Monday, April 29, 2013

The Truth About The Start And The End Of I Wrote This For You

Here's the text of what I read at my reading/signing in Cape Town the other night. It should explain my absence and a lot more than I've ever said. 

I’d like to ask that all of you forget about what you’re depressed about, that thing that happened so long ago, and forget about what you’re worrying about that might happen and focus on the fact that you’re in a book store, listening to a bald guy with a beard reading poetry. Life could be worse. So please, be here, now, with me.

I wrote all this yesterday at my dinner table. Usually, for a reading, I’ll have something written about a month in advance and rehearse it everyday for an hour. So I haven’t done that this time and I ask that you bear with me.

The reason for my last minute preparation is, I’ve been struggling for a while in terms of what I wanted to say tonight and the reason for that is this will probably be one of the last times, if not the last time, at least for a while, that I’ll be promoting I Wrote This For You and because of that, I’d like to tell the truth for once about where it came from, why I started it and more importantly, why I ended it. I started writing it in Cape Town and this is as good a place as any to do this.

For those of you who have been dragged here by your friends, girlfriends or boyfriends and have no idea who I am or why all these people are here, I Wrote This For You was a project I ran from 2007 to earlier this year. 5 days of the working week, an incredibly good friend, if not one of my best, in Japan, whom I’ve never met, would send me a picture and I’d write a short piece of prose or story below it. The prose would always have to have the word “You” somewhere in it and always start with the word “The.”

At the top of the page are written these words.


I know it doesn’t sound that exciting but it did become quite popular and on a good day, the only person in the world, living or dead, who sells more books of poetry than me, is William Shakespear. Which is a sentence I’ve often used in conversation to make myself feel less insecure but we’ll get to that later.

These could sometimes be quite short or quite long, here are some.


In 1993, just a few short months before Kurt Cobain bit down hard on a shotgun, I was 13 years old and a woman named Meryl was dying of cancer in the cottage that adjoined the house I lived in with my family. My mom and her had been friends since they were in university and as some kind of final courtesy, had allowed her to stay there rent free while she slowly passed. I didn’t really understand death at that point, except that when my hamster died, I knew I was sad but the sadness I felt for the hamster was nothing compared to the utter devastation wrought on my mother by slowly watching her best friend fade away, and I could see that even if I couldn’t really comprehend it.

Soon, time took her and our house was quiet. One afternoon, a week or two after she’d passed, my family was out and I was home alone and the phone rang and a man on the other end said hello.

And I said hello back, as is customary in these kinds of basic, human interactions. And he asked if my parents were there, and I said no, and then he was quiet. And then he asked if the Meryl he’d read the obituary about in the paper was a certain Meryl he was thinking of. And he mentioned some things about her and I said, yes, that’s her. And then he asked me what she was like. And what had happened. And as carefully as he could, he asked a 13 year old about the death of someone he knew, while trying to remain as controlled as he could. And I answered as best I could.

“Yes, I think she was happy.”

When my parents got home, I told my mother the name of the man that phoned and she told me, that it was the only man Merly had ever loved, having dedicated her entire life to the church, but that the man in question had lead quite a wayward life, for want of better words, and that things hadn’t worked out for them. And I thought that was the end of that.

Just so my publisher doesn’t give me a hard time, not that she would as she’s honestly quite awesome, I’m going to read some more poetry quickly before I get back to the story, in case I get accused of short changing anyone and someone yells “But you promised us poetry!”


The next year, I got into high school and it was one of those high schools were if you weren’t on the math’s Olympiad team or on the rugby team, you weren’t on any team. And I discovered that the man who’d phoned our house that day the year before to ask about the dying woman, was my art teacher. And to be blunt, he was quite possibly the only authority figure growing up in that place who actually gave a fuck about me, taking me aside and trying to help me remember dates for art theory tests, telling us stories about life in Europe in the 70’s and making me think for the first time that perhaps adults weren’t all assholes who desperately wanted to a reason to put you in detention for listening to Black Sabbath. And the memory of him stayed with me, after I left school.

