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Do you have to?
We are half-way into the Easter weekend which here is four days long. It’s a holiday, and my difficulty is that I’ve never really seen the point of holidays. I was talking to another writer last week about what I would be doing, about the children coming and going, the concerts and the walks by the sea and she said “How lovely!” and then catching the look on my face – “But when will you work?”
A couple of years ago we were in Greece and one of the teenagers came across me sitting in the shade with my notebook. She asked, pityingly: “Do you have to write?” It took me back to my first foreign holiday at the age of ten when we borrowed someone’s dilapidated villa in Menorca. For all the excitement of flying, the dazzle and blue water, the lizards and ruined stone and living by lamplight, what gripped me was language. I found a parallel-text anthology of Spanish poetry and a dictionary and set about making my own translations. This sounds horribly precocious but believe me I was not, and am not, trying to impress. Wherever we went I found books and disappeared into them. If anything I was considered eccentric and, like a stamp collector or bonsai gardener, was accommodated as long as I didn’t bore on. No one minded but no one was interested.
I can’t remember not writing any more than I can remember not reading, and one was as natural and as inward as the other. It took me awhile to understand how easily this bookishness could be perceived as trying to appear to be something I wasn’t – a grown-up. I was no better at being a child than I was at being on holiday. Around the same time I used the word “idiosyncratic” in class and the teacher made me stand up and explain what it meant. She was confident I didn’t know and the fact that I did made me no more popular with her or anyone else. I confined myself to words of fewer than four syllables after that.
If anyone asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said I didn’t know. It didn’t occur to me to want to be a writer because writing was something I already did. I wandered through college and out into the world, worked in publishing, had a baby and then got lucky. The Poetry Society was within walking distance of my flat and they were running a workshop (I’d never heard of a workshop) on a Wednesday night. My daughter was ten weeks old and I figured I could make it there and back between feeds. The tutor was Fred D’Aguiar and I learnt so much so fast from him that one day I arrived with a draft I thought was pretty good and as it came off the photocopier I realised how bad it actually was and dropped it in the bin.
My family, as it is now constituted, are proud but not particularly interested and that seems about right to me. My reading and writing are ordinary and solitary but even for the most magical holiday (which for me would be somewhere northern and deep into the dark) I could not leave them behind. Even if I don’t write anything down in a day I have worked on something and if it is one of those blank periods when my mind shuts me out then I feel as if I don’t exist.
When I was a child, reading and writing were not about presenting myself but explaining myself. Writing was a way of translating the world and locating myself within it. Later it became a form of reply. It is not an overstatement to say that being able to write made sense of my life as well as myself and I feel endlessly fortunate about that. I never wonder what to do, I have never thought about who to be, and I can never not do or be it. So yes, I have to.