Tuesday, 31 August 2010

It Only Hurts When I Laugh

When did you first know you were going to be a writer? It's a question that gets asked a lot and one I'm still a little uneasy about answering. It finally crept out in my SCBWI Words and Pictures magazine interview last month:
My first notable creation was a satirical pamphlet entitled "The Sylvia Plath Guide to Gas Cookers." That pretty much set the tone for all of my future work.
I say uneasy, because I started to worry that this sounded glib or in especially poor taste - I edited the reference out of my agency biography for that very reason. True, Sylvia Plath died a long time ago, but can a woman gassing herself and leaving two small children ever be considered fertile ground for comedy?

What was quite unexpected for me was that I've started to realise how that cheap bit of teenage humour was actual a pivotal step in my development as a writer. I'd just started A Level English Literature and found myself attracted by the honesty of Plath's work while simultaneously repelled by her self-pity. I think it was probably a case of disliking in others what we hate in ourselves, but I wasn't self-aware enough to see that. In particular, the circumstances of her death loomed large over everything, the pages of Ariel seeming to reek of martyrdom.

So, I wrote my riposte - four pages in biro with bad drawings and Madame Plath recommending easy-clean hobs and gas safety features from beyond the grave. I showed my friend, we laughed about it and it went in a bag somewhere and got lost. It didn't seem that important. But it was, because this was the first time I had used humour to try to make sense of my own situation - a technique that is still the cornerstone of my writing today. My mother tried to commit suicide several times during my childhood and it's now so clear to me that that was what I was reacting to. It seems bizarre (and a little repressive) that it's taken me twenty years to see that.

Writing is a key form of therapy for me, as I'm sure it was for Plath - even if I hope I'll continue to have a firmer grip on the world. What's ironic is that Plath's work itself is full of humour if you go looking for it, albeit humour of blackest kind. Sometimes, we find ourselves in a book and never even realise...



  1. Gosh, Nick, this is a fantastic post - thought-provoking and rings true. I realises only recently that everything I write is really me trying to deal with my own family situation as it was when I was a child. I think this the true meaning of 'write about what you know'. You've (presumably) never had your brain eaten, and I've never been the child of a celebrity and a fraudster (plot of my first book) but emotional honesty is what brings a book alive.

  2. Thank you, Leila.

    The screenwriter and novelist William Goldman says that "an unhappy childhood is a goldmine for a writer," and I think what he's saying here is that it does give you deep reserves of emotional experience and pain to draw on in your own work. I wish I had a bit less sometimes, though!

  3. I think writing is a cathartic process for many and I think in our characters we see elements of ourselves and those closest to us. A lot of it comes through subconsciously but I think it's always interesting how our writing reveals far more about us than we ever realise. I also think the more honest we are in our writing, the more room there is for a truly excellent book. And yep, I'd second what Goldman said, though, as you say, sometimes a little less of all that would have been nice!