If we fast forward to 2006, I was at the end of the beginning of a very awarded and successful career in advertising and I’d just bought my first new car, which I drove to Port Elizabeth to visit my family. On a whim one day, I drove past my old high school, more than vaguely tempted to drive onto the rugby field and do doughnuts until the caretaker chased me off but instead, I saw my old art teacher walking out of one of the buildings and this dissuaded me from my previous course of action, and so I drove after him, waiting for him to stop.
He eventually did next to his car, which was one of those cars where the doors are all different colours to the rest of it, rusting with no real sense of grace. And I stopped and got out and spoke to him. And he remembered me and we spoke about things. He told me what it felt like to be old, that he wasn’t sure if he was going to be able to retire and how life was generally, without a single modicum of bitterness about the whole affair. And after we spoke for a while, we said our goodbyes and I started walking back to sit in the leather seats of my new car. Several things struck me at once.

That life was incredibly unfair. That my car and my award winning portfolio suddenly mattered a lot less to me than it did a few minutes before. And that I desperately wanted to help people like him who felt alone in the world and that the only real skill I could lay claim to in the world, was the ability to write.

And in that moment, like Venus rising, the entirety of I Wrote This For You appeared before me, the website and the book.

I think many people would prefer that the story was that my heart was once broken so badly that I spent the rest of my life writing love letters to the one that got away and pretending that that’s what happened probably wouldn’t hurt my book sales but that’s not the truth. I thought of it while walking away from a conversation with my old art teacher. And that’s how it started.

Here’s some more poetry.


And now I must talk about why I ended this.

What I think most people might not realise is that quite often, I was writing to myself. If I was feeling heart broken, or depressed, I’d say the things I wish people would say to me. I think really good art is a map away from an emotion or a map to an emotion and that creating art, allows that emotion to leave the body of the artist, and so this was an incredibly healthy project for quite a while. I got a lot of stuff out of my system.

But as the project became more and more popular and I started getting more and more fan mail from all over the world, letters from kids with brain cancer who told me that I’d help them through the most difficult time of their lives, kids who were just having trouble at school and people who’s hearts had been torn in two, it quickly became the most important thing in my life. And if you’re an insecure, introverted person, that kind of constant validation can become dangerous. You start to crave it. You start needing to know what anyone, anywhere in the world is saying about you at any point in time and if I look back on it now, checking my amazon sales ranking every single morning and constantly clicking on the refresh button on my twitter interactions tab reminds me of mice in a lab who know that pushing a certain button will give them a pellet of food.

Eventually, I started needing to recreate the sadness and longing within myself that had first inspired me to write many of the entries, so I could write from that place again. It’s like being addicted to painkillers, so to justify to the doctor why you need them, you start hurting yourself to prove your point. I started spending my time tearing open old wounds just so I could write about what the blood looked like when it came out.

There’s this horrible equation that creative people can sometimes buy into, which is “No one else has felt what I’ve felt, therefor no one else can do what I do.” Which isn’t true. What you feel doesn’t make you creative. Who you are makes you creative.

I fell in love, consciously or unconsciously with a story about myself, like I was David Foster Wallace, or Hunter S. Thompson, or Hemmingway or Sylvia Plath, all of whom scratched the itch at the back of their head with a shotgun or an oven, or cleared the frog in their throat, finally, with a rope.

It took me a long time to realise that the only story about me that was true, was the one I was writing. 

But it was hard. 

I poured all my romantic and spiritual energy into it and if at any point in time you were in a relationship with me, you got the leftovers. Imagine for a second you’re going out with me, and every day, when I come home, you’re left with the question

“If you’re so good at writing these things, how do I know what you say to me, is real?”


“Who did you write about today?”

Or worse

“Were you writing about me today?”

It took a near complete emotional break down to see any of this. But I did. And I’m sorry to anyone I hurt along the way.

Two or three days ago, the author Iain M Banks was diagnosed with terminal cancer and he released a statement saying that he was giving up writing to spend his remaining months on honeymoon with the girl he’s finally going to marry, and with his friends and family, doing the things he loves and going to the places he loves. And I’d like to ask a simple question here, why?

Because he knows he’s going to die?

Then let me ask this:

Who here doesn’t know they’re going to die?

There’s no book you can write, no amount of twitter followers, no award you can win that will ultimately make you happy. You will only be happy when you start to focus on the simple daily experiences that make you happy. And that might mean letting go, of other things.

