write what you know?

what would you set fire to?

what of your past would you set fire to?

When was it? — October 2010 — and I was one of a small group of students, made to tramp out into the October night. There were twenty of us in all, perhaps, and we were newly enrolled on a writing course.

We each had a slip of paper, on which we’d been ask to note down the one thing we swore never to write about. We stood in a small huddle and shuffled a bit. Someone struck a match, and we watched our pieces of paper burn briefly and make very little smoke.

The worst if it was not that the past had been forced onto me in a moment’s reckless teaching, but that I – as meek and compliant a student as it was possible to be – had written this ghastly thing down, and then set fire to it.

Afterwards, I didn’t feel free, or liberated, or ready to write. I felt like a louse, and what I’d just done, a betrayal.

I think this goes to the heart of what it is to write. Writing comes from the writer. A writer is the work, the work is the writer – as arcane, peculiar, or mundane as it may be – I cannot see how the two can be separated. By this, I do not mean that all writing is memoir. I write fiction. But this motley collection of neurons that is me, tap tap tapping word after word after word, has had a life, and all of it brings me to this moment of writing – to now.

Can I, should I, slough away the most difficult parts? I don’t think I have it in me to write about what was on that slip of paper, but that is quite different to stating I shall not.


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