Why write?

I was also asked to take part in a panel for the brilliant and buzzy Bush with Ria Parry (chair), Katie Posner, Fay Davies and Gbolahan Obisesanand. Below is what I said last Friday. After the panel Unlimited and friends went for a great meal at Abu Zaad (highly recommended) and then at 9 we did a ‘sneak peak’ of Money: The Game Show. The show explains some things about hedge fund management using balloons and 10,000 real pound coins. But on Friday we used Quality Street and rather surprisingly both teams not only won all of the QS but also broke the bank. As the QS central banker I am now in debt to the tune of two of those big plastic jars. I am currently hiding in Edinburgh but eventually, no doubt, the International Quality Street Fund is going to demand that I ask for a bail out.


Panel Topic: Why Write and Who to Write For?

What do We Risk When We Play Safe? Clare Duffy


The question ‘why write and who to write for?’ is obviously in two parts and I have two responses. One is very personal and the other much more political. If I don’t write, I believe, I risk my mental health, but I’m proposing that we need a lot of different people writing or we all risk losing everything.


I hate writing. I would much rather have a great meal with my family and friends. I’d much rather be swimming in the cool Agean sea, watching the last rays of a blazing hot day disappear behind the blackening mountains. I’d rather read someone else’s writing than write. I’d rather float away or be charged forward by someone else’s hard work, imagination and knowledge. Of course I would. So. Why write?


It all started when I was a child and people told me stories. Stories from their heads. Stories from their past. Of when they were a child. Or when their parents were kids. Then there were books and people read me stories from them. And I have to say that they were better…on the whole…although they didn’t change from one day to the next and I liked the way the stories from people’s heads could change, depending on what kind of mood the teller was in.


Then I was forced to read these books myself and then I had to learn how to hold a pen and write my own name, which only led to writing other things like sentences and so on, until finally at the age of 22 I learned how to type and started to write stories myself.


And why did I start to write stories? Because I had problems. Massive problems. It turned out that I was a human being in the world. I’d been so busy growing up and learning things like reading and writing and being bounced round by all the stories, that I hadn’t particularly noticed I was also one of those creatures I read about. But I had no clue what that meant. So…there’s the world…all around and everywhere and here’s ‘me’ inside it. Totally unable to make what’s inside make a really satisfying connection with what is outside.


I invested quite a bit of time in going out, dancing, having sex and that was all pretty good. Great in fact.


But in the long run it didn’t change that feeling of confusion much.


And so I started writing. I wrote about what was outside my window and why I was arguing with my friends and about the young people at the youth group I ran, who were hurting themselves and terrifying me. I wrote about the things around me. Just for me. Just to help me understand the world I was in. And then I was ill for a year and wrote nearly everyday only about what was going on outside my window. But I started to notice that those sentences were somehow growing into things that I wanted to read again. It wasn’t just that I needed to write them as therapy for being a confused human being. There was something else. I felt I recognised a growing agency in the words on the page. I was beginning to tell stories that had their own agency separate from me, that maybe, I could give to a stranger, who didn’t need to know me to get the story. I eventually started to get paid to write and so writing helped me understand where I was but also became how I made my way in the world. It became a significant part of the way I was identified by the world.


I recently finished a long-term project where I made performances about writing on a public bench for 24 hours of the day and night in different cities around the UK. It takes about a week to do this in 5-6 hour long slots and through this practice I discovered that I might think I’m writing about the world, but ‘I’ am also authored by where I happen to be in the world.


All of which is to say that when I first started thinking about the title for this panel ‘why write and who to write for’ my first thought was context is everything.


I write because I need to for my own health, so that I can function reasonable well in the world. I still do this, but much less ferociously than when I was in my 20s. I also write because I wanted to be ‘a writer’ and that means that I have to sell my writing to institutions like theatres, arts funding bodies and publishers. But ultimately I am selling my work to a public audience. Again, context is everything. I write with and for a wide range of audiences: children, young adults, local communities, bi-lingual audiences, audiences that expect to sit and watch and audiences that are excited by the experience of getting immersed in the world of the drama. That is, of being able not only to touch that world, but also change it.


What I am most interested in at the moment is looking for ways to forge a connection between the world of the arts and the world of politics. I think I am prone to creating a false separation between the arts and politics. This reminds me of that strong sense of separation I felt between myself and the world when I was younger and which I have for the most part left behind. I need to remind myself constantly to stop thinking about it like that. Of course art is political and politics can be artful. I’m wondering about how art and politics can be more radically integrated so that we can ask what kind of a world we really want to live in and how to make it so.


So…We’ve been asked to share a dangerous idea or experience, a question that you’d never dared to ask, a project that will force us to think beyond the status quo.


This phrase ‘status quo’ is quite interesting. We use it to mean ‘the state of things’ or ‘the way things are’. My status quo is that I live in Tolcross, in Edinburgh, with my partner. We voted SNP last time, but we don’t know how to vote in the referendum for independence. Really we don’t. We talk about it a lot. We just don’t know. We are small business owners. I am a playwright and we also have a shop. We rely on our neighbours for our safety and happiness. I might not ‘be’ Scottish but I do feel now that Tollcross is the place that gives me identity more than any other place in the world…with the possible exception of my parents’ back garden in London and certain views of the Thames.


It seems that the phrase ‘status quo’ is particularly about political power. It comes from a practice of treatise writing, of arranging the relationship between states, typically states that have been engaged in war. I find this interesting because at home we might talk about the pros and cons of Scottish independence but my thoughts about war are taboo. I’ve been told to stop going on about it. So, I thought this must be a dangerous idea that I can offer here at Radar. It might not feel very dangerous at all here. It might seem obvious. It might seem ridiculous. I don’t know. I know that in 2007 for many people it seemed absolutely ridiculous that there could be an economic crisis that would threaten to bring down the whole banking system. If that had happened, wouldn’t war be a very possible consequence?


I thought in 2008 that after governments shored up the banks, that civilians and their governments would have a bit of a chat. I don’t just mean a general election or demonstrations, although those are important things. But I mean a huge, creative re-think or re-make of the questions we want to answer. The way we wind down global debt could be a creative-political event at least on the scale of the Olympics. The risks of what we have to lose if we don’t start imagining other ways to live feel after 2008 very plain. But I didn’t notice that happening. Things just sort of carried on here, more or less, yes of course getting worse, but gradually.


I believe that the context I am in today is that there must be huge changes to our lives if we want to continue in relative peace. This is, or could be, a fantastic opportunity. I’m doing some research at the moment about people working in financial services and I was struck when talking to the CEO of a private equity firm when he told me just a week ago he thought we have now a chance to “re-evaluate the fundamentals.” He’s generally optimistic about the future. He thinks that Greece and Portugal can leave the Euro but if any of the others did “all bets would be off.” A left wing economist told me more pessimistically the day before that if Greece leaves the Euro zone the trouble would “go out into the streets.”


I started by saying that I hate writing. But I know now that on a personal level if I don’t write I risk not connecting with the world, which would make me a lesser person. But if no one writes imaginatively about the world and the way they experience it, what they fear and hope it could be then I believe we all risk losing everything we care about.