Finding and taking time to write as a queer person – be it stories or something harder to define – can feel as painful as it is healing.
Before you can begin there are questions, familiar questions in a queer life: When can I do this thing? Where can I do it? Is it OK for me to do it at all (am I worth it, will I like who I find there)? How?
The answers I have for these questions can be proud and joyous, but also, on more difficult days, uncertain. Too often, I worry – and increasingly, given these past months – there are too many who are struggling to get past those questions at all.
A person needs space and time and sustained concentration to put words into pixels or voice notes or down onto paper, and those things are often scarce and expensive for members of the LGBT*Q+ community – for some much more than others, and especially now.
That need to take time out, to find company in yourself or your characters, to laugh or feel loved or escape: that need is real and huge. Yet, our relationships with the institutions in which we learn to read and write, or not, and the relationships we might have with the various kinds of authority and power enshrined in the ‘rules’, in grammar, in ‘English Literature’, in books, can be mixed up with a lot of conflicting emotions.
Perhaps there’s anger that it should cost this much, financially and emotionally, to simply exist, let alone create or express or transcend ourselves with words; and perhaps there’s anger at what’s been written out or written over; and perhaps there’s exhaustion in the face of it all. But perhaps, too – and this is what I want to celebrate and cherish – there’s a hungry, restless desire to fight for what’s ours. It’s ours, this technology. Writing’s cheap, as art forms go, and it doesn’t belong to the people who taught it to us, or those who decide what makes it ‘good’ or ‘bad’, or those who determine what of it reaches us between the covers of a book. Be it WhatsApps or Post-its or Moleskines or whatever your jam, it belongs to all of us, this writing thing. It’s ours.
When the conditions for writing are in place, for those of us lucky enough to come by them, they can be so hard-won and fragile that the stakes feel high. If you’re an adrenaline junkie and a fan of the tightrope, a fan of the mic, good stuff can come out of high stakes. But just as often, and especially now, when so many things still feel so uncertain, any additional pressure can simply be, well, too much. The questions begin again. Mine sound like this: oh f**k. Do I have to make it good? Must I say what I mean? Must I mean what I say? How
But this is where I throw a spanner in my thinking machine, because what if the answers to those questions were: no! Or, better: yes and no! It doesn’t matter, is what I ask the writer me to say back to the reader me: it doesn’t matter because I’ve got you, no matter how you sound, past you and future you, and we’re here. I’ll write this up and maybe just maybe I’ll send it in an email attachment to a friend, to a sister, to an agent, to a publisher, and see what happens.
Generally, when asked, I say I’m an accidental writer, writer-adjacent, something like that, because I was taught to write alone and in silence and peacefully, and I don’t like that, the idea of it and the feeling of it. We’ve been there before, I say to myself, here in my queerness, necessarily messy and ongoing and intersecting. We’ve been there before and we’ve been there too often, alone in that chair in the corner, writing things down on the edges of a life we’ve felt too frightened to live to its loud and gorgeous maximum, out in the world, loving and losing and loving again. I’ve been ashamed, and ashamed of the shame, thinking I have nobody worth writing this stuff down for, let alone myself. And then somehow, miraculously, I decided: enough. No more! No more no more no more. Reclamation.
To write does not have to mean you’re alone, or not really alive, and it doesn’t have to be a reminder of your separateness, or reinforce it. That’s a lie. Writing is anything I or we want it to be: it’s yours, mine, ours. It’s a strategy and a tool and a technology and it’s ours.
I’ve decided that, for me, being a writer means simply being a big kid full of beans, full of things that I’m excited exist and want to transform into stories, into a second life – with rhythm and joy. Being a writer is being seven again, waking up early and with a set of new gel pens to try, waiting for my sibs to wake up, waiting for someone to play with. That’s how it started for me. I’d wake up at the crack of dawn and it’d be too early for the day, for the standard Saturday telly sesh at the church of Live and Kicking, so I’d creep out of our room, fix myself a milky brew in a nice bottle-green and terracotta mug (yes, 1998), cosy back in bed with my Smith’s notebook and half a pack of contraband Maryland cookies and there you go: she’s a writer. A writer! Filling her chops with sweet, sweet pleasure and story-ing the happy things that went the day before. Reader, she loves it.
Writing is a technology among others, a tool in the toolkit of self-expression and, when we’re lucky, of connection. As with all technologies, it’s up to us to use it: to create, to reinvent, to abandon ourselves for a while, to return – as we like it.
For me, for now at least, the queerest, most exciting thing about this writing tech is just this. It’s the multiplicity it offers us, in that when you write you’re multiple – the whole cast. You’re your future reader and your characters and you’re you. You might be alone but you and we are waiting for you, for some kind of transmission to happen. One day you might just read yourself back, those gel-pen recitals there in that scrappy notebook, and you might like the sound. So, if and when you can do it, and if you can do it playfully and courageously and safely, then do it, I say to myself: use your writing tech however you like, alone or together. Cast off the learnt stresses and pressures, and say to yourself in your best strong Leeds accent, right from the heart: get it writ!
They’re ours, our lives, our multiple lives, and the stories we want and need to tell about them are ours if we want them, and any record we make of it is a miracle for those that came before and for those that are coming. It’s joy. And, when in doubt, when you’re blocked or stuck, here’s what I do: imagine a kitten, a kitten at your side, coating your legs in fur and purring, existing and forgiving. What does queer joy sound like? To me it sounds like that.
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To mark LGBT History Month, Amelia Abraham speaks with three people from very different generations and backgrounds about the role reading played in finding their identity.
At a dinner party in 1922, Virginia Woolf met the renowned author, aristocrat – and sapphist – Vita Sackville-West. Virginia wrote in her diary that she didn’t think much of Vita’s conversation, but she did think very highly of her legs. It was