A year before I finished high school, one of the broadsheets interviewed the state’s most recent doyenne of English examinations. “I’m a writer,” she was quoted as saying, and I knew immediately that she was the antithesis of everything my seventeen-year-old self stood for. Exactly what those things were, I’m not so sure now. I think artistic integrity might have been one of them, but I know integration by parts definitely wasn’t (maths was never my strong point, though I often envied its purposefulness and exotic symbols). I do remember being vehemently opposed to the notion of my being a writer, so much so that upon receiving a daub of prestige in a competition run by that same broadsheet later (or was it earlier?) that year, I would downplay the calibre of my work with a singular aggressiveness whenever it came up in conversation. I didn’t win the competition.
Even now when people ask me what I do, it’s “I write stuff” and not the other thing. The habit runs deep in my neuroses. To me, the term yokes along a whole wagon of personality disorders and bohemian undergarments and a mounting tally of operational expenses like alcohol and extramarital affairs. I fear these things. But there’s a deeper fear too, of being straitjacketed into not just bohemian undergarments which repulse me but any set of undergarments at all. I like being able to switch between sets of underwear, and wash them regularly, and even throw them out with a touch of nostalgia once they’ve obviously passed their wear-by date. And so whenever someone says “I’m a _____” I feel this shameful little tingle of fear mixed with schadenfreude at the fact that I’m not at all like them in their worn-out boxers but at the same time I am.
Five years on, I still write stuff. Despite my best efforts, it’s increasingly the only thing I really do. Improving a craft requires a monopoly time, and that means jettisoning the competition: music, academia, large chunks of social interaction. Not all of it, though. My best words are those of others, plucked from conversations or stories or the walk home past mothballed terraces crowding out the piebald sky. I resist my craft’s efforts to define me because I suspect the moment they do, I will cease to have anything to write about. A facility with words opens many doors, much like a facility containing many battering rams. It’s a powerful tool but nothing more, and I intend for it to stay that way. Writing can be who you are, but better, I think, to keep it as what you do.