'Writing in Secret', Diana McCaulay

Posted on 11/04/2014
By Commonwealth Foundation

Diana McCaulay; Writer In Residence; Commonwealth Writers
If my book gets published, my father will die. This was the thought I could not shake once I signed the publishing contract for my first novel.
Why my father? Why not my husband? My sisters? My friends? Because my father was both the person who opened the world of books to me and my ultimate censor. It was my father who read my early writing – I was sixteen – and cried. And it was my father who told me women could not write literature because there was only one suitable subject for a novel of any worth and that was war. Women did not go to war. Women might be in a book about war, but the book would not be about them, and always they would be doomed.
My father gave me the novels of Hemingway and Monsarrat and Forester. I read them and I told myself stories of adventures at sea. I was the hero, strong and brave, dressed in men’s clothing, my hair shorn to the skull.
And so I have always had stories in my head. I wrote many of them down but I stopped showing them to my father – he ridiculed anything about the life of a teenage girl, a young married woman, a mother – I stopped showing them to anyone. I started a diary and kept it hidden. I wrote long letters to friends. I wrote stories I did not finish, plotted books I did not start. I bored my sisters with accounts of books I would write as soon as I had the time, the writer’s cabin with a view of a lake, the right story. I loved articles about older women writers with hundreds of rejections under their belt before dazzling success. I dreamed about seeing my books on shelves and winning literary prizes, and still I wrote in secret.
Merely writing did not, however, make me a writer. To be a writer demands a reader, writing is a conversation with a shadowy cast of readers, people we will never meet, never know if they read to the end or regretted the money they paid for your book or story. Writing is also a message to a single, perfect reader – the one we really write for, the one we hope to move, the one who will say, ah now I see, now I understand.
In time I came to recognize the force that kept me writing in secret all my life. It was fear. Fear of the ultimate revealing of the self, for if you do not write to tell the truth, why even begin? Fear of exploring taboo subjects – perhaps even women who waged war, women who disliked motherhood. Fear of stepping out of bounds. Fear of ridicule – who does she think she is? Fear of criticism – do not quit your day job, girl! Fear of the judgment of the one reader who matters.
And I think it is this fear that must be overcome if we are to write from a place of truth, of authenticity, of unconstrained and serious exploration. A writer does not need to have had a father censor to feel fear – there are fears aplenty for us all. The reaction of family members who might recognize themselves in our paragraphs. The fear of factual errors – that railroad was not built until the 1980s, your research is faulty and your credibility is shot. Mistakes of speech patterns, dialect, the use of certain words. Mistakes born out of the ignorance of history. Plagiarism – even if you know for certain you have copied no one’s work, you wonder about words written by another held forgotten in your brain for years and years to emerge on the page as yours. Fear of being told you have no right to your material; fear of that being true. Fear of being unoriginal, trite, boring. Fear of rejection; of downright condemnation. Of being misunderstood. Of people taking offence. Of appropriating other people’s lives and then failing to do them justice.
After many decades of writing in secret, I was helping my sisters clear out my mother’s trunk after she died and we found among her papers an article about a series of short pieces I had written for Jamaica’s main newspaper, the Gleaner. I had been six and a half years old. Evidently, I had not been afraid. It came to me that if we are to write we must reclaim our childhood selves before we were told about all the things we can and cannot do. Before boundaries were established for us.
So I wrote my first novel. It is not about war, at least not the kind of war with soldiers or ships, and I sought no one’s permission to write it. And then I wrote a second book and a third. I have had letters and e-mails from readers, I have read to groups of people and sometimes they have been with me and sometimes not. I call myself a writer now; I claim it, I believe it.  I cannot truthfully say I do not feel fear, but it no longer stops me from sending my words into the world, it no longer prevents me from seeking readers, all kinds of readers, even critical ones.
I am no longer writing in secret.
(And my father and mother died, but not because of my books. It remains a lingering sadness that neither of them ever held my books in their hands, that neither of them was ever my reader…)

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