"Okay, (sniffle) so I do a little writing now and again. I can handle it."
Is this, gentle reader-writer, the image you evoke in your loved ones? A pitiful, whey-faced figure with a scribbling monkey on your back? An addict to the production of the written word?
I hadn't realised how far down this slippery incline I'd descended until I was nearly arrested. The police found me balanced on the kitchen window-sill trying to prize open a fanlight with a Swiss Army knife. I was working on a story involving just such a forced entry and my next-door neighbour had spotted my research.
"Didn't you recognise me?" I remonstrated with him, after I'd convinced the constables that I owned the house.
"To be honest, no. I thought you were a tramp."
It was a whack to my self-esteem. In the days when I was a wage-slave, I'd often blown a month's salary on fashionable threads to impress the girls, and my hair had been styled regularly in the mode of the month. Now I was told I looked like a bum. It wasn't a solitary incident either.
"It's a tip, a bomb-site. It's Gatwick during an Air Traffic Controllers' strike," an old college friend designated my lounge. She was right. Books, half-empty cups and cans, magazines, newspaper cuttings, scrunched-up A4 and manilla envelopes lay everywhere. It resembled a squat. I defended the chaos.
"I need certain things directly to hand when I'm working."
She smiled pityingly as she would at a bemused foreigner who inadvertently stumbled into a Morris-dancing exhibition. I could feel her gaze take in my writing clothes.
My cardigan is warm, woolly, and as familiar as a security blanket. Her eyes saw only the bagginess and the ragged holes in each elbow. My trousers date from the seventies, and have a generous flare, my psychedelic shirt is from the same era. Both are exquisitely comfortable despite the frayed cuffs and stains. The seams have eased to accommodate my shape. My feet are encased in grey cricket socks and Corsican espadrilles of uncertain vintage. It is a uniform in which I write my best, or at least feels as if I am doing so, which is just as important.
"It's a question of comfort," I said helplessly, fingering the place where a button used to be.
"But you were the sharpest dresser at college. Even your shoes had a shine. What happened?"
How could I describe the process of my enslavement? It had begun harmlessly enough. A casually read phrase in a writer's handbook describing the letters page of a teenagers' weekly: "It is not a market for the freelance writer."
"Huh", I thought. "If you can write, anything's a market."
Foolish pride. Hubris unleashed! I sent off a letter purporting to be the thoughts and doings of a 14 year old lass. How was I to know where such trivial action would lead? Back came a cheque for four pounds. The effect of this result far outweighed the monetary value.
At first it was a game. I could stop any time, but it was fun to write letters to local newspapers, the free press, and magazine editors. By turn, I pretended to be irate Colonels, concerned pensioners, or left and right-wing fanatics. I didn't realise what I'd started. No one told me. I suppose these things follow the usual pattern.
A friend suggested I tried a short story. Just the one, couldn't do any harm sending it in, he said. When the letter came back I couldn't believe it. "Very much enjoyed...Offer our standard rate for FBSR...Look forward to seeing more..."
And there was a cheque. Not a big cheque but a sign that someone would pay for the things I made up. I suppose it went to my head. I wandered around in a daze for a day or two.
It would have been all right if it had stayed like that.
I mean, I wasn't doing anyone any harm and I got a kick out of it. It wasn't enough though after a while. Dissatisfaction began creeping in. I wanted more realistic characters: fuller, rounded, in-depth. I began making notes.
At first I'd do it when I came home, at the end of the day. Privately. But it wasn't too long before I realised I was forgetting incidents, expressions, conversations, looks, idiosyncrasies. I began creeping into the toilet to make a jotting or two about the boss or a sales rep or the tea lady. After a while I carried a notebook everywhere. Only a small one and I tried to be discreet but people began noticing.
"What's that you've got there, then? You're not a company spy are you? Ha! Ha!"
I suppose it would have been possible to deflect comments about an oft-produced scribbling pad, but then I began to have black-outs from reality.
A plot problem or a defective character trait would carry over from the previous night's work and occupy the mind. Initially I'd be shaken out of it by a murmured, "Hey, stop day-dreaming and hand me that folder."
But soon it needed more to produce the same effect. It required a spine-shuddering forearm smash to the biceps accompanied by a screech in my ear. "Are you deaf? I've been shouting across the room."
Even these blank spots could have been explained or put down to mere eccentricity, but then I began mumbling: rehearsing dialogue to test it on the tongue and get the feel of a character. Often on the bus or tube I'd find a row of people staring at me and I'd realised I'd be holding a conversation with myself.
I didn't blame anyone when I was asked to resign. To sit blank-faced, and glassy eyed in an important meeting and then suddenly blurt out unconnected statements like, "Profligacy, Jenkins cannot be dismissed so lightly", is bound to provoke comment.
Being unemployed meant I had more freedom to indulge my antisocial behaviour and by this time I was verging on the really 'hard' writing. I contemplated a novel.
I lost most of my friends at this point because I exacerbated family tiffs in order to study conflict development. I made rude comments purely to provoke reaction among my acquaintances. I took to cultivating unsavoury persons in seamy professions. Everything I did was geared to provide substance for my tales.
Financially I was a non-person. My credit rating and plastic money disappeared as easily as they had come. What money I did get went on white bond and brown manilla. Looking back, I blame my parents. I retain a picture of myself at three years of age sitting in front of a sheet of paper at the kitchen table. My mother had set down the alphabet and I was happily copying the letters with a large red crayon. Was that how it all started?
I don't regret it. Not any of it. My bank manager makes snide comments about the Booker or the Nobel, but I don't really blame him; he's friendly with Dan Brown's bank manager. Besides, creative, pleading letters addressed to him are just another way of feeding the habit.