Working Class Writers’ Week: Why Can’t You Just Write?
“Why can’t you just write?” –
my housemate asked, trying not to look at the stack of maimed pages on the kitchen table. She waited moments for an answer that wouldn’t come to me until twenty years later. I was 22 then, at University studying English Literature, and I couldn’t write a single sentence without scoring it out. Language, the one thing that I was good at, the one thing that saved me from all the damage I was destined for, had left me.
I go back to that room in nightmares; to all of that unfinished work, because I’ve got unfinished business there. To fit in I’d cut away the roots that bound me to my fisherman father and Irish mother. I started with my accent, hacking at it like the ugly sister who sliced off her toes just to get into the castle. There was no magic way in for me either. I was a stowaway. Stowaways learn to keep quiet. I didn’t say words until I heard someone else pronounce them; I grew anxious about speaking up in seminars; I stopped talking about the place where I came from as no one knew it existed. I thought I was beginning again but I was erasing. ‘Why can’t you just write?’ assumes a presence that can speak. When I came to the waiting page there was no ‘I’ left to fill it.
I know now that we have to write with our whole selves, and that the ‘you’ doing the writing must be supported by a scaffolding of confidence and practical necessities. I know that back then I couldn’t ‘just write’ because I was in free-fall. My mum caught me, sent me back to Ireland ‘to your people’ where they recognised me in the set of my face-bones – “You’ll be a McLaughlin then.’ – when I no longer knew myself.
As a mentor and teacher I meet writers like me, who are in free-fall now, without that scaffolding of confidence and no idea how to build it, and I know that the industry’s response is still sometimes – just write. Why is that advice both so true and at the same time so utterly useless for working class writers? Sometimes we can’t write. Sometimes we write a lot but there’s no place for it. Both of these problems are rooted in the invisibility trap. When our stories are missing from the stages, screens and pages of legitimate culture shame fills that absence. Are those stories we grew up with and want to tell missing because they don’t deserve to be heard? The invisibility of our experiences teaches us that the cultural forms that define us aren’t legitimate. Leading class analyst, Professor Mike Savage, suggests that the cultural divide between the classes is based on the ‘legitimacy, confidence and ease’that middle and upper classes experience towards their own cultural forms. So it is up to us as underrepresented writers to make our own legitimacy and confidence.
To do this we can’t start by just writing, first we have to create the conditions to write with our whole selves so that we can tell our stories as they are and make our cultural forms visible – and preferably loud with a touch of dark humour. This way we can build a big enough presence in the industry to inspire new voices and crowbar open that definition of legitimacy. To do this requires a plan and so I began to make up The Writer’s Plan, starting with my own experience and asking other writers about theirs. This plan isn’t concerned with the writing and craft but with that scaffolding of confidence that comes before it.
The Writer’s Plan is the collision of my writing self with the other job I did to avoid admitting I wanted to write – I was a development fundraiser for the creative industries. I learned how to enable people to realise their creative dreams. My plan as a writer was to just write and beat myself up about not getting anywhere. But as a fundraiser I knew that to make an idea real I didn’t need to agonise about its worth, I had to give it the resources it needed. When I treated my writing like a project, everything changed, I reached out for the opportunities and help to make my writing possible.
The first task of a fundraiser is to understand the problem you want to change. As writers we often use story as a platform for change because it isn’t an indulgence it’s an act of survival and resistance. So I asked myself what problems I wanted to change as a writer. I really had to drill into my motives and came up with this: ‘I write to create an imagined world where trauma can be resolved in a way that reality won’t allow’. Knowing this changed how I write, deactivating that guilt and shame I felt when approaching the page. It’s such an important exercise to understand what writing means to us. Take ten minutes to free-write and answer the question ‘Why do I want to write?’
As a fundraiser it is dangerous to think from a position of scarcity as it devalues the problem that needs changing but as a writer I did this all of the time. Scarcity-thinking only ever allows us to ask for permission. Permission isn’t the same as asking for what we need. It only ever bargains for the least the giver is willing to part with. In fundraising the trick is not to focus on a lack of resources but to deeply understand need and find ways to meet it. To do this for your writing I’ve created a task called ‘The Triangle of Writerly Desires’ that will help you to identify your full spectrum of needs from a new notebook to securing a deal. You can find this exercise and all of the steps of the Writer’s Plan so far here at nowriterleftbehind.wordpress.com. You can join in any time and share your thoughts and responses with me and all the other folk taking part @Kalamene #thewplan.
If I could speak to that scared 22-year-old self who couldn’t just write now I’d say something like this:
Know who you are and where you come from. Know what you want to say and why. Know what you need and how to get it. Know how to ask for help. Know at its root shame only means to cover and know that you have a right to be seen.
Working class writers are making themselves be seen, they are being published and read. Just this month we will see the release of Unbound’s Common People Anthology edited by Kit de Waal, Jessica Andrews’s Saltwater and Kerry Hudson’s Lowborn. Every story written, every story read is a piece of that scaffolding that stops new writers falling, that steadies them so they can just write.