No Writer Is An Island
February 5, 2016 § 21 Comments
A guest post from Hannah Garrard
Sometimes I fantasize about doing a job that keeps me writing in the same room all day. It’s a calm and almost silent space, save for the clack of my fingers on a keyboard. The walls are painted cream, like a fresh new page, and I am sitting at an oak desk, wrapped in a shawl of some autumnal colour made from something silky like angora. My only company is an elegant philodendron with generous dark green leaves that keeps the air cleansed and oxygenated. No one disturbs me; no one makes demands on me. I just write all day in my sequestered writer’s world, stopping for tea when I feel like it.
In the late afternoon I sit at a window seat framed by simple calico fabrics in a high alcove, maybe smoking—even though I don’t like smoking in real-life—having deep thoughts as I gaze across an urban vista. It is an immaculate, uncluttered fantasy in which all the living goes on inside my head, and finds itself, miraculously, on the page.
This is the fantasy I have when my day job as a youth and community worker leaves me weary at the end of a long evening running groups, and my car is littered with sweet wrappers and mud from shoes left behind by the teenagers I’ve had to drive home because the bus didn’t turn up. On days like this I have no energy left for writing, so I retreat into my fantasy writer’ s world, wishing I didn’t earn a living from not writing.
But I am a creative nonfiction writer, and there is no such thing as an immaculate conception when it comes to my own writing—which explores, in its broadest sense, what it means to be human. Without messy, human lives, spilling out around me, making up the frayed narratives and sequential dramas of my own life, I have nothing to hang my creative life on. So I have to go out into the world and live in it, and earn a living in it (mainly to keep a roof over my head and shoes on my feet). To earn my living solely as a writer doesn’t make sense to me; there’s an element missing: other people’s lives. They are the fuel for my writers’ spirit of inquiry, the way a flood needs a river, a dream needs a subconscious, and astronomy needs limitless possibility.
Since I graduated with a Literature degree in English, and then ten years later with an MA in Creative Nonfiction writing, I have always worked in the charity sector with marginalized groups, part time while I studied and then full time when I have bills to pay. I have worked with refugees, people with mental health issues, English as a second language speakers and now young people—who come with all the labels society sticks on them. The teenagers I work with are struggling with their identities as young gay men and women, or with their gender. They are coping with their first experiences of psychosis, or coming to terms with the loss of a parent. They are living in foster care or have just left the system and are now solely dependent on themselves. On an almost daily basis I am confronted with the sharp edges, the soft edges, the dark sides and, more often than not, the ironic and euphoric shades of humanity.
And it is these experiences, these visceral moments, which help fuel my writing life. I do not write directly about the young people I work with—that would be a breach of ethics and confidentiality—but the knowledge I gain through my work with other people comes into my writing space sideways, like daylight seeping through a crack in the wall. It casts light on the things I am trying to understand as a nonfiction writer intrigued by human experiences that are otherwise in darkness because I have not lived them. Put simply, my day job is a salient lesson in empathy.
As a professional I maintain an emotional distance between myself and the work I do, but this does not mean I am detached from it. My writing is the space in which I am allowed to explore and feel anything I like, and without a life immersed in the world and in other human narratives, I wonder if I would still have the same capacity for feeling? No creative nonfiction writer, I tell myself, is an island.
My day job has taken me into some rich writing spaces: I discovered the female war photographer, Olive Edis, through a museum project I developed with a group of young people one summer, and have subsequently written on her life. Edis’s autochrome portraits of local fisherman provoked rich textual imagery that I otherwise would not have had access to. My latest writing project is around dementia, inspired by the regular visits I have taken young people on to a residential nursing home as part of an intergenerational project. Last year I won my first ever writing prize, for an essay on memory loss and our relationship with place; I am now in the process of finding a writing residency with a dementia care unit, and intrigued to see where this new journey of inquiry will take me and my writing.
One day, I may write about the young people who have come into my life through working in the sector, when there is perhaps more distance between us. For now, I am satisfied with the access to human feeling that the work gives my creative life, even if I do feel that it is sometimes compromised by the physical energy my job demands of me.
I have just finished my first collection of essays, part memoir part biography part literary nonfiction, about the condition of exile. It explores the lives and experiences of the adults and children I worked with when I taught English in a Liberian refugee camp in Ghana back in 2006. It took me a long time to process my own thinking, and to find an easily traversable distance between myself and the narratives of dislocation I was so immersed in when I was living in the camp, the conditions of which were sweaty, crowded, noisy and confounding, and not conducive to writing at all. But I would not have written a single word if I had spent my life in the cream-walled room wrapped up in an angora shawl and only a plant for company.
Living and writing have a symbiotic relationship, and I wonder, in the spirit of this philosophical context, that if creative nonfiction writing requires access to lived experience, be it simply by being in possession of a consciousness, is being alive, for writers the act of writing itself?
Hannah Garrard has an M.A. in creative-nonfiction writing from UEA, Norwich, UK. She still works and lives in her university city. By day she is a youth worker, and by night a writer of all things creative nonfiction. Her essays and articles have been published in Newfound, Going Down Swinging, New Internationalist and the Guardian, plus other journals and anthologies. In 2015 she won the Flipside New Writing Prize for an essay about memory loss and our identity in place.