How Writing It Down Has Kept Me Sane

Last updated: December 2021

I have always wanted to be a writer. Secretly. Secretly, because the world I grew up in didn’t have writers in it. Or writers didn’t come from, or inhabit, my world. My world was a world of unskilled or manual labor and learning how to get on with life and not to expect too much from it.

My dad once said to me that working on the roads didn’t pay well but I’d earn enough money for rent and food and have a few quid over at the end of the week for a pint. I had just joined Godden and Lawson Civil engineers when he told me that. The firm my dad had worked for most of his adult life. I’d taken to it better than he’d expected. He’d expected me to fail.

"You wouldn't last a week"

When I first asked if he could get me work as a laborer on his road gang he’d laughed and said – Stephen, you wouldn’t last a week. It’ll kill you. But I’d persevered. I needed the work. I had a newborn baby to feed. So, I pushed him. Not always a wise move when it came to my dad. He said – You’ve as much chance of surviving on the roads, as you have of waking up one morning without a hole in your arse. He was a poet like that. In that working-class poet’s way.

And so, I worked the roads with my dad and did my level best to survive. After a time, I not only survived, I excelled. I learnt how to shovel – there’s a method to it that, once mastered, means you can shovel all day long without a break. The same with digging – different method, same outcome. I learnt how to use a jackhammer. Those things weigh 60lb or more, and on a cold day can freeze a man’s fingers onto the steel trigger. These days, road workers aren’t allowed to work more than 20 minutes at a time before taking a rest from a jackhammer.

Back then, there were very few rules

We used those things all day long. Dragging and driving them into the concrete hour after hour. On rare evenings when I didn’t fall asleep with my meal cooling on my lap, I would write. By hand. My spelling was dreadful. My use of grammar and punctuation was almost non-existent. But I had an urge to do it. An urge that niggled away at me. Weeks and months would go by without me writing a word, but when I surfaced for air, and had some spare time – and energy – I would begin to write again. I only ever shared my writing with Teresa. No one else.

I was too afraid of the ribbing I might get if I were to share it with others. Teresa would tell me I was good. And I would like that, but believed she was being kind because it was me.

I left the roads, and our hometown, and we moved to Swindon in search of work. I retrained and became a carpenter. I still wrote little bits and pieces – secretly.

A surprise gift

Then, one day, while working as the maintenance man at the Institute of Directors in Pall Mall, I was told a bunch of old electric typewriters were being dropped into a skip outside the building and being replaced by new ones. I asked the maintenance manager if I could have one of the old typewriters and he said I could if I donated £5 to the IOD charity. £5 was a lot to me back then. But I paid up and took the typewriter home. I wrote, badly, and at irregular intervals, on that typewriter for a good few years. And then came the PC. The PC opened a whole new world for me, as it did for all of us.

My ambition to be a writer was still there but now I had a machine that could let me see what my writing might look like in print. Not only that, but this miracle of a machine would help me with my spelling and punctuation, and grammar. Come the evening and I’d wait until Teresa and the children had gone to bed and then I’d write – often into the early hours.

I’d write and I’d smoke, and I’d feel like I was a real writer – like Hemingway or Capote or one of those writers I’d seen in old black and white photos poised over a typewriter, a cigarette dangling from their lips. I wrote a play. ‘Roger and Gerald.’ I wrote a story about a woman feeding a corpse to a bunch of policemen.

I found out later that story had already been written by Roald Dahl. To this day, I’m not sure if I read it and forgot it and then rewrote it for myself. Probably. I wrote all sorts. Most of which is still stored on my PC. I never threw anything away. Writing things down has always helped me. It was as if I was trying to make sense of my life and writing about anything at all somehow helped me to focus. Helped me to make sense of it all.

I continued to write when I could – as often as I could

But it wasn’t until I was diagnosed with AS that I really began to write. It was the AS that created the space and the time for me to write like I’d never written before. Of course, there was the illness and the ever-present fatigue, but I could write. And I did. Hundreds of thousands of words. Poor words. Badly written. But over time I noticed the writing was improving. And along with it, the spelling, the grammar, and the punctuation.

Now, here I am. Writing. Writing for readers. What a remarkable thing that is. But none of this would have happened had it not been for two things. A secret love of words – even though I didn’t know how to use them correctly to begin with. And AS. Had the AS not found me out, I would still be on the building sites. Building. Or down in a trench by the side of the road. Shovelling. And, of course, writing is cathartic. It has healing powers. So, grab a pen, or a keyboard, and write it down. There’s nothing to lose and plenty to gain.

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