where the writers are
Nº4: Toy Soldiers – What Makes A Writer?

What makes a writer? Apart from a writer’s mother, that is, and I don’t mean that in a Freudian sense. But what persuades thousands of people that sitting in a room on their own telling themselves stories, a carry on that could have you put away with a rubber wedge between your teeth in any other walk of life, is a sensible pastime for somebody who claims to be a mature and coherent adult?

As it happens, I wouldn’t claim to be a mature and coherent adult myself, nor would I claim that for anybody else I know. We all carry a large chunk of childishness inside us, one that surfaces all too often, and it’s just a question of whether the chunk of childishness that persists is appealing or not. Enthusiasm, generally good. Volatility, generally bad. Buoyancy, admirable. Petulance, a royal pain in the arse. Even so, we’ve got to pretend to maturity and coherence, otherwise we might as well pack it all in and apply for a berth in the Big Brother house. But make-believe aside, where does a writer come from?

I wouldn’t venture an answer for anyone else, but here are a few of the many reasons I became and then remained something akin to a writer:

a. Play. You know what it’s like when you’re a kid, how you can spend hours on end lying on your tummy in the garden messing about with your toy soldiers telling yourself stories. I’m 48 now, bald, bearded, a bit baggy looking, pouchy about the eyelids, not noticeably infantile in my physical characteristics. You can imagine what the neighbours would say if I was lying on my tummy in the garden with my toy soldiers. Tell them I’m ‘a writer’ though and everything’s lovely -- some of them might even be impressed.

Yet what do writers do but mess about with toy soldiers and rag dolls and coloured crayons and any variety of building block game you care to name? We’re at it all the time, orchestrating battles, dressing up Barbie, constructing new worlds, colouring in our picture books, unknotting the knotty business of existence by working things out in the stories we tell ourselves, imposing some order on the incomprehensible chaos that seems to surround us. Writers just keep on doing what other people would like to keep on doing but feel obliged to give up because some fool has sold them the maturity myth.

b. Portray. When I was a kid (there’s a bit of a theme emerging here, but nonage isn’t strictly relevant in this instance), I used to draw cartoons for which I was much praised and of which I was mightily proud. In adolescence, I stopped drawing, my artistic career curtailed by faint praise from an art master I admired and by the realisation that I wasn’t really that talented after all. There was, however, a lingering desire to represent the world in some manner, to look around and recreate what I saw, and it was that need to portray things that eventually pushed me into writing. My facility for cartoons still surfaces sometimes, betraying me into caricature and burlesque, but I wouldn’t mind betting most writers could tell a similar tale, a sort of Neanderthal urge to daub the shape of a bison onto the cave wall, leaving our mark and showing what we have seen.

c. Pontification. Had a sort of epiphany when I was seventeen years old. Been reading Herman Hesse. I know, I’m sorry, it’s horribly clichéd, but I was seventeen and he was Herman Hesse and we were made for one another. It was just one of those things. Flung into a turmoil of emotion, I sat up all night writing down my adolescent lucubrations, and come the rising of the sun, I found myself thinking, “By god, this is better than working”. I don’t for a moment believe the word ideas would be appropriate for the feeble maunderings I produced that night, but that doesn’t matter. What I had discovered was the overpowering and uncontainable joy of just sitting down and telling people what one thinks, which leads us onto . . . .

d. Lack of brain. What do I think? I’ve always admired people who can extemporise on a subject, who can play with ideas, juggle with thought processes, throw out startling notions that may well be contradictory but still stimulate. I wish I could do the same, but my brain doesn’t function like that. It takes me absolutely bloody dark ages to work out what I really think about something, and, often as not, I need to tell myself a story about a given subject before I know precisely what my values are and how they accord with the topic to hand. It’s sad, really, several hundred pages and I’ve produced what a pundit would toss off in a couple of pithy soundbites, but there you go.

In short then, the answer to my original question is: playfulness, parody, self-importance, and stupidity. Why oh why can they not frame these things like that in the Careers Advisory Office? All that guff about talent and ability and aptitude and opportunity. It would have saved me years of angst if they’d got to the point directly. “Right, Davis, you are puerile, prehistoric, pretentious, and more than a little dim. Here’s your pencil, get on with it.”

What skills you need to be a writer is another matter altogether. Perhaps I’ll tackle that in another blog. In the meantime, I’m going to play with my toy soldiers, in a way that is at once reductive and vainglorious, and I’m going to do it at great length.

Frivolous? Fatuous? Fat-headed? Affected? Get on with you, I’m a writer.