In January 2001 at the age of 33, I started writing; and by March of that year had decided to jack in life as a London admin drudge, reading and writing all day as an unqualified paralegal; deciding instead that it was better to be reading and writing what I wanted, rather than filling my head with the information I was taking on at the office.
I'd been wanting to write for a year and more, after someone had put the suggestion in my head, but couldn't start a word. I couldn't even think up a sentence, and nothing would come out. The only thing going for me was that I'd already acquired the basic discipline of sitting at a desk and writing all day, and all I needed to do now, I imagined, to kick-start a transfer of the mind's focus and direction onto a different, more creative path - was to find a way in.
So, on 2/1/2001, I decided to start keeping a Smoking Diary, hoping it would serve the dual purpose of at least writing something, and maybe even lead to a jacking in of the smokes. This is the very first entry:
2/1/01: It is now 9.51 am and I haven't had a fag yet. This is going to be tough, but if I can see through today, then there is hope for tomorrow. I will type onto here when I get desperate for a smoke, which is right now. The mind seems to be a very powerful tool in the addiction process. The tricks played are all very subtle, and indeed, this here shows the lengths gone to, to try and fight the negative side of one's own mind.I kept it up, writing every day and then, on 9/1/01, the floodgates opened with a two page anecdote that came tumbling out; which shifted any remnant of interest in the work I was doing (reading files of evidence in white-collar tax frauds and precising it down); and moved instead into writing my own stuff. At this point, facing into the onset of middle-age, I didn't have a clue what I wanted to write, just that I didn't want to spend my life moving further and further away from what had been my true heart's desire since playing Shakespeare's Malvolio in Twelfth Night, in the school play at 14. Pretending.
14.50. The mind has beaten itself. I folded like a cheap suitcase at just after midday. I ponced a fag off Farah and smoked it at 12.03. At about 2.30pm I ponced a roll up off Mike, so my consumption for the day stands at two.
It is now 15.41 and I don't know why I am typing this in. Oh go on then yes I do. I am hoping that keeping a diary on my smoking thoughts and habits will serve a number of purposes. One will be to possibly aid me in my attempts to reduce the nicotine intake into my body and two is to try and keep alive some sort of dream as regards my creative writing. If I can combine the two of these, then it can only be for the good, for myself and anyone else who cares about the truth of things. Well maybe that's a bit strong but I can always wipe out anything I don't want to leave in this diary.
18.32 and I have succumbed again. I had another about 5.55pm, a roll up off Mike. 3 so far and with the evening ahead of me I am still trying to look on the bright side. Well there's no point in using this as a tool to not have a fag, for the rest of today anyway. I am only typing now for the practice.
In late March 2001, I packed in the pretence of being anything other than a career failure, leaving London and relocating to Cork, Ireland; then booking myself into a Saint Vincent's Homeless hostel and signing onto welfare. I spent the next six weeks in local Libraries, reading anything I could find on writing; writing my diary and pondering how to become an author. It was during this spell I set out the basics to myself. That all I wanted out of the enterprise, was to write one poem or sonnet that could stand in the shadow of Shakespeare's. An unrealistic goal in terms of becoming the Warwick Bard's equal, but by limiting myself to an Ideal of departing this world with just one 'good' poem as a literary legacy, was not exactly putting very much pressure on one's own self-expectation.
I read a back-stack of writer-interviews in a pile of Paris Reviews at Knocknaheeny library, soaking in the authorial tips of modern greats, and was barely worse off financially. Spiritually I felt I'd made the correct decision. Always being a superstitious sort, who'd make decisions using the most - what others would consider - daftest of reasons; my inner compass felt as though it had aligned to a true course. That though those around me at the time had thought me mad, my own instinct felt the opposite.
After six weeks, a long standing dental issue had come to a head and I neeeded to have a molar extracted; so returned to my home town of Ormskirk in Lancashire to get it done. Whilst there I discovered that the town's Edge Hill College (now a university), had been running academic writing programs, degrees and MA's, for the past eight years.
Not having the relevant high-school diploma or A levels to gain admittance into third level learning, I initially thought it would be an impossible dream to get on the course; as having to study two years to get the necessary qualifications to go to university, was all pie in the sky to me then, as an uneducated ex-building laborer and admin drudge.
Still, I went up to ask and spoke to the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poet (not that I knew this at the time) Robert Sheppard, who wrote and runs the writing deptartment programs. He told me that it was OK, there was a six-week Fastrack course that had been created as part of the college's 'widening participation' goal, basically targetting older, unemployed people like myself.
It was starting in two weeks, and was really just a course to get people unfamiliar with computers, up to speed, and which, after several years of working as a poorly paid paralegal, was easy enough to pass. During this wonderful summer, I remember thinking that something George Szirtes terms in his Eliot lecture as, secret levers of the universe; had effected this serendipity that led one back home to learn the very thing I'd decided to pursue and had set my heart on learning. Once the decision to follow my inner calling had been taken, it was as if the gods of Letters had removed all obstacles in my path, and ushered me on the correct course, for the first time in my life.
