I used to enjoy writing the essays my English teacher set us at school. She often encouraged us to put ourselves in the shoes of a character we were studying and she always praised creative interpretations of the topic. The most memorable title she set was the somewhat obscure ‘What does it mean to be a writer?’ It was unlike anything she had set us before and most of the class wanted expansion and clarification but for me it raised the question of what it wasn’t.

I knew I wanted to write and I felt certain that I would be a writer. I wanted to create and build. As a small child I had planned cities in Lego but when I tried to draw my ideas they lacked the complexity that I saw in my imagination. But I could describe them. So if I couldn’t design I’d be a storyteller and build my castles in the sky of my thoughts. To write seemed a big and momentous thing. Nevertheless, I struggled to put that into the words of my essay. The closest I came was the creation of new ways of understanding language, citing Poe coining ‘nevermore’ (as a single word). Years later while I still have the image in my head, I still wonder how to capture the essence of creation that I consider to be the meaning of writing.

A couple of years ago I attended a writing group where the teacher posed the question of how she felt about being a writer to a woman who had finished her first novel, was some way through the second and starting to think about editing with a hope to publishing. The woman replied that she didn’t feel like a writer. While our teacher kindly tried to push the point that she surely was, I wonder whether this woman had got caught up in the mythology of writing and struggled to identify herself alongside such great characters as writers.

For that has certainly been my experience. As I prepared for my A Level’s I had a degree of hero worship for those that attended prestigious academic institutions and was desperate to join their ranks in what I now see as a misguided hope that this would end my self doubt as it would surely ‘prove’ my worth. What happened was that once installed at the university of my choice I would swing between feeling let down by the institution (if it had let me in then it obviously wasn’t so great) and feeling like a fraud for being there. Ultimately, I saw academia as a special pursuit for special people and I simply couldn’t elevate myself in my mind to feel as though I belonged.

I now have a PhD and still feel this way much of the time and I’m sure that the woman from my writing group could get published and still not feel part of the establishment she respects so much. Yet writing is so much more a verb than a noun. I think perhaps rather than consider what it means to be a writer, we ought to consider what it means to write; instead of considering the end product, look to its creation.

If you visualise a chef, you tend to see the process. Whites or an apron, floury hands or maybe wrangling a lobster. You might see a look of intense concentration as a dessert is exquisitely piped or the skilful stirring of the contents of a pot. You probably wouldn’t imagine a plate of food without at least the presence of its creator. And yet with authors we tend to see names on book covers or ivory towers. Authors aren’t interesting to watch, they tend to be scribbling or tapping into a keyboard. The product doesn’t grow before you like a dish. Until there is a book, it can be hard to see what has been done.

Much of my writing has been academic. To a certain extent I could talk of word numbers but for the vast majority of people 80,000 words seems incomprehensible. Most of the people I know write but they write emails, press releases and reports. Rarely do any go over 1,000 words so they lack a benchmark for seeing change. At least they do in comparison to my cooking; a platter of carrot cupcakes with piped topping is something they understand very well. To my Grandad in particular, the question was when my PhD would be finished. He appreciated the journey but wanted to see the product; wants the photo of me in a silly outfit that he can frame. My words are not tangible in themselves, there needs to be something else. And so with writing, whether it’s a blog or a book, the url or ISBN provides a place that places words in a geographical context.

I think that undercuts the desire to publish, to share. My ego that would like a glossy tome on the shelves of Waterstones sits apart from the need to have my words on the internet. Self-publishing via my website is the evidence that I have created something real, that there is a result from my labours. When I cook, there is food. When I work in the garden, there is beauty and order. When I write I need more than a filename. I cook to feed people, I garden to create a home and I write in order to be read. I absolutely write for myself just as I dress to please myself but there is still a need to be seen.

I love validation, of course I do. So reading the comments and messages I get sent is hugely gratifying and buoys my esteem enormously. I love it when I’m able to make people think or laugh. But without it I’d still be writing. Even if only one person visited my site, it’d be worth it because their eyes prove I’ve made something.

I write this from Istanbul where I’m spending a fortnight away from life in order to get the backbone of my book on nihilism written. While I have a clear objective (to write and publish a book), I’m focusing less on being a writer than to simply write, to worry less about the end product and the audience I hope will consume it than about the process. For now, the book is my activity not my end point.


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