As a short epilogue, earlier this year, I went back to Port Elizabeth to visit my family again and I went to my old school. The receptionist told me my art teacher had, in fact, retired and she gave me his address. She didn’t have a phone number. And I picked up a copy of my book, went past an ATM and drew all the money I could spare and put it in an envelope, much of which was money I’d made from book sales, then I drove to the address in the most run-down part of Port Elizabeth imaginable and found a house with the windows covered in cardboard. And there I found my art teacher, missing many of his teeth because dentistry is expensive. And I gave him a copy of my book and the envelope and said thank you and I told him this story.

Maybe one day, when I can approach I Wrote This For You from a healthy place again, I’ll go back there too. Until then, I’m going to try and focus on the things that make me happy. And that’s what happened. And that’s the truth.

I’ll spend a little less time on Intentional Dissonance, a science fiction book that, if I'm honest, is effectively a thinly disguised metaphor for my relationship with IWTFY. The main character is addicted to a drug called sadness, in a world that’s been drugged into being happy and people are trying to kill him. I envy writers who can write about the world outside their window, I seem unable to write about anything but the inside of my skull. This book was a way for me to comment on the world, on myself, on love, on sadness and the relationships I saw between these things. It’s what happens when someone who writes poetry tries to write a novel. In the end, it was a texture and a feeling, more than a story. Something as cryptic and inaccessible as IWTFY was inviting and accessible. And that's the truth about that. 


Hopefully this makes my absence a little clearer to everyone and adds some kind of clarity to what happened and why. The photographer I've never met and I are still the best of friends and with any luck, always will be. I will be back in some, way, shape or form but until then, I am spending my time pulling myself towards myself, sometimes here.

I wrote this in 2007. Someone re-wrote it on a memorial near the Boston bombing. It reminds me of who I once was and who I could be again. I let the world make me hard. I let the pain make me hate. I let the bitterness steal my sweetness. I lost my pride and I stopped believing the world could be a beautiful place. Nothing is more important than these things. And while I am away, I am finding these things again. One at a time.


Nouri_E said...

Thank you, Mr. Art Teacher.

Anonymous said...

Thank you.

Tobias Nordermoen said...

this may sound strange but reading this resonates with me even more than your damn poetry, and feels more aimed at me than your damn poetry. So thank you, best of luck, stay healthy and try to stay happy and I'll try to do the same..

Anonymous said...

one at a time.

Anonymous said...

Thank you

Ria Ria said...

Thank you for telling us this story.

Shara said...

Thank you for everything. This project has meant so much to me and I am sad to see it go but I am incredibly proud to see you become a full fledged novelist and will continue to support you in whatever you do. Come back to the States for a visit sometime!

irena said...

I wish you all the best Iain...your poetry inspired me so much and Im forever grateful having discovered your blog. Im really sad I missed you reading in ct.
Till then in a happier place x

Prixie said...

Wishing you a smooth ride. Thanks for your words.

Amy Lugar said...

While I may never see you face to face or breathe the same air as you, I know you and you know me. You know the deepest parts of me, the parts Im afraid to show everyone else. And I even more so know feel like I know you. I cry as I read this and all other posts because while I know all great things come to an end, I know this was more than a great thing. You opened your soul to us and let us in you gave hope when there was none and you let me and so many others know that we are fact not alone at all. I tell my friends how much you mean to me and they laugh (They will never get it) and that is ok. I know what we shared here was amazing. There will never be another you and no matter where this world takes either of us, You will be a constant in my mind because you gave my sadness company and a new direction of hope. You may never really know how we feel but You saved me and for that I am forever grateful. Thank you for opening up your soul and letting us in. It was a beautiful visit. With all my love and best wishes!

Brooke Amanda said...

Thank you for every word. For letting me know im not alone

Freddie said...

Thank you, for all the pain and struggles. Because in the end that pain has helped so many others with theirs. I will miss the wisdom you imparted, as will many others. You have made a tremendous impact, and I hope your future endeavors much success. We read a lot of things on the net, but few things as touching. Thank you, your writing on this blog will be sorely missed.

amy said...

thank you for your open, genuine, addicting, giving, thoughtful heart that shared when it didn't have to

Jenni said...

Thank You Iain, for being genuine, brilliant, for being you, and for being vulnerable and sharing your story.
May you continue be you, be unique, and be happy :)

Hope you'd enjoy this song :

much love from Scotland

ONLY ME said...

Thank you for the truth. Thank you for trying to be soft and not let pain make you hate. Thank you for trying not to lose your sweetness and believing it's a beautiful world with a beautiful people. I love you. I miss you. Whether or not you ever come back to this place, thank you for some of the best of you. I hope you find all that makes you happy.

