• Mark Meier

Questions I Don’t Like Answering

When Did You Start Writing?

By J.S.Watts


Most writers will tell you there are questions they don’t enjoy answering. Ironically (or perhaps not) they are often the questions we are most frequently asked.


I’m writing an occasional series of lighthearted blog posts looking at some of my personal “oh no, not again!” questions and exploring why I don’t relish having to respond to them (though I recognise other writers may invariably feel differently).

The fourth question in the series is, “When did you start writing?”


Before I launch into the convolutedly complex issues behind this apparently simple enquiry, I would like to take a few moments to reflect on what I have learned to date from writing this series of blog posts, which is that there is no such thing as a simple enquiry. So far, all my difficulties with the questions posed stem from the fact that I think my questioner wants a simple answer to what they consider a straightforward question, but I know the answer is complicated, lengthy and probably not what they were anticipating when they asked the question in the first place. I am torn between being true to my answer and providing the questioner with what I think they want. Perhaps I am over thinking things? But writers’ heads are complex (well, mine is) and what someone else sees as a simple question allowing them to engage briefly with my work, presents me with moments of near existential angst. Perhaps I should just say, “It’s complicated” and move on, but my questioner has asked me a question and they deserve a true and directly honest answer, right?


So let’s try, “When did you start writing?” “It’s complicated. Next question.”


Or perhaps, “When did you start writing?” “It’s complicated. What exactly do you mean by ‘start writing’?” You see, I started writing around the age of three, give or take, when I first picked up a pencil and painfully spelled out my name (or a shortened version of it, because it’s actually quite long), but I’m guessing my interlocutor doesn’t mean that sort of writing.


So let’s try honing the question, “When did you start writing creative stuff?” Sometime in primary school, I don’t really remember when. I remember doing well in a local poetry competition around the age of six or seven, but according to my mother I wrote my first ever poem when I was four. Apparently she has the blackmail-worthy proof (in the way that mothers have). This is a true answer, but an embarrassing one because it sounds like I’m saying that I’ve always written in that blasé, arty way that creatives can have. Also, it’s possibly still not what my questioner meant.


So, “When did you start writing creative stuff seriously?” “Ah yes, but what do you mean by seriously?” I wrote poetry and short stories throughout my school career. I won prizes and the like at secondary school, but I didn’t start to get published until after I left university.


“Now you are talking. So when did you really start writing, you know, publishable stuff?” Well, in my twenties and early thirties I had a growing number of poems published in literary magazines, but a number of those published poems were the ones I had written at school and university, which you don’t appear to count as really writing.


“Okay. I’m not convinced that brief pieces in magazines really count. I mean, you still had a paid career as something other than a writer. When did you really start writing as a career?”  I chucked in the day job in 2008 and went freelance to concentrate on my writing. My first book was published in 2011 and I’ve had another five published since then. My seventh book/third novel, “Old Light”, is due out in the summer of 2019.


“So, you really started writing in 2008, which led to you having six books published and another on the way?” Not exactly, because a great many of the poems in my four poetry books were written in the period when I was gainfully employed in education and before I went freelance. Before I reached the book publishing stage I had amassed a sizeable ‘portfolio’ of work to draw from and build upon. The novels were written from 2008 onwards, but I wouldn’t have written them if I hadn’t written short stories and poetry a whole lot earlier in my personal timeline.


You see, the writing experience isn’t necessarily linear. It ebbs and flows and feeds into one growing sea of words, with it’s own multiple layers, drifts and undercurrents. “Oh.”


Sometimes the questioning continues for a little longer, evolving along the lines of when did I start to do nothing but write creatively and live off the copious amounts of income it generates (cue hysterical laughter from writer), but that is too close to comfort to the next and fifth question in the series: “What do you do? A writer? No, what do you really do?”  And therein lies a whole different fist in the pit of the stomach experience. I’m saving that particular angst for the next blog post.

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