(Un)Natural Writer

Posted: August 21, 2010 in Writing

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.

  1. IMTB says:

    Hey — sounds like you’re being a bit harsh on yourself. Every PhD I know, genius and exceedingly brilliant, passed with minor corrections.

    Unfortunately one girl I knew had to work throughout it and had tohave her PhD downgraded to an MPhil.. Now that IS devastating.

    I had my dissertation blown to pieces by a pervy arsehole with double tenure… Who then went on to steal all of my ideas. I ended up writing something so false to my initial longing (due to his recommendations) that I felt suicidal for years.

    The worst was when I found out he had started writing about my subject. So he had veered me off course for his own ends.

    Not only this, but at the start of my degree he was despicable towards me in front of others, and gave me low grades for ‘plagiarism’ (it’s too good to be your own work, he said to me in one angry meeting). He asked me to sit on his knee. He was an ugly fat fuck and everyone thought he was the bees knees.

    I didn’t sit on his lap or report him. I just took it out on myself and lost my will to live.

  2. I have heard stories similar to yours many time from academia. It is a cruel world!

    But I was trying not to be hard on myself, but on the system that judges us in this way.

    I hope you are over it now. They are really not worth it those dickheads in academia! 🙂

  3. IMTB says:

    Yeah, the fucking system! Too right.

    I got over it when I found an early plan detailing exactly WHY I shouldn’t write about what I ended up writing about, succinct and critical. I looked into my inner abyss and it looked back and it was hip and critical.

    It just kind of got lost along the way. I hate it when other people make me lose my core (“writing from the cunt”, perfectly expressed). Sometimes the worst enemies are friends with well-meaning advice. ‘He must know better — he’s the most respected professor here’. Blah. Put it in your diary!

    Sometimes the big FUCK OFF is the only way to rescue your self.

    • I know. sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I had have just refused, or even had complete ‘writer’s block’ and not done those corrections. It would have seemed such a massive waste of all that work, but I am not so sure now. But at the time I couldn’t bring myself to say FUCK OFF! I probably would now though!

  4. My Ph.D. dissertation wasn’t good enough, and the committee knew it, and they passed me anyway. Ya see, I’d been working in industry for 7 years already, doing the dissertation in absentia, and was defending four weeks before my credits went bad. They knew my professional work was already Ph.D. quality and that I made a “good representative of the university” (actualy committee member quote). Furthermore, since I was already established outside academia, none of those politics mattered. They gave me the Ph.D. for me, and not for my writing or dissertation.

    This was just one of many lessons in my life that what I do isn’t nearly as important as how it’s perceived, and those perceptions have as much or more to do with what the viewers are bringing to the table than anything I actually did.

    Which relates to how I see ‘natural writer.’ All that means to me is that the observer sees a different buckets of effort and pain and struggle and results than I see myself. I mean, can it be “natural” if I’ve been working at it for decades?

    A writer is someone who can’t stop writing. I think you’re already there.

  5. ‘A writer is someone who can’t stop writing. I think you’re already there’

    Great line, Ed. I agree about perception too. But I think what I am trying to say is that there ARE mechanisms in society that DO stop people writing. And sometimes you have to find a way to overcome/de-activate those mechanisms – so you return to or find for the first time, that compulsive, ‘natural’ desire to write.

    I did stop writing. And now I have started again I hope I won’t be able to stop this time!

  6. Kimboosan says:

    Writing for anyone other than yourself is selling a piece of your soul. That’s not a terrible thing, in an of itself – we gain credentials, or money, prominence from it. But it is terrible when it goes horribly wrong, and in academia that’s almost guaranteed I think because of the overblown egos and vicious politics involved. I’m pleased I’m in a program that does not require a thesis, although as I eye a possible PhD it might be an issue.

    As for the poem – seriously, childhood is one long trauma. Even the most idyllic family unit is going to feature kids who have moments of the screaming-jeebies, and it makes sense, because change is scary and when YOU are the thing changing (your body, your brain!) then it is terrifying. What shocks me is that a nine year old you wrote that poem and anyone thought it was unusual. Childhood is inherently dystopian, and anyone who doesn’t remember that is trying to wash away their own trauma with rose-colored water.

    You are a writer, and you are talented, and that seems very natural and right to me.

  7. Thank-you KimBoo San. You are very generous.

    Yes we all sell our souls at some level or other.

    Oh I had loads of trauma in childhood. That’s partly why I think I expected a reaction to my poem. It was possibly asking for something, an acknowledgment of my trauma. But obviously the fact I am writing about it 35 years later shows I am totally over it!

    • Kimboosan says:

      heh…yeah. My therapist once asked, “do you think this behavior pattern can be traced back to your mother?” and my reply was, “well duh, I’m in therapy – everything can be traced back to my mother!” *snicker*

      So when it is all said and done, was your degree worth it? Did you gain from it what you needed, whatever that was, even with the level of angst it caused you?

  8. No, it wasn’t worth it. I think it might possibly have been one of the stupidest, and vainest, decisions I have made in my life. I think I deserved to be taken down a peg or two to be honest. Academic ambition is just as bad as any other form of ambition, if not worse, as it can pretend to some kind of intellectual purity.

    If I had kids I might not send them to school at all.

    P.s. that sounds overly dramatic and negative. In a sense it is meant to be. I love to study but the institutional setting in which study occurs cancels out the value of the enterprise for me. I have learned so so much more out of academic institutions than I have learned in them.

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