Madison Rae said...

Not only does this post reaffirm my desire to pursue teaching art (all I want to do is be what this man was for you), but I respect the story behind IWTFY so much more now and I respect you for writing it. I hope that some day you can find your way back to writing in a way that isn't an addiction to sadness, but if not, I hope the rest of your life brings you joy.

Jazel Elaine said...

Thank you. Thank you for touching so many hearts, so many lives.

You have made us feel so hopeful and loved. Now it's your time. It's your turn to feel loved, to feel unalone. I hope you'll find that happiness again. You deserve it. <3

Anonymous said...

wow, that was incredibly touching.
thank you so much for sharing your story.

I don't have the ability to express how much your beautiful words have meant to me over the last few years.

I discovered you by accident maybe 3 or 4 years ago, and to this day have only shared you with 2 other people.
you were my secret, too good to share,I wanted these words to be for me only
selfish? yes.

i have gone through hell the last 2 years. hell. no one i loved has died, i have no threatening illness or disease
nor am I homeless, or a victim of any kind
there are a few that envy me and the life I live. on the outside all seems well, more than well

If only they knew..

I am a good person, not always an honest person. but a good person. I was happy.

but now.

i am not me, i am someone else. i fell trapped between a rock and the hardest place on earth. i caused this, me and only me. a victim of myself.
falling in love did this to me
that's all it took, for me to crumble

i turned to you.
your words have not changed things for the better, things are still very much the same. but over the last few years you have made me think, you have made me question, and you have made me cry when i thought my soul had lost the ability to feel

your poetry was my escape
I didn't need or want anyone to listen to me, I didn't want to speak
I just needed someone to understand. and you did.

and these words of yours, i pray, will comfort me, if and when, all will be well once more
I'm working on it

thank you so much for sharing your story. real or unreal, true or untrue, no matter whether your intentions were pure or at times, not... your words will to me, remain almost perfect.

and you are precious.

1124 30.4.2013

Melissa L said...


Caroline said...

Thank you, so, so much. I know you know, but I don't think you can fully understand, how beautiful and powerful your writing is. You made me come alive, and you still do, over and over again. Thank you! You are loved.

Jon said...

great end to a great story

becca said...

I don't want to be yet another of the shallow validations for you (not because I'm too proud to be a "shallow validation" or something, but because I know how strong the pull of instant gratification like texts and facebook likes and things from people that you don't really care about or have a relationship with can make you act almost like a drug addict and I don't want to help feed that.)
But I'm going to anyway, because I need to say thank you. I have a book that I've written down a ton of quotes and cool things in and a lot of it is from IWTFY. And when I'm so shy I can't stand to get out of my car before school, when I feel like I'm deathspiraling down into dark and can't get out, I read it, and sometimes it helps.
Thank you.
You've done more than enough to help the world (at least this way.)
May the rest of your life be blessed with how much you've helped others, and may you get back to what makes you happy.

Kaitlin said...

This is so beautiful I have tears in my eyes as I write this. I only discovered your work after it was finished and I am so grateful I have. Thank for you getting me through some of the most difficult months of my life and inspiring me with your story.

PJ Bottoms said...

I want to write. I always have. But I fear what the writing does to me. Thanks for sharing. I'm affraid something I say to myself will make me depressed and lead to suicide.

PJ Bottoms said...

Thanks. I want to say more than thanks... So I will :) I always wanted to write but then when I start writing I become lost in myself quickly. I end up depressed. The thing is when I write I am generally giving myself reasons to live. live becuase you are creative, you have a story! When I get a few chapters in or a few verses in I start to lose the feeling within myself that says "Hey guy! Life is rad live in up!" I delete or burn the evidence of my writing. You mentioned all the authors I fear reading and Kurt Cobain. Yeah yeah it wasn't for me but I feel I was meant to read your words. Thanks again. I think if I stay away from myself I can successfully write a story. The idea that is a good idea is now clear to me. I'm dying to tell the story of me but I should be off limits to my own writing. The idea I had about talking animals is the path I should take. You made a lot of sense to me. I also think it is the WORST when my spouse asks if I am writing about her. I only write girls break up poetry. Because if I wrote about my love for them it would destroy the actual love I feel. On the other side of it, I like to write them a love song after the fact. It's like passing a bad burrito...

