I have wanted to write – to be a writer – since I was about twelve, and a wonderful English teacher called Greg Brown first encouraged me. I’m not sure I displayed any special talent; I just think he had a special talent for encouraging young people. Given that I was convinced I wanted to be a writer, I then went on to make all the wrong choices, studying three sciences at A-level and then history and economics at university. In my mind there was a vague and badly thought-out plan, perhaps influenced by Louis MacNeice’s job description: ‘I would have a poet able-bodied, fond of talking, a reader of the newspapers, capable of pity and laughter, informed in economics, appreciative of women, involved in personal relationships, actively interested in politics, susceptible to physical impressions.’
From today’s vantage point, Mackniece seems lacking in important sensitivities (assuming that a poet needs to be male and not disabled), but the sense of the quote – that a writer should be in and of the world – made a great impression on me. The other writing quote that has been a touchstone in my life is this one: books should be the axe that smash the frozen sea within us. Franz Kafka’s writing certainly did that, and his comment has always conveyed the sense that writing, and story-telling more generally, is more than entertainment, more than spinning a great yarn; at it’s best it is transformative at an individual level. That’s what it has been for me; I can chart my life through the important books I’ve read as much as the important events I’ve experienced.
While this sets a high bar for any piece of writing, I also believe that everyone can be a great writer, or rather everyone can write great things. I believe the ability to tell deep, meaningful, moving stories is a universal human ability, just as language is a universal human ability. Not that creating a great, or even a half-decent piece of writing, is always straight-forward. There have been a number of occasions when I’ve been curled in a ball on the floor practically in tears because what I’ve written is so awful and no matter what I do I can’t make it better. That just seems to be also part of the job description. Sometimes it helps to read the things that inspired you in the first place. MacNeice’s Snow often does it for me:
The room was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was
Spawning snow and pink roses against it
Soundlessly collateral and incompatible:
World is suddener than we fancy it.
World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various.
And the fire flames with a blubbling sound for world
Is more spiteful and gay than one supposes –
On the tongue on the eyes on the ears in the palms of one’s hands –
There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses.
I remember reading it for the first time and thinking, ‘Oh, so that’s what you can do with language.’
I can be contacted by emailing email@example.com, or via Twitter @mattbarnwriter.