It was in a dingy flat in Barcelona that I first wrote an autobiographical story. I was heavily influenced by my love of Angela Carter’s work, and so it featured a magic carpet, although it was about the abortion I’d had in my early twenties. I remember the basics: a young woman in an open-backed hospital gown goes under the knife in the same hospital where, as a young tomboy, she’d been rushed to A & E several times. Counting down from 100 on the operating slab, she tells the anaesthetist she’ll kill him if she feels a thing. He laughs. In an anaesthetic dream, she clambers onto a magic carpet and flies away from the ugly town where she grew up and the shame of being caught out with an unwanted pregnancy. No prizes for guessing that the slit-backed gown was a metaphor for exposure. The magic carpet, on the other hand, wasn’t just about dissociation or running away. It had no fuselage, life jacket, or parachute; my imagination was the only thing I had to get me out of there.
I typed up the story three times on a typewriter I’d borrowed. In the early 1990s, people still typed things manually or went to copy shops. Neither I nor anyone I knew had a computer. Literary journals were all in print form, and I had no idea how to submit work. And so the three copies just ended up in my drawer and the typewriter glared at me every morning until eventually, I covered it with a towel.
After various moves to new flats and countries, I lost all three copies of that story. When I wrote it, I was living the opposite kind of life to the one I would have led, had I not had the abortion. The man whose baby it’d been was no longer in touch with me and I was fumbling my way along a prolonged corridor of adolescence that involved a provisional job, an itinerant living situation, and the freedom to experiment with my sexuality. The sound of typewriter keys mashing paper no doubt fitted my self-image as a rebellious free spirit, and I sometimes added to the effect by sticking a cigarette between my lips and squinting with one eye through the smoke.
I thought the story was good enough to show one of my flatmates. He’d confessed his crush on me one evening over a few glasses of Patis at our local bar. Later that night, going up the dingy stairwell to our door, our bellies slammed together as if they were filled with magnets.
That story was a strange thing to show a man I was falling for. Or at least that was how I explained why I felt disappointed when he read it and looked dismayed. I realized I’d been hoping for the kind of empathy only a girlfriend can offer when it comes to unwanted pregnancies. Instead, he made me feel I’d shown him something he didn’t want to see, like my arse hanging out of that hospital gown. Perhaps he thought I’d written a poem about a deer or waterfalls or something. He called it radical. I watched his idea of me adjust while he read; he swallowed and tilted his head, trying to fit this new damaged me inside the other girl he wanted to admire. I should have known our tastes were too far apart but the magnets in my belly were still doing the talking. I should have taken the hint when he threw my copy of Buddha of Suburbia—such a beautiful gay love story—back at me with the words “What are you doing giving a boy like me a book like this?”
To be fair, he did make a magic carpet for me out of papier mâché. Kneeling on it was a figure with her hair in the wind like a ship’s figurehead, and below, arms outstretched to catch me, stood a man who looked like him. The gesture was so romantic I almost didn’t see the obvious. He wanted to save me from my past. I kept that papier mâché sculpture for a long time after we split up.
The next story I wrote was about H., the son of friends of my parents. H. had been my idol as a kid—I guess he’d been 18 when I was about nine. When our families all went on holiday together to Cornwall, Dad took a photo of me zipped inside his anorak, just my head peeking out above where his belly button would be.
The first sentence came to me quite suddenly. As Dad and I were driving under Archway Bridge one time, he told me that H. lived nearby. And that Londoners called it “Suicide Bridge” because people were always jumping off it. H., who lived in Archway with his girlfriend and daughter, had gone through some kind of breakdown when he’d caught his girlfriend sleeping with another man. He couldn’t stop laughing when he’d told Dad the story, and that was how Dad knew H. was losing his mind. In my mind, H.’s voice started rattling in time with his bike clattering over Suicide Bridge. He whistled loudly on purpose as he went down the steps to his flat, not wanting to “catch them at it.” But H.’s girlfriend didn’t take the hint or didn’t care. When H. saw her wrapped up in her lover, he was only 100 steps away from Suicide Bridge. He thought for a split second about going back out the door and leaping right off. H.’s voice in my story sounded like he was telling a joke that wasn’t funny, the way people do when they have no tears left.
