk.
Like my friend, I longed to be a writer blazing a unique trail, and my writing voice, colloquial and brazen, to be identified with universally. I wanted to let my interior world throb with significance, to have my imagination fly, vomit it onto the page with colour and candour and create brilliantly luminous worlds while tapping into something deep and dark within my own life story. But perhaps, in the end, that will have to be left for my diary.
Later on my sofa and I'm dusting off my journals and flicking through them when two things spring to mind. The first is how startled I am by my schizophrenic variation in scrawl, and secondly how each account expertly describes the thrills, but mainly spills, of metropolitan living over 10 years occasioned by an all too eager aim to achieve.
The years may have vanished, but they’re all there on the yellowing pages, laid bare with breathtaking lucidity, possessed by a melancholy yet candour, as desultory as they are vivid, in note pads or elsewhere typed up and placed carefully in plastic wallets, ready to be sifted, scrutinised or merely disregarded.
Elsewhere there's floppy discs (remember them?) and hard drives full of them too. All bursting with splenetic broadsides at those who would enrage me, most forming in my mind at moments of perfect clarity, while others would be cribbed from the greats. Other razor sharp insights and vague stabs at wit and sage-like moments would leaves me questioning my own wisdom. At a creative writing class a few years back, a tutor said the aim in writing always ought to be employing sufficient poetic powers to write the truth in the most unique and elegant way one can. I showed him some of my attempts, to which he said – it takes wisdom to be this wry in the face of disillusionment. These days I'm less harsh on my younger self, and laugh rather than scold myself for such absurd limitations and blatant imitations.
As with all my favourite memoirs I've ever read, my journals maintain a strict chronological structure and yet prioritise digression and recollection, a knotty matrix of interesting banalities. My perspective, I note, has changed considerably too, from optimistic and joyful to sardonic and bitter; and so it continues to do so often in delirious fashion, an almost bipolar fusion of looking at life in ways determined by circumstance, experience and mood.
These days my pursuits are more or less ancient. Recent entries suggest that gone is my youthful desperation, no longer yearning to be part of a social group which had always proved elusive anyway. Absent now are the ruminations upon standing at my window looking out over London, imagining the estrangingly hip crowds of Soho poseurs and Shoreditch wankers enjoying saturnalian pursuits without me, since the truth is what most consider fun no longer falls into my boundaries of the definition. It’s taken me years to realise.
Another friend once told me she’d have liked to have been a writer, but the same voice visited her every time she set foot in a book shop – what could she possibly say that hasn’t been said before. Alas, it’s true. There’s nothing new under the sun. But this is no reason to thwart any literary goals. In fact this same friend is one I've written about quite vividly. But that's the problem of being a writer, especially when using real people for inspiration. The fear of offending them is always prevalent, regardless of their anonymity on the page. I suspect people less encumbered by loyalty have an easier ride of being a writer. Michael Cunningham said this about it: “You do draw on your own experience, that's your richest source of material. I don't ever regret writing about people I know. I feel like it's hard enough to write a book that's even halfway decent, and if you try to write a good book that isn't going to piss off your mother or your lover or your best friend, you really stack the odds too highly against yourself. You just have to be a little bit reckless as a writer and assume that the people in your life will be able to bear it." He concludes with a warning, by adding: "I advise against forming close attachments to novelists -we're traitors!"
As for the stress of not writing enough and the spectre of time-scales, lamenting any waning output is futile, when the only goal must be to set aside an hour or so per day or even a week to write. Mine comes in fits and starts, but when it’s time, it flows fruitfully, bringing with it an avalanche of the usual polarity of emotion.
I convince myself there’s no rush to produce that magnificent masterpiece which could make my name. Afterall, Shakespeare was 40 when he wrote Hamlet, Tolstoy 41 when War and Peace was published. I hope I can produce something which can sit proudly beside the greats – to have employed the chief gift of characterisation, become a raconteur of a writer in possession of supreme musicality, the potent strum and rhythm of the words dripping off the page with consonantal melody and critics will proclaim that I effortlessly 'turn elegy into jazz with a roguish blue note of pathos.'
According to Amit Chaudhuri, a masterpiece is a work that impeccably adheres to the most difficult of literary conventions while also uniquely subverting and exceeding them. I hope, sometime toward the end of my life, when all is said and done, I'll be able to look back having finally produced one. And I hope its final resting place isn't only my loft.