Over the years, I’ve been asked (aka commissioned) to write stage plays, journalism, funding applications, short stories, novels, because that’s what I do.
But I’ve also been asked to write many other things.
‘You are a writer, after all’; this is what people say just before they ask for a few words.
‘Please write our wedding vows! We have no idea ourselves how to begin so we thought we’d ask you!’; on best person speeches: ‘Just don’t put ANY jokes in it without running it past all of us first’; and once, horribly, a plea for help with a ‘spontaneous’ proposal: ‘Just make me sound like I’d thought of it all by myself. You can never tell her that you wrote it though. Never.’
(All for free, obviously.)
Most writers have probably been asked or hinted at for something similar, I reckon — but when my closest friend of thirty years died recently, I was floored by how to frame his amazing life into any shape that would do him justice.
As a writer, I thought it was my loving duty to describe him, to somehow sum him up, his life, who he was, what a difference he made to people, how to remember him.
So, I tried to write it. For weeks I tried to ‘write’ it because that is what I do. You’re a writer, after all. I tried to be neutral yet partisan, gently comic yet tastefully emotional. I asked friends and family to add their thoughts and corrections about times and dates even though, secretly, I didn’t think that mattered. It should give a flavour of him, not a chronology. A beautiful, lyrical, even poetic account of someone who defied summary.
This set me thinking about what a writer’s ‘job’ is and how it can be a source of pride – ‘we’ve got a writer in the family!’ – and how it can be a curse: ‘Come over here and write something!’
A few of the things I’ve been asked to do, ‘because you’re a writer’, have included:
Me: ‘But it won’t be in your own voice, what about when they interview you?’
Them: ‘Oh, it won’t matter — they’ll be half-persuaded by then, because you can… you know, put it better than me.’
Me: ‘You mean, make up your career to date?’
Them: ‘No, look, just the bit where it says, “how would you describe your strengths and weaknesses in the financial sector.”’
This is the first time I’d encountered the delusional belief that I’d have an innate knowledge of the financial sector, or dog grooming, or whatever new job they might be attempting to net.
Essays. Undergrad, postgrad, any kind.
‘Oh, come on, I know all the facts, it’s just getting the language right… you’ve done it before, when you worked at universities, that’s your specialism, never mind the subject.’
‘And still, no.’
‘Okay — I’ll pay you’.
‘Well, I hope you won’t feel guilty when I fail.’
I really, really won’t. Well, I might a tiny bit. But in one case, where it was an Eng. Lit. degree, I didn’t feel guilty at all — isn’t ‘getting the language right’ the entire point?
‘I don’t know the right language to use’, my friend said, imploring me to have a go at a strongly worded letter to the local council about terrible neighbours.
‘Really hype it up, go on, throw all your best adjectives at it — I want them OUT. You can’t go too far — wouldn’t that be fun for you?’ Not when you get an injunction out against you and they’re my words, no.
Birthday/anniversary messages or, much worse, poems.
‘You know I’m not a poet, though, right?’
‘Oh yeah, yeah. Just like a Hallmark kind of thing but better, much much better, and personal, cos you know me, and you know them, so you’ll be able to make it sound like me but lyrical.’
‘But it won’t be personal, though, will it?’
‘I’m no good with words… Please. You are a writer.’
I gave in to this one because it was a very good friend, and a special occasion. The reaction:
‘Um…it’s fine, it’s just…I thought it would rhyme.’
Through gritted teeth, wearily: ‘I’m. Not. A. Poet.’
‘Couldn’t you have a little try, though?’
By now, I was starting to realise how difficult writing was for people who don’t consider themselves comfortable with the written word. Oddly, though, these were mostly the same people who happily post on Twitter all the time — often wonderfully witty, descriptive tweets. They just didn’t connect that with more formal ideas of writing.
Giving in to that first request for a poem opened the floodgates a bit, though. Messages along the lines of:
· Just a few lines…
· Is it called a stanza? One of those. Or a few.
· Or maybe a sonnet?
· What, you were going to charge? For a friend? For our wedding anniversary?
· Maybe a short story…it could be quite short, isn’t it called flash fiction? It won’t take you long.
· How much? Wow.
· Umm… can you do a cheaper version? Maybe if it doesn’t rhyme?
· You’re really not a poet, are you?
Things came to a head when I was asked to write a short play for a wedding celebration, in which the best man and best woman would ‘play’ the bride and groom. I declined this on the grounds that the happy couple would certainly never speak to me again. Because we all know that the writer gets the blame: ‘They were YOUR words!’; and the actors get the fame: ‘I thought you did a lovely job but you didn’t have a lot to work with.’ The best man and woman clearly hadn’t seen my work.
‘You do know that I tend to write quite…bleak plays, yes?’
‘Oh, that’s okay, just do like a basic framework and we’ll improvise around it, yeah?’
‘When I say bleak, though, I mean no happy endings.’
‘Like I say, we’ll slap on a happy-ever-after. It’ll be fine. You don’t mind us changing some of the words, right?’
This taught me something, even if it took a long time to filter through. Back to the present day, and the funeral. I put the decision about writing something off as long as I could, but in the end, I turned to the best: John Clare, Robert Frost, John Magee and Yeats. After all that, after all the words that didn’t work, after all the angst, after weeks of sobbing when I thought no one else was around, the words that consoled the people who gathered to celebrate and mourn him were the best, like this from John Magee’s ‘High Flight’:
Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings; Sunward I’ve climbed […] and done a hundred things You have not dreamed off — wheeled and soared and swung High in the sunlit silence.
And this from Yeats’ ‘Song of the Wandering Aengus’:
[I will] walk among long dappled grass, and pluck till time and times are done, The silver apples of the moon, the golden apples of the sun.
I know I could not have come close to the effect these and other beautifully crafted words produced. Some people knew the poems, some did not, but everyone was touched by some secret emotion that might have been nothing to do with the occasion. Or I think they were; I’ll never know. But I do know when it’s time to step back, and let the real poets do the heavy lifting.
The postscript to this is that three months on from my friend’s funeral, I’ve written my first-ever poem. Maybe it’s all those people who assumed I was a poet, and then realised how very much I wasn’t. I don’t think that writing one poem makes me a poet, but I do thank you, my lovely friend, for always being the one to believe in me and love my writing, unconditionally. Finally, I’ve done what you asked. I let the words fly. It’s just a shame you’ll never hear them.