I've read that there are two types of literature: one that takes the reader away from the mundanities of everyday life on a journey of imagination; the other that probes the complexities of human psyche and experience in such a deep way that it makes the reader view his or her own life in a different way. I think there might be a more important reason: validation.
We all think we're alone, that no one understands us, and in many ways that is true, we are all one of those islands Donne talked about. In the film, Shadowlands, Anthony Hopkins, who was playing author C S Lewis, explained to a student on a train, "We read so know we are not alone". I'm pretty sure Lewis said that, though perhaps not on a train, but if he didn’t then all credit to William Nicholson, the scriptwriter, for making sure those lines got incorporated in the film because they had quite an impact on me. Talking about impacts, here are a few more:
- I had a man, a fellow poet as it happens, take one of my poems and pin it to the cork board beside his desk because I had found the words that explained why he wrote.
- A girl I used to work with kept a copy of one of my poems which she referred to as "the Barry poem" from then on because it expressed exactly how she felt about this particular guy. I even think of it as "the Barry poem" nowadays. I'd have to look it up to find out its proper title.
- Another girl I worked with (different job) wanted to leave one of my short stories in her loo so people could read it at their convenience (pun intended).
- A woman I knew once – really I knew her daughters better – asked to read some of my poems. The collection came back with one missing. When I quizzed her all she would say was that it had put into words something she'd felt for years but she wouldn't tell me what. I have no idea which poem it was.
- Charlie, a fellow I once worked with took a collection of my short stories on holiday and sat and read them out to his friends. One guy said to him: "How does this man know how I feel?" When I asked him which story it was he couldn't remember. Charlie himself had to wipe tears from his eyes when he read the poem I wrote about my mother.
Writing is a distillation of aspects of life into words. Words facilitate understanding. They stop us having to rely on feeling that something is right; words try and explain to us why it is. In all of the five instances cited, my writing somehow validated the feelings and actions of my readers; the world made a little more sense afterwards. It is okay to be the way I am, they could now say, because I am not alone, someone else understands and now I do too.
I have lived a quiet life. Mostly that's been by choice even though few opportunities for excitement have presented themselves to me. I write about the same thing over and over again: people. People fascinate me more than anything else. I don't much care about politics or ecology or the state of the economy. I could have been a scientist, the kind of guy who gets to watch another guy in an empty room for hours on end. Okay a girl in an empty room. Unless that room was the Big Brother house. And even then, with the sound down, I'm actually quite content to watch that too. And most of the time it's not what they're doing that interests me but what they might do: Man is a storehouse of potentiality.
Books are the same. What's going to happen next? It's what I enjoy so much about writing. It's all about filling up that white page. I saw someone interviewed recently – can't think who it was although I suspect it was Stephen Fry – who when asked which of the books he'd written was his favourite he said: "My next one." His flippancy aside I get it. No one is interested in jigsaw pieces that they've fitted together. All we care about is rooting through the pile to see what we can do to reduce that empty space in between. Every bit we add on makes the rest make more sense.
Reading is like that for me. I'm looking for the bits and pieces that other people have written that I can incorporate into my personal ethos, that enable me to make more sense out of me. The first one I recognised as such was contained in Larkin's poem 'Mr. Bleaney'. I extracted its essence and it became mine. It's my poem now. But that's not so unusual. We all have poems and songs and films that we connect with in a special way.
One of the words I think I hate more than all the others is 'normal'. Normal is such a conditional thing. H2O is normally a liquid unless it's very hot or very cold whereupon it turns into steam or ice. There is no 'normal' state for H2O because 'normal' is not an absolute. And yet I'm desperately interested in what 'normal' might be. When I was growing up I did certain things, most of which were deemed 'normal'. I can remember my mother saying to my dad: "He's just a boy, Jimmy," – my dad was also called Jimmy – and she's talking about me; there were things, even bad things, that it was deemed 'normal' for me to get up to. They even accepted my writing and I can imagine my mother saying: "It's just a phase he's going through," only it wasn't. After a while I should have grown out of it. That would have been 'normal'. And yet online I have met so many people who, like me, have kept on writing since childhood. Of course that was 'normal' for us and I think I hate that expression more that I hate the word 'normal'. It's a Get-Out-of-Jail-Free Card. Ah, but you see, it's normal for me to spend 17 hours sitting in front of a PC every day. Of course. Yes, quite, quite normal.
