What legitimates us as writers?
One of my students recently submitted an essay on this question, or the variation: when can I call myself a writer? He took four approaches: the professional, the published, the trained, the psychological. Is it when you’re earning money, simply published, having taken a course such as a Creative Writing MA or PhD, or is it a matter of intrinsic estimation; something you know about yourself?
It is when we feel legitimate as a writer that we call ourselves writers. Sometimes that certificate, or publishing deal, or acceptance for a magazine, are the little stones we step along while we’re crossing the river of self-doubt. What is clear from research is that those who call themselves writers (or the artists who call themselves artists) are the ones that thrive. As Sylvia Plath said, ‘your worst enemy is self doubt.’ For Natalie Goldberg: ‘doubt is torture.’
Sometimes the feeling comes as a calling.
I heard on the radio this morning an advert for The Essay this evening with Malorie Blackman, the Children’s Laureate, who grew up without reading a single book about a black child like her. All the protagonists were white. It wasn’t until she read Alice Walker’s The Color Purple that, she said, she felt legitimized to become a writer, to be a voice for a people without voice, as she saw it and experienced it in the literature of her childhood.
Is something like this necessary? Do you need to be called to a task to be legitimated as a writer? Some stimulus towards justice, or representation?
I’ve been thinking about ‘calling’ recently.That thing that drives people to act, that purpose, ambition, or task that we cannot not do; sometimes, in famous cases, the calling is outside of what that person ever expected for their life. Sometimes, it is what the person knew all along, and were able to hear. It can be religious or secular. It is often, though not always, for life.
But the metaphor here (‘hear’) left me confused for a while. I genuinely believed that I would ‘hear’ the voice of my calling. It was only when I questioned this idea that I realised that perhaps that was not going to happen. How loud does a calling need to be for you to hear it and believe it to be true? Except on very rare occasions, you won’t actually ‘hear’ it–even though, in a way, if you listen to Malorie Blackman tonight on Radio 3, you might hear what it sounds like. You might see it, in dreams. But generally, you ‘feel’ it. The voice of your calling becomes a vibration, an impulse, and you measure it in how you act, or how you resist that act. To hear one’s calling is to feel that purpose.
So it’s not to ‘hear’ it. Not, that is, until I voice it myself. Say it. Go on.
I have felt mine. Luckily, (some who never hear it at all), I have felt it twice.
The first time was as a child, when I sat down to write. I didn’t feel some urge to become a writer. I discovered I already was. For many years I did a good job at trying to forget that, or not believe it. Accurately, to not feel it.
Now, as a man entering the second-half-of-life, I’ve felt it for the second time. This time it was a double wave. Not only having remembered the feeling of being a writer, now I understand why I must write, and what it is I must write about.
Meet her. Here is the someone I am going to write about today, and for the rest of my life. She died yesterday. She was driven in a metal truck in -29 degrees with no protection to her death. She was only 1/30th of the way through her natural life span, which meant she was a baby, really, when she was killed. She would have died in terror, even though here she is still curious, even forgiving. Look. You can read that in her eyes. (A pig has roughly the intelligence as your three-year-old-child, or a dog.) If she was lucky, she would have been stunned into unconsciousness before she entered the scalding tank where her hair is removed. If she was lucky.
I’m going to give her a name. Lucky.
Or as the artist who yesterday took this picture, Jo-Anne McArthur, was impelled to write: “We live in a world where mass murder is happening around us at every moment. This is not an exaggeration; we just don’t see it. Doesn’t that seem deeply crazy to you? It feels profoundly, fully, crazy to me. It’s an overwhelming truth. And most of us take part. This is a photo of one the *millions* of individuals who were murdered today. Please look at her. And please don’t look away.”
I’m also going to write about her mother. Here she is, in what the industry called gestation crates, until they realised that wasn’t a great PR term, and which they now try to term maternity units. These, luckily, are banned in Europe–although not all EU countries have enforced the ban. I don’t have a name for her. Unlucky doesn’t cut it, does it?
Makes me feel lucky I’m not a pig. It also makes me feel incredibly privileged to have discovered what is happening, and to have stepped outside of this industrial death machine by going vegan; and also to have discovered that these are things I can, must, will write about. These images legitimise my writing in the same way that Alice Walker (a great friend of animals) and her book The Color Purple legitimised a writing life for Malorie Blackman. There isn’t any room in that crate for self-doubt.
Image of pig perhaps still alive and confined in this cell (c) Mark Antinarella