There are times when I like to delude myself that I am a serious writer, that I can string words together in ways that touch readers. I like to feel that my words have impact, that they demand reaction. This is of course a Walter Mitty conceit on my part. Every once in a while I write something which seems to evoke a visceral response amongst my readers. And I cherish those moments. But they are infrequent. I was going to say that they are unpredictable but that is not the case. There are certain subjects I can touch upon in the full knowledge that I’m pressing buttons I know to trigger responses in everyone, irrespective of perspective. Speaking in tongues, if you will. And that in turn makes me reluctant to press those buttons. It seems cynical. At best, it is a revisitation of familiar pastures. And I have always been of the opinion that one should take the path less travelled.
Mike Oldfield had a huge success with Tubular Bells but progressively less with each subsequent album. It’s not that the music was necessarily weaker, just the presentation. Eventually he hit upon the wizard wheeze of calling each new album Tubular Bells part two, three and so on and making brief musical nods to the original in each. Cynical maybe, desperate certainly.
There are millions of opinions on what makes good writing. When I wrote my PhD thesis in 1984, I was advised to “write like Hemingway”. There should be no wasted words. Needless to say, only Hemingway could write like Hemingway. And to assume another person’s voice is, even if done well, uncomfortable. I tried nonetheless but still managed to exceed the prescribed 50,000 word limit by a further 26,000 words. Thank God my examiners never took it upon themselves to count. Although my early scientific papers were lean and mean, I gradually found an easier and, for me, more authentic style.
I wrote a lot at school, occasionally picking up prizes for English and so forth along the way. But apart from scientific documents, I had little cause to do so thereafter. I’m not sure I even felt the urge. Until of course I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. That event, which seemed to marry up science and personal experience, lit a creative fire under me. Suddenly I enjoyed writing again. Readers wrote to me and told me they enjoyed reading my pieces. Sometimes I touched hearts and sometimes I touched nerves. But I still never considered myself to be a writer. And I still don’t.
To be honest, I read little these days for a variety of reasons. I struggle to read the work of an author I admire without my own writing subtly absorbing their mannerisms. It’s not intentional or contrived in any way, which somehow makes it worse. So at various stages, my writing has been imbued with tiny fragments of Hemingway, Kerouac, Proulx, Keillor, Bryson, Steinbeck and Faulkner. Interestingly all Americans I notice as I write this. I don’t know whether these have been aids or barriers to finding my own voice.
Funnily enough, the route to finding my own voice has been to use my voice. Before the advent of speech recognition software, I wrote (painfully slowly) using a keyboard. By the time I had finished a sentence, I wanted to change it. My brain outran my fingers, even more so as Parkinson’s tightened its malign group on my digits. Now I use voice recognition software for everything. And in the truest sense, I feel I have found my voice. I think, I talk, it writes. And my natural voice as a writer emerges, butterfly-like, from this confining chrysalis. Sure it’s wordy and rambling. I drift off down blind avenues. But it is me. I may not be a writer’s writer. Probably never will be. But this is my voice.
I have written two pieces in my life of which I am genuinely proud. The first, a short story called Angel is on my website. The second was a 500 word catharsis written the night my mother died called The Hardest Goodbye (not currently public). On those two pieces, I considered myself “a writer”.
That’s a total of two pieces in a decade. Less even than the frugal Salinger. I have good friends who are excellent writers. And occasionally I can come, like Cutty Sark, within grasping range of their abilities. But for the most part, I still consider myself an aspiring writer.
At 60, I’m probably leaving it a bit late.