Have you got the write stuff?

Francis Breakspear

I'm fascinated by the power of words- to mangle a common aphorism "the pen is mightier than the sword, well, at least at distances over 6ft." My reputation is as a scathing letter writer, especially to official bodies or the press; but I'm not just vitriolic. As a former Civil Servant I authored over 50 analytical reports and a large technical procedure project which became adopted practice in 70 Department of Employment Offices. Around 18 years ago I wrote some breathy prose for a small-circulation music magazine (a "fanzine"). I haven't been trained, other than doing averagely at English Language 'O' level many moons ago. I failed English Literature quite badly; The Great Gatsby and The Mayor of Casterbridge having left me cold.

In 1992 I almost cut off a finger in an accident with a knife. Following emergency surgery a steel supporting rod was inserted through the tip of the longest finger of my right hand and screwed into the knuckle, to take the stretch off the tendon which had been severed in the accident and re-joined by the surgeon. I'm largely right-handed. I couldn't work because the rod protruded from my finger; I had a manual job at the time and the slightest touch caused unspeakable pain. It was a bleak January. I was reduced to clumsy, disabled left-handedness. My forcibly straightened finger meant I couldn't bend the other fingers without pulling on the injury (try it yourself), with corresponding pain. Even making tea was hard; as I discovered by badly scalding my left hand. I read, moodily; watched TV and went for ill-humoured walks until the winter’s bitter cold penetrated the metal implant making me cry out with pain and frustration.

My computer languished; I couldn't use my right hand... Eventually I switched it on and keyed commands left-handed out of sheer anger. I discovered how much society discriminates against left-handers, i.e. location of the return key. Prodding at the keys two-fingered the typing exercise "the quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog" took an age to type. My right hand ached to participate. The surgeon had said do nothing strenuous- this was physically light work, but hellishly hard on the brain. I experimented; by propping my right arm on the keyboard, but still couldn't bend the fingers without pain; using the pinned finger was risky, as I found when I accidentally hooked my finger’s metalwork under a key…. a fucking awesome pain.

As is remarked upon in SSOTBME: “The alchemist studies natural processes minutely … (and) learns more about himself (and others) … he will note how unqualified success renders people inflexible: the times of genuine development tend to follow the times of failure, of decomposition and of rebuilding”. This was such a time- pain, anger and huge frustration are a pretty good way to gnosis- and inspiration came! I didn't need to BEND my fingers...by rolling my wrist sideways like a child’s see-saw I could use the thumb and three fingers while keeping them straight. Initial hesitant attempts were abysmal; I was hitting keys for sure, but not those I was aiming to hit. Some memorable pseudo-Danish text appeared onscreen, but not the coherent prose I wanted. Somewhere in the process of hand-eye coordination my thoughts had mutated into drivel. I retreated, grumpy and disheartened. I'd never been trained to touch-type; through doggedness in the face of enormous typing requirements I'd originally learned to type, years before, without looking. Now I couldn't type. Many people notice my bloody-minded streak. Next morning I started re-learning typing with a crippled right hand. Eventually I was scoring more hits than misses; the hieroglyphics on the screen blossomed into prose; "a prose which by any other name would read as sweet", ha ha. I was doing it!

I'd thought for years about writing a book; but hadn't had the time. In idle moments I'd jotted themes and ideas down. I found them and discarded most as the ramblings of a "me" who was now older and wiser (but then if I was so goddam wise I shouldn't have stupid accidents with a knife...) I slowly transferred my scribblings to the screen. "Hmm, not exactly Booker Prize material" I thought.

I typed; ideas waxed and waned, digressions, contradictions; a mix of sense, nonsense, brilliance and complete dross. Whatever the quality, I was writing my book! The full range of emotions came into play; I laughed, I got angry, sad, confused, and euphoric. The supreme irony of having time to write purely because of my disabled writing hand wasn't lost on me.

My book swelled to 10,000 words of ideas, abbreviations and garbled notes. The seeds of coherence: and as the ideas matured so the dominance of winter outside faded. I spent several hours every day for 6 weeks typing. The hand hurt; but it was finally a healing pain.

March arrived; the big day...I had the steel pin removed. To my horror I still couldn't bend my finger. The surgeon explained it would be virtually useless through being immobilised for 9 weeks. The possibility of never being able to use my hand properly again was devastating. After skilled physiotherapy I could bend the finger a little. I couldn't feel it: the injury had severed the nerves; it was "a matter of patience" until new connections formed. At least I could tentatively type with it and bend the other fingers too. Then I discovered that as I'd re-taught myself to type with the injury, when it was better I was typing cod-Danish again; my fingers knew different manoeuvres. I had to re-learn the way I'd always typed again. A frustrating month passed. Spring bloomed; my hand was almost recovered. I had a business to run. I saved the book for "later" and rejoined the world of the two-handed.