I wrote about how H. didn’t jump, but that something broke in him instead. His weed habit worsened, making the capillaries in his fingers collapse before he went full-bent mad and his hair fell out. I wrote about how you can be zipped up inside someone’s jacket and a few years later, they might be thinking about jumping off a bridge.
But there was something else in that story that I couldn’t talk about at the time, like a shadow beneath things that I’d glimpsed and then turned away from. Dad had been in love with H. It hadn’t been talked about openly when Mum was alive, but Dad kept mentioning H. afterwards in a certain way, and I wanted him to shut up every time. And so I wrote a story where bad things happened, but not the worse things I could imagine, like when people talk nervously to avoid the elephant in the room.
I also have no copy of that story.
I turned to a professor who’d taught me at university and asked him how you became a writer. I remember posting the letter on the corner of the dingy street near our flat in Barcelona and never really expecting it to arrive on his gleaming desk from the dog-pee-and-sulphur-stained post box. But, incredibly, a week or so later, a reply came back written with a fountain pen that read, “It is foolhardy to embark on a career in writing without first doing some kind of apprenticeship.” That was the gist of what it said. Along with the copies of my first two stories, the postcard has not survived my twenty subsequent moves. I turned the card back and forth, remembering the handwriting from comments in the margins of my essays. I flicked it thoughtfully between my fingers and pinned it above my rickety desk in the dingy flat.
Foolhardy. I don’t think I’d ever heard someone using the word. Was it a warning? I didn’t want to be foolhardy because of the shame it implied. I interpreted it as: “Don’t make an ass of yourself.” But also: “Be careful. Writing is not to be undertaken lightly.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, that’s when I stopped writing and picked up photography. Same goal, different medium. I liked the surety of shutter speeds, apertures, and ISO numbers you could learn and that magically produced an image which had only been in your head before. Even if that image didn’t end up on the paper, you produced some kind of image and could say it was what you were aiming for. In writing, that trick was harder to pull off. I did fashion shoots based on things I’d read or films I’d seen. I studied Bill Viola and Jeff Wall. I wanted to do something conceptual—to transform the pictures in my head into light, depth, and texture, not words. I used ideas from books I’d read or films I’d seen—short stories by Angela Carter, fairy-tale characters like Hansel and Gretel, and make-up like Catherine Deneuve in Belle du Jour. Normally I went for unusual faces, not flawlessness. Telling stories with a camera meant surrounding myself with a team of people, and it saved me from sitting at a desk for hours with shame and despair seeping up my legs. I thought I could write when I was older. In the meantime, I had some living to do.
It was in a room full of strangers at a gay wedding in Islington that I first told the story of how I grew up. A barman at the pub where I worked asked me to be his witness. He and his partner were marrying two lesbians for visa reasons. As we all rolled around on beanbags in their flat after the registry office, the brides and grooms kissed, and I told them how my sister and I had grown up in suburbia, first with a Mum and Dad, and then after she passed, with two dads. I described our middle-class cul-de-sac, where we’d supplied enough gossip to distract the neighbors from theirs.
The wedding guests thought it was hilarious. I suppose I told it the only way I knew how—as a joke. It was cathartic, and I could turn all my shame into something else. Everyone hooted as I described how Dad had worn a blue hairnet while blow-drying his hair before heading out to gay clubs. “Your life sounds like a bad sitcom,” said one of the grooms. Then I felt I’d used Dad for cheap laughs. Later when I tried to write, I wondered how to not make my life sound like a bad sitcom.
