I’ve had several conversations recently with other girls that I’m friends with (or women, I suppose I should say, now) about writing. I am always so private, now, about my words, so these discussions always feel rather confessional, the admittance of writing an intimacy and something to disclose with consideration.
When we discuss what we wrote in our youth, one thing is always the same: whatever we created then, be it prose or songs or poetry, in our teens we all stopped or distanced ourselves from it in some way, marked often I think by a lack of confidence. Most of those I’ve spoken to stopped writing altogether; and while I have kept writing, all these years, from the conversations I’ve had recently I wonder if that’s rare. I don’t know, perhaps I shouldn’t say that when it’s so difficult to tell; I think about how private I am about what I write and I wonder how many of my other friends do write, but have never told me as much, just as I have never told them.
Just about all my childhood, I remember, I wrote, and knew that I wanted to write – God, it’s such a UCAS phrase, isn’t it: ‘from an early age, I have been passionate about…’ – but it’s true, so whatever. Yet when I was fifteen or so – I’m not quite sure when exactly or why, or what sparked it, for there was no specific incident that began it, I don’t think – I stopped all of that. I no longer believed that it was ‘realistic’ for me to write, that what I had to say was worthwhile, all the rest. And so I stopped saying that a writer was what I wanted to ‘be’. I stopped sharing it with others. I stopped talking about it altogether, and was made embarrassed by how much I had told others of it in the past. I remember I used to tell my younger sister about the events of what I wrote as if it was a TV programme I was keeping her updated on, episode by episode; I think of it now and I can hardly believe it, for it’s still there, that shame – ‘how could I have told her, what must she think!’. All these years since I have kept writing, but it has been such a solitary act; for first thing in the morning and last thing at night.
Clearly it is something we feel we are meant to keep to ourselves. I remember once last year asking a novelist I had heard speak what the experience of publishing her second book had been like when it had come so long after the release of her first; I had wondered about the differences and difficulties of it. She presumed (naturally, I’m sure) that I was asking in order to make my own plans, I suppose, to see what it might be like ‘for me’; she asked me, ‘do you write?’ – and I had not expected her question. I got so red and flustered; I ought to have said no to save myself the embarrassment, but I was caught and ended up saying something like ‘well, not anything good’, which made the others present laugh; I said it wasn’t important, that it didn’t matter; I looked at the table and my hands and just about begged for the conversation to move on. And everyone else there, then, knew that I wrote, and knew that I was shamed by it and that others had come to know of it.
I mentioned The Laugh of the Medusa in a post the other day and coincidentally I ended up re-reading it recently. I’ve been studying Revolution on my Mind by Jochen Hellbeck and I had so many feelings about it (motives for writing, what is written, what happens to the self through writing) that I was compelled to revisit Cixous to see if she felt the same way I did, or do, about women writing for themselves and what that can do for us. It’s just as good as I remember; and made even better, I think, by the fact her questions are now so present and urgent for me. My fourteen-year-old self had appreciated the essay for the way it made me think about things I had never been able to articulate: things I knew to be true, inwardly, but had never known I knew, never been able to express. And it meant a lot to ‘current me’ to know that someone else felt as strongly as I do about the need for us to tell our stories; that woman must write woman, as she says, and that we might find some kind of freedom in doing so.
One of the things she talks about is the way that writing is for women both too silly and too, I don’t know, ‘high’ – something beyond us, something we ought not attempt. I can see the truth in it. To say I write is in some way to believe in what you write. And we think of writers as requiring readers; so to say I write is to say that you would share your words, which is again to say that you think them worth sharing. It becomes something embarrassing, this belief; and you worry that people might think it an arrogance. To say that you want to ‘be’ a writer (in the making-a-living, adverts-at-train-stations, interviews-in-the-saturday-supplements kind of way we conceive of writers) is to admit to a dream that could so easily not materialise; and better to not try than to try and fail and humiliate oneself, that seems to be the way of it.
I wish we did not see it as something distant, as an elevated art form; that it is something for us in the everyday; that we could say I write as easily as we say I cook, I read, I play the piano; especially as women and especially as young women, for that’s when it seems to ‘go’ for so many of us. I wish we could take writing for ourselves and not only that but hold onto it. It is ours, it can always be ours.