One of the most common questions an author is asked is why they write. It is second only to: Where do you get your ideas from? (I’ll come on to that one later). My answer is as simple as it is all-encompassing. I write because it opens up new worlds to me. Worlds that I only half understood before I began to explore them, or worlds I didn’t even know existed before research laid them at my feet. Worlds in which I am able to taste something of other people’s lives through memories bequeathed us; where I can – for a brief moment at least – imagine what life might be like if I hadn’t been born in the time and place I was. If I wasn’t me. And that sets you free. Free to pretend to be someone else; free to dance to the beat of a different drum. Free to escape the ordinariness of everyday life and forget the worries and stresses of the moment.
But spending time living vicariously is accompanied by being unable to avoid illuminating aspects of your true, deep personality. Sometimes discovering things that are startling or unsettling; things that rock the real world you inhabit and send tremors through the person you will be tomorrow. Shakespeare knew a thing or two about writing, and when he had Hamlet say of acting: ‘. . . the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold, as t’were a mirror up to nature . . .’ he could have been giving his job description as a playwright.
I write because, by doing so, I learn.
My novels are set during the 1920s in the immediate aftermath of the Great War. The ongoing Centenary Commemorations have augmented my research with television programmes, radio dramas, and numerous websites where a click will unveil vivid first-hand accounts. All have enriched my understanding of self as I try to walk in the shoes of the people who endured the horrors of a worst nightmare. How would it have affected me? Surviving it would certainly have damaged me physically, psychologically or emotionally. What must it have been like to face a future that had been irrevocably altered by a cataclysmic event, the ramifications of which we, with rolling news and frontline reportage, can’t possibly comprehend? Can you imagine coming back from the trenches to a Britain flooded with a sort of collective amnesia that turned a blind eye to deny on-going suffering? Bear in mind that Wilfred Owen wrote his poems of remembrance, not for us, but to awaken his contemporaries. He bore witness to the world around him and, in doing so, left a legacy that shapes our world today.
I write because I read.
I have something to write about because others have broadened my knowledge through the written word. The number of sails on a ship running the trade winds from China? I’ll find it in a book. What woods and spices came through West India Docks and what time of year could they be expected to arrive? The labels on the exhibits in the cabinets at the London Museum Docklands told me that. How much food could a 1920 East End family buy per week and what would it cost? A contemporary newspaper article cross-referenced with the tables at the back of a volume of The New Survey of London Life and Labour put me straight. Whittaker’s Almanac of 1919 is stuffed-full of facts such as the number of postal deliveries a day (four); and the names of the police commissioners, judges, coroners, Home Office pathologists and everyone else with professional relevance to the world I was attempting to recreate. Do you care that a two-wheel horse drawn Hackney Carriage cost 2/6 (12p) to hire in 1920? You would if you were wondering if one of the characters in your story could afford to take one as a means of escape. My point in subjecting you to the sources of all this useless information is that it is only useless if you don’t need it, and if you need it, the only way to cure your ignorance is by reading.
I write because you read.
If I didn’t know you were reading this, then I wouldn’t be spending my Sunday writing it. Writing and reading is to give and to receive. Writing something down is to preserve experience and grant knowledge. Reading is to acquire and assimilate that knowledge; to learn and grow as a consequence. If we can’t read then the worlds open to us are limited and unvaried. If the person we become is a product of the combination of our inner and outer worlds, then by being unable to read we are, by definition, restricting our potential. There are too many people in England today who can only read sufficiently well to get by. The National Literacy Trust gives the figure of 16% or 5.2 million adults classed ‘functionally illiterate’ meaning they would not pass an English GCSE, and have the literacy levels at or below those expected of an 11-year-old. Such an appalling statistic in 2016 matters. It matters because if you can’t read proficiently enough to enjoy it, then you’re only ever going to read what you need to know (remember my 1920 cab fares above?) and miss out on everything else. It matters, because so much of the everyday experience of ordinary people of the past was lost when they couldn’t write down their thoughts and feelings in letters or diaries. Nor, I suspect, will any of our 5.2 million, however unique or fascinating their lives. It matters because one of the fundamental things human beings do is communicate with each other. No reading equals no texts, emails, blogs, books, magazines, newspapers, Wikipedia . . . And as a result our individual and collective world-pictures are painted in less bright colours.
So I read to write, and I write to be read. I write to be who I am. To make myself into the person I want to be. To make a difference (no matter if only in causing you think twice about Wilfred Owen) to who you are. Oh, I nearly forgot. Where does a writer get their ideas? From opening their eyes to the world around them because every story there has ever been in the history of human thought and deed is out there, writ large. You just need to be able to read the signs.
BK Duncan teaches creative writing in colleges and academies in Cambridge, and for Oxford Open Learning Trust. She is shortly to commence working in the community, schools and prisons, as an ambassador for The People’s Book Prize in pursuit of the organisation’s constitutional aim of eradicating illiteracy.
You can vote for her to win the Beryl Bainbridge First Time Author Award by clicking on her book, Foul Trade, at the website below until 10th July: