When I was about nine, I wrote a poem at school.
The themes of our poems were to be the primary colours and this one was ‘Red’.
What would a child write about red? Post boxes, love hearts, rosy red apples, the sky on a summer’s night? Her favourite red dress?
This girl wrote about a dystopian empty landscape, in which she was walking alone. She passed a huge red ‘Danger” sign but carried on walking, over barricades, broken glass, bits of rock.
The poem concluded with the line: ‘Boom, Blood, and The End’.
I don’t know where that poem came from. I had never fantasised or imagined about such horrors. I did not grow up in Belfast or Gaza. I can’t remember having the idea; the words just errupted, violently from my pencil.
But I do remember wanting a reaction to what I’d written. And not getting it. My teachers and my parents may have found my words disturbing. They pushed them to one side, and hoped my next piece would be more ‘culturally accpetable’ I expect.
When I was a child I was a natural writer. I may have been repressed, shy, a brainy gawky kid. But my relationship with language was free and unimpeded by expectations, inhibitions and thought. At infant school I got told off for my handwriting being ‘too big’. But that was part of my self-expression. I may have felt I didn’t really exist in the world, but on the page I was WRIT LARGE.
But education did for me. I remember being at Junior school and my teacher telling me she thought I’d make a good librarian. I did become a librarian for a brief while, and I am proud to say I was lousy. Every adult in my life saw me as an ‘academic’ type, a boffin, a student. As if they wanted to trap me in that detached prison I felt myself to be in. My writer’s heart got surpressed, to the point where I almost forgot it existed at all.
The nadir of my writing life occurred at a peak in my academic career. I had completed a PhD, in which I wrote 80,000 words. Well I probably wrote at least triple that, but they were the ones that stuck. I am proud of my achievement, but not one single one of those words came from the heart, the core of me. Except maybe a few quotes from other writers who I love. I passed my viva with the caveat that I conduct ‘minor corrections’ on my thesis. ‘Minor corrections’ sounds like a psychiatrist’s report, or a prison-officers recommendation. The examiners were clever, because although my corrections were ‘minor’ their ‘recommendations’ made it clear they were questioning and undermining the very basis of my research. I couldn’t ‘correct’ my ideas, my arguments. So I had to go and do penance instead.
That’s when it happened. I got home and sat at my desk as I had done every day for the previous four years. I looked at the computer screen. I looked at my text books. I looked at my hands. I could not write a word. The system had won. All those words and words and words, and all that ‘teaching’ and all that ‘study’ and all those ‘meetings’ with my supervisory team (even the language of academia is like a prison, or a rehabilitation centre). And now I could not write a damned thing. Because I didn’t want to write what they wanted me to. But I knew I would fail if I didn’t. The anger inside me boiled, and bubbled away. I went swimming and forgot to eat. I couldn’t speak to my partner, who had passed his PhD with flying colours. I wanted to scrawl ‘FUCK YOU’ all over that stupid book.
In the end I buckled down, I squeezed those words like blood out of a stone. I added the caveat to my original ideas, the excuses, the maybes, the ‘feminist theory says’… And I got my piece of paper. Never has a badge of success ever felt like more of a ‘failure’. Not a failure exactly. More like the outcome of a war. Nobody won. Or if they did it certainly wasn’t me.
Someone has just told me I am a ‘natural’ writer. It made me happy, and a little sad. Because I am a natural. I think all children are natural at something: writing, painting, talking, singing, dancing, playing the fool. And more often than not, our whole education is all about beating that natural talent out of us, turning us into citizens. And if we are to have talents, they have to be the ‘product’ of education itself.
It has taken me a long long time and quite some pain and struggle, to reconnect with the natural writer that has always been inside me. I think the person who told me I am a ‘natural’ writer is a natural writer too. But he is probably somewhere in that prison that I spent so long in myself, where writing isn’t really valued unless it fits a certain mould. His writing is at least if not more culturally unacceptable than mine, and will only be allowed through the social net if it undergoes ‘minor corrections’.
I don’t really have any advice for this writer. I don’t suggest he throws away everything by sending a big FUCK YOU to his ‘supervisory team’.
But I do hope he keeps on writing. For himself. From the heart and the cock. With his own voice that is so obviously unique, empassioned and articulate.
It can be scary sometimes. I scared myself, aged nine, with that RED poem. I have been scaring myself again recently, with some of the violence that has erupted from my pen, my hands, my cunt.
But this is who I am. It can’t be wrong because it is true. I can’t be wrong because I am true.
Brian Patten knows what I am talking about. He, most definitely is a natural.