I had no idea how to begin writing and not be foolhardy. Did I just sit down and start? It occurred to me that I’d been asking my professor for permission, not advice. In my family, people didn’t become writers. It was all right to come up with a nice text bordered with pretty pictures in creative writing classes at primary school, but after that, you shook yourself down, studied—not for too long—and got yourself a proper job that paid the rent. In other words, I’d retired from writing at the age of 10, squeezed out a couple of stories in my 20s, and now in my late 40s, I was trying to make a comeback.
Then Dad died. Our story as daughter and father came to an end in real life, and for all the grief it caused, it also freed me to write about him. At first, I approached it as fiction. I fiddled with perspective and tried to write from a child’s point of view, but somehow it didn’t gel. I tried to chop up themes into short stories, but that didn’t feel right either. Finally, I started a course in creative non-fiction: and found myself writing a memoir. It wasn’t planned that way but somehow the chapters kept expanding and the story started to take shape. Most of the time, it also eluded me. “A story is a stick somewhere in a muddy puddle and you have to put your hand in and feel around for the shape,” said the South African writer Damon Galgut; I’d think I had hold of one end, but then it would slip out of my grasp. I came across George Saunders, who was honest about the layers of self-delusion he’d peeled back. When he started out, he wanted to write like Hemingway. In A Swim in the Pond in the Rain, he writes, “Having gone about as high up Hemingway Mountain as I could go, (. . .) I stumbled back down into the valley and came upon a little shit-hill labeled ‘Saunders Mountain.’”
“Hmm,” I thought. “It’s so little. And it’s a shit-hill.”
You could say that George Saunders’s apprenticeship in writing was to imitate another writer’s voice for years before he felt confident enough in his own voice.
The problem of the muddy stick and the shit hill have accompanied me as I have tried to write my memoir. By the time I started for real, I was ready to unearth the shadows under the bad sitcom version, but once I got hold of a detail, it’d slip out of my grasp. Still, I tried to discipline myself: I wrote when I felt like it and when I didn’t feel like it. I showed it to some people whose taste and opinion I trusted. None of them told me I should stop. I slowly crawled up my personal shit hill, one word at a time. To get through the days when it didn’t feel worth crawling up my hill, I wrote YOU’RE GOOD ENOUGH at the top of every page in my notebook.
I still don’t think of myself as a writer. A friend of mine put it like this: “My dad cleaned windows but he wasn’t a window cleaner. I write,” he said, “but I’m not a writer.” I think you probably have to have grown up in class-ridden England to fully appreciate the nuance of that difference.
I keep going because I think it would be foolhardy to stop now, halfway up my shit hill. By now my magic carpet is pretty robust, so I think I can survive even if I fall off. I fall off quite a lot. I’m on the second draft, or maybe the third or the fifth, depending on what counts as a draft. I realize there is no telling when it’s finished until I decide it is. And I realize that part of me is afraid of losing my mind through writing. This isn’t something I say lightly or for some kind of effect. Some part of me is deeply afraid that if I spend my life sitting at a desk with all those feelings others who don’t write are at liberty to suppress, I’m going to go crazy.
Just today, though, I saw this going-mad-problem differently; perhaps it’s just a way of unrestricting your mind. Thinking, the prequel to any writing, unravels that firm sense of who you are. If you think about anything long and hard enough, especially your past, it shifts out of your grasp. The stick doesn’t disappear in the murky puddle: it becomes a 3D object invisible to everyone else that demands a more accurate description. That, coupled with the dissatisfaction of not being as talented or original as, say, Angela Carter, makes it a lonely hard slog up your shit hill.
And so you need people to egg you on from the sidelines. But you should choose them carefully. Pick people when your belly isn’t full of magnets. Don’t pick people who hate books you love. Don’t try and write like your idols. Try out your ideas in rooms of strangers. If you’re afraid of writing something, it’s probably the thing you should write about. And finally, write your story as a metaphor, then as a bad sitcom, and then however it comes out so you can get to the part when you write it the way you want. And don’t ever ask anyone for permission.