Valid used to mean healthy a long time ago. Healthy is normal. It's not normal to have pains in my shoulder and wrist. Pain though is normal, a normal response to things not being right. I don't need a doctor to tell me why I have pains in my shoulder and wrist, it's too much time – and we're talking years here – in front of a computer or typewriter. But that's natural if you're a writer. So, what if I wasn't a writer? I guess I'd end up with different pains because it's natural I find for people to overdo things.
Excess is a historical phenomenon; drunks and overeaters were disparaged in Ancient Greece. More recently we have had the rise of the “modern” addictions: gambling, sex and computer gaming. Even reading Harry Potter books has been linked to addiction. There are those that argue that 'addiction' is too strong a word, many of these are merely habits, albeit bad habits.
So what's writing?
My dad told me that a habit was something that people did that if they were asked to do without it they would miss it. What he was implying was that one would go through withdrawal symptoms. So is a habit an addiction-lite? Our lives are made up of habits. Almost everything we do involves the use of habitual behaviour. Think about it. You get up in the morning and use habits to get ready to start the day. Otherwise, you would have to relearn everything you do – combing your hair, brushing your teeth, dressing, working the toaster, and even pouring a cup of coffee.
My dad was right though. A habit is an activity that is acquired, done frequently, done automatically, and difficult to stop. Nail biting would be a good example. It is an acquired habit. And it can be hard to quit. That's not the voice of experience talking here.
So, how long does it take for something to become a habit? As you would expect, since our 'normals' are all different, there's no simple answer but simple repetitive tasks require a timeframe of approximately 21 days to condition. Here is a familiar example: When you walk into your bedroom you "automatically" reach for the light switch on the left side as you enter. Then you move to a new home where the light switch is located on the right side as you enter. You'll find that it will take you about 21 days to stop reaching for that light switch on the left side. You will also find this 21 day "benchmark" to be the time your new house will start feeling "like home". Most studies tend to opt for a month to be on the safe side.
I've talked before about what writing is to me, a natural response to events going on around me, ergo a habit. If I don't write I feel there is something missing. And isn't that what a habit is? But I didn't always write. It was something I acquired on the way and now I wouldn't know what to do without it. Not that I would want to.
The figure that's floating around for breaking a habit is 6 weeks. And yet I've been unable to write for periods far in excess of that and returned to writing as naturally as a duck returns to water. This is where the difference is I suspect. A duck is designed to swim. It wouldn't die if it didn't and I suppose there are plenty of ducks who never go near a pond. I wonder if they miss it.
The interesting thing about writing is that, in common with any number of bad habits, there are side effects. After a few hours it hurts to write and, now that I've been doing it for thirty years, it doesn't even take a few hours anymore, I hurt before I even sit down to write and yet, like the habitué that I am I keep on anyway.
I started this ramble by talking about validation and I guess that's where we've ended up. If there's one thing habitués and addicts have in common is the need to try and try and vindicate (that's the dark side of 'validate') they way they are and so I associate with people who are like me who reassure me and occasionally pat me on the back.
I've always held the opinion, rightly or wrongly, that I am broken. I suspect that's what life does, takes a perfectly healthy psyche and breaks it over time. And we're led to believe that broken things are bad, unnatural. In my experience broken things can usually be adapted to become useful again and serve a different purpose from the one for which they were originally designed. A writer serves a useful purpose. It may not be something everyone does but if there weren't broken people writing then what would the broken people who like to read do?
I have no answers to any of this stuff. I just do what writers do. I took a thought for a walk and this is where I ended up.