Meeting the voices in my head
I’d started telling myself stories as as a way of escaping whatever actual events I didn’t want to be part of by the age of five.
Don’t get the idea from this that I had a bad childhood – on the contrary, I lived on a yacht that was variously in the Caribbean and southern Europe, I was home-schooled, I had my own dinghy, there was a cat and dog on the boat who respectively made sure I behaved and led me into trouble. However, as my parents were from the WWII generation, they saw absolutely no reason why, for example, I shouldn’t be perfectly capable of using a knife and fork and eating with my mouth closed by age three. They also thought, as an aspiring human, I should be able to sit quietly and at least not snore out loud when they had adult guests over. Quite reasonable, and I’d fucking love it if more parents today applied at least the same behavioural standards to their offspring in public as they do to their dogs. My eardrums would be a lot happier, not to mention enjoyment of restaurant meals uninterrupted by views of semi-masticated globs being spat back onto tables.
However, as there are few things more boring than to listen to a conversation that you can’t join, because, well, either the topic bores the pants off you or because most adults have issues talking to five year olds in anything other than “Is that your teddy, dear? How wonderful!”, I learnt the joys of escapism early. It probably helped that due to that homeschooling, I could read crap (“Peter and Jane saw a BUTTERFLY!!!!”) by the time I hit my third birthday, and actual books of some interest by the time I was five.
By the time I was five, I had an imaginary friend. My imaginary friend would discuss shit that interested us, like exactly what that thing on the bottom of the harbour might actually be, and just how much light refraction might be throwing off our guesses at how deep it was. My imaginary friend had other friends, most of whom I never really got to know very well. Not to mention a horse. A really big horse that would kick the crap out of people it didn’t like. (Yeah, I know, I lived on a boat. I didn’t get within thirty metres of a horse until I was ten or eleven. Don’t ask why a horse.)
Nowhere to go
Sadly, no good thing lasts forever, and by age thirteen, the boat had been sold, and I was in the middle of nowhere, France, about three months from being shipped off to boarding school. (The Famous Five has a lot to answer for.) I didn’t have any particular objections to learning to gravel patios and put up screening walls, and I already knew how to paint. There certainly wasn’t much else to do – no water, no dinghies, no beaches, no deserted islands that I was allowed to just row to and wander all over until Dad leant on the foghorn and scared all the pelicans out of the trees to call me back.
That autumn led to boarding school, in northern England, amid three hundred or so teenagers. This was in the mid-90s, and I’d never heard of Oasis. I didn’t care if my jeans were Levi, not that I got to wear jeans very often: ‘home clothes’ were treats reserved for weekends, after Saturday morning school and afternoon activities. Going into town (after school and activities), was permitted at age thirteen and up, provided you could scrape together two other people to go with (oh, ha).
Writing to escape
Luckily, my imaginary friend had been fleshed out a lot in the years between five and thirteen. She lived on a different planet. She was in training for some kind of special ops unit (did I mention that this school was a Quaker school? I was a great culture fit.) She could fly spaceships. About the only point of commonality was that we both lived in highly-regulated environments and held a very low opinion of those controlling our lives.
My imaginary friend was the mainstay that mostly kept me from resorting to some of the more popular coping mechanisms at the school, such as petty shop-lifting, alcohol, self harm, bulimia and/or anorexia, etc. Writing to escape started happening after about my first year, when someone pretty much told me to write it down already so they could read the stories.
I started in a tiny notebook I’d picked up somewhere, smaller than my hand. By the middle of the next year, I was writing on the pages in my school binders, and not at all coincidentally, doing better in class (my brain switches off fast when I’m bored, and listening to the same thing repeated ten different ways for the folks in the back reading much-fingered copies of ‘J17’ magazine was, well, boring). I wrote five novels in class in a little under three years (and, yes, smart-arse, I did pass my exams, with good grades, even) before I finally escaped to the wilds of Wales and university, and by that point, the habit of writing to escape was pretty firmly fixed.
Some twenty years later, and under substantially less pressure, I actually find that I need to consciously make time and space for writing. It is a pressure valve, and when there’s no pressure, well, less writing happens. Because I do enjoy having a ticket off-world almost whenever I can muster the concentration, it does still happen, but I’m unlikely to ever transform into one of those writers who churns out a book every couple of months – even if I could afford to not work 40 hours a week, 49 weeks a year. Nothing sucks the joy out of it quite so much as writing because I have to write, rather than because I feel like writing (Nanowrimo 2014 taught me that while I can do it, it isn’t fun, and I end up with a hurrah’s nest of unedited crap I still haven’t dared open up to see if several years of editing could turn the “write first! Never edit as you write!” approach into a readable novel).
To sum up a very long and rambly post, most people read if they feel like escapism, which I also do. It’s just that, as the voices in my head never shut up anyway, I also write to escape. Also, because the voices in my head are of such very long standing, I actually have an incredible bonus as an author. I don’t need pages and pages of notes on planetary culture and character backstories. It’s all right there for the asking.