1992 flew by; my business prospered. I brought my finger to 95% mobility. 1993 dawned; my New Years' resolution was "finish the book", my mind was incubating myriad new ideas, which craved expression. Instead, ’93, that most Crowleyan of year numbers, brought serious marriage and business problems, leaving neither time nor inclination to work on a book that was suddenly a whimsical irrelevance in the wider context of life. 1994 saw defeat almost everywhere; determination is no guarantee of success. The story of that year could make a book no-one would believe (maybe one day soon), but at the time it was enough to survive, let alone make notes for a spurious second book when my first was in limbo. I lived. In autumn 94 I abandoned a poisoned marriage, taking minimal personal effects and a soul in tatters. With very few beloved exceptions my friends had been turned against me via propaganda and lies. Rebuilding was slow and painful. Redundancy came in tandem with the move into 1995; a blessed relief in many ways. That winter was the darkest and coldest ever; on many levels. There was only descent into illness and despair.

Among my scant possessions was the computer- by today’s standards a complete dinosaur (286 processor, one megabyte of RAM, 20 meg hard disk etc… no, please stop laughing!) but it was then quite modern. The screen stared at me, an accusing electronic cyclops. But dead; no power, "You and me both, mate", I thought. With damning self-criticism, I read the half-book on screen. Lots of it was truly the puerile idealistic rubbish I'd expected. Not all. In desperate need to do SOMETHING I re-edited the text. By now I had over 30,000 words. Straining out debris and naïveté left around 8,000.

Back to writing with fanatical persistence; alternately driven or stalled, inspired or just plain tired. I wrote and wrote and wrote. One evening in April I completely rewrote a chapter that I'd always hated. The words poured from my fingers like never before. I finished and stopped for coffee. Before the kettle had boiled I was back writing stuff in another chapter, suddenly brimming with expansive new ideas. The kettle boiled. The kettle cooled. At 2 AM I completed a long passage in the opening chapter. My mind was then empty... I made coffee in a daze. Still addicted, I re-arranged the chapters, reading them on-screen. Realisation ambushed me from behind: What? Disbelief and tears; mixed joy and something I can't even put a word on, "vindication" is the closest I can find.

I'd finished it....I'd written the book. I was elated, confused...then doubting...it was a dream, it wasn't real; I didn't have a stack of paper in front of me; it was just symbols on a screen, I wasn’t going to believe it until I had the thing in my hands…. It was 3 AM. I spellchecked and pressed "print".... after some ink cartridge difficulties, some time later the last page was output; a real manuscript, in the flesh; or in the paper, at least. I maybe had a very tiny inkling of how it feels to become a parent; I'd certainly done plenty of pacing and smoking during a difficult labour; at times nearly deleting it all as worthless crap. At 5 AM I gratefully fell prey to the clawing embrace of sleep.

I'd been encouraged all along by a dear and true friend, whom I phoned next morning with the news and excited laughter. Then I felt utterly lost; what to do? PUBLISH!, idiot! I wrote synopses and introductory letters. Rejection letters arrived. I sent more letters out. One interested publisher then gave an obscene sum of money to a ‘name’ author in advances for his next 5 books, in the process using their budget for 1995. Oh.

This was no fairy tale, no happy ending. Whether I was published or not became a side issue; I'd gained so much; a writing style impossible within the confines of previous jobs, and a measure of my capacity to survive in outrageous situations. The book was/is cathartic. In common with many authors, I write to understand- clarity comes simply by my having to explain things to unseen readers who are assumed unfamiliar with my subject. In this case, and for the first time I wrote from the soul; trawling feelings for kindling to illuminate the whole process; it was a hell of a fire! It's impossible to be objective with something typed in my own blood; but I've read far worse.

The subject? After languishing on disk in a box filled with rejection letters for some time (with only occasional copies being given to friends on disk or as printouts) it’s now online, and has been for nearly 3 years now … fittingly it went live one Hallowe’en... The computer it was typed on has been scrap metal for nearly 6 years (oddly its hard disk expired only a few weeks after the book was finished…), which was quite sad… If you want more; go to my book on magic (and much more)- link below. And the second book? Not yet… one secret of good writing is "always leave them wanting for more". And if a donkey like me can do it; so can you!


Ironically, since this was written the website company went bust, and Dave’s had to set up an entirely new site: should be fully operational by October 2002

Read the book here: http://groups.msn.com/MagickForTheMilennium/_whatsnew.msnw