The writing component could be taken as a minor (quarter), or as half of your B.A. program. Mine was half: Writing Studies and Drama; and on the first day in writing class, a week after 9/11, there were around 45 of us. Some doing English, some Drama, some Film, Media, Womens Studies, and other subjects.
I still have the notes made in that first session; in which we all gave a reason why we were there, and what we hoped to gain. One woman was after writing self-help books, whilst others were there with no specific goal. One young chap from Wolverhampton doing film, nineteen, was wanting to make movies; but the main vibe I picked up on, was Harry Potter. The young kids who made up the bulk of the student writers' cohort, wanted to write fiction that would be as exciting as J.K. Rowling's; and though it was unspoken, it was fairly clear, even to me then, that what had propelled the majority of us into taking the course, was a desire to become rich and famous. If I am being honest with myself, though this wasn't as obvious to me then, there is that secret, not so hidden desire that, maybe, just perhaps, if I develop myself; I too could write summat that would make me a bundle.
But this is certainly not the reason I began writing. I was writing anyway, and had got very good at what I did as an admin drudge; and one reasoned that developing the talent for fantasy I'd always had since a child, was the right thing to do in the long run for me as a person.
Most of those on the course, I don't know what they're doing now; though the course is not about teaching you how to write, as no one can be taught because writing's a solitary pursuit and sport, challenge with yourself; conducted on the pitch of our own intellect. Sheppard used to say his B.A. course is more about finding out if writing's what you want to do or not, than anything else. By the end of it, it was clear who was going to carry on writing and who was just keen to stop the pretence.
Edge Hill's academic status rose in the world after I left, and is now rated as one of the best in England. The writing course, because it's run by a fairly unknown poet, means there's no big expectation. Unlike learning under Motion or Duffy, which (one suspects) is more geared up to getting published. Because Sheppard is the English equivalent of John Ashbery's heir, the 'poetic' underpinning the course is more experimental, and publishing, prizes, all that jazz - played little and no part.
It was great, because I was testing my dream in my home town, where everyone knows me; unable to fake myself into a new me around people I didn't know. And because the poetry component began with Pound's Do's and Dont's and ended with Charles Bernstein and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry (Langpo); one had to learn a tradition I would not have done if one's own, lyric sensibilities were left to their own devices. 40% of my study-time was spent outside the official modules, learning Irish myth, that I'd become obsessed by after deciding that the one way to outface a Class obstacle inherent in England, and negate the predominate sensibility of its monarchist poetic; would be to learn what a real Bard had to - just for the sheer feck of it.
My reasoning was: I want to be a poet, but my worst nightmare is meeting someone who will make me feel I am a fake. How can I learn so there's no question of being plastic? Well, in Britain, the ultimate poets used to be bards, who, in Ireland, had a tradition that lasted over 1000 years in print. But, I thought, few people know much about them as we all stick with Homer and the Greeks as the primary poetic base. OK, I thought, imagine - for a laugh - just to shut people up who'd try to poo poo your dream - knowing what a real bard did? That would shut the would-be knockers up, as they couldn't claim you as a fake, because you'd be telling most people something they don't know about.
OK, what do I study?
Once I started studying this topic of what a bard actually did in the old days, it became quickly apparent that this wasn't going to be a short three year course. In the old days it was 12 years through seven grades, before you graduated as a poetry professor or ullav. Perfect, because by sticking to these rules, the ones in existence for a 1000 years and more - turning out British-Irish poets generation after generation - you've as much, if not more, legitimate claim to being on the right course than those who'd assert this is the way you do it, or that is the way you become a poet. Pound, Eliot; any first generation dabbler, will have only their own way of thinking, but the bardic course is set and has been there for 1500 years. You can't argue with it.
And the 12 years is OK, I thought, I'm in it for the long haul and the dream is, just for the craic, knowing the info. If it takes the rest of my life, I thought, so what?
The young guy from Wolverhampton doing film, in the very final session, as we looked back on the three years, was in a totally different frame of mind. Gone was the certainty and confidence of three years before; replaced with something else, less assured and more confused. And he was the only one of the many in his boat - who I thought was being fully honest in his response, and for this alone I respected him. He said the one thing he'd learned from his degree, was that he didn't want to be a writer; at least not then, as a 22 year old young man. Instead, he was joining the army. Most of the others whose Harry Potter dreams had evaporated, were not so straight about how they felt.
So, yeah, a writing program isn't for everyone, and I was very lucky because the British state paid, but to dismiss them without having experience is silly.
I was reading a poet elsewhere ranting about the rise of the creative writing programs in the UK, as if attending one will make you less of a writer, as if the 'true' poets are the ones who've never been within a royal mile of a creative writing class. Reality suggests otherwise. You don't become a doctor or lawyer without attending the specific classes, but somehow, writing is considered different to all other professions.
Hmmm. I don't think so.