Michelle said...

Thank you for letting us all in and telling us more about the genesis of a movement that changed many lives. It is appreciated more than you might realize.

Charlotte Davis said...

Big hugs from the UK. Look after yourself x

Cassandra said...

Forever proud of you.

Searcher said...

I know exactly how you feel. I'm not even close to the orbit of your success but I am a writer. I have a blog. And I gave it up when I realised that the people I was writing for - the blood I was showing - was becoming much more important than the reason I was writing - cheap therapy. I said goodbye...

... and then, I returned, I think, stronger, maybe with more things to say. Maybe not.

I'm glad you were a part of my life. You don't know this, but you were writing to me. And just me :)

Anonymous said...

Thank you for telling me the reason you stopped writing here.

Yes, IWTFY was my drug. And i was mad when you ended it suddenly. But this post made me believe again, made me want to be free again from these feelings.

Thank you for this. Thank you

Niki said...

I love this.I simply do.

dreaming is believing

Ifyani Mohammad said...

Thank you for telling us the story.
It was great, with all the honesty.
Make sure you don't get lost as you try to find your way. We all are always trying, everywhere we go. Right?

Take care.

Ryan See said...

I can never thank you enough.

Anonymous said...

The thing that matters it that you enjoy the simple days of life. I love your entries. I've been anonymous throughout the years and always will be and return to your site. You will stick around even when you don't put in a new entry. Be happy and give your leftover s to the world, not to the most precious of thy heart.

sajith said...

Hey really great story. And you wrote it in the dinner table:: Hmm.


Thank you

Jude Pizaña said...

We came into this life to lose ourselves just for the joyful fact of finding ourselves all over again. Little by little, okay? Thank you, Iain!

Jackson Chen said...

Been following for a while and I thank you for all the inspiration you have given me.

Anonymous said...

i love you.
i miss you.
i'll be waiting.

Stephanie said...

Thank you, for everything.
You are loved.

$@m33n said...

I hope you find all that you're looking for, and i hope that i do too.
Lot's of love.
God Bless.

Ron said...

This is the first time that I will thank you for the inspiration that you're giving me in every aspect of being me.

Thank you.

Please be happier. :-)

Karissa Chua said...

I have only learned of this blog and book of yours recently and I am happy I did even though it is just now. I thank you for this wonderful work of yours that made others feel understood and not alone, that gave people hope, perspective and, maybe, just like me on some of your words, a smile. Thank you. You should be proud of yourself. It is only unfortunate that as much as this project helped a lot of people; it also harmed many including you. I salute you for your honesty in this speech. I know you will find exactly what you need. It's all just there inside of you.

klara said...

I think this might be the most beautiful story you wrote. Sometimes the most beautiful thing you can say, is the truth. (Or was that a quote from on here? I don´t remember.)
"The Fur" has always been one of my favourites. It´s something that´s good to repeat to yourself from time to time.

Love to your art teacher and all the lonely people in this world.
And I´m glad that you do things that make you happy, which is all everyone of us really wants.


Whuaat? said...

You have a way with words. Thank you.

Courage Is Contagious said...

Damnit you always make me cry!

Love always always always and the best of luck and happiness to you, you beautiful person

Pam xxx

Anonymous said...

Thank you for everything :)
you changed my life, truly

I hope you find the peace you deserve

biancaIsLove said...

Thank you for your always made me feel im not alone.. Thank God for a person like you.

biancaIsLove said...

Thank you for making me feel im not alone.thank you for your words. Thanking God for a person like you..

Cherie said...

Whenever I feel weariness in my soul, I read the words you have written and cry. Then I feel whole again. Thank you for your gift for words. Wishing you happiness in life :)

Anonymous said...

Keep it up

Anonymous said...

This life is too short we all need each other. Am I girl who love been alone. And ur words always make me feel happy and think of life again and never give me. Am 23 now and still waiting for my dreams to come true and I don't think so.. Love ur word keep it up may allah bless u :)

April said...

Thank you for writing and posting what you do on this (and other blogs). Everything you write seems so relatable to anybody, which I think is great because it becomes so personal to each and every one of your readers. It is almost as if you are speaking for everyone who doesn't have the voice or the bravery to speak it all out, so thank you for doing so.

I don't know if these are all based on personal experiences or just inspirations, but I love that you told us the back story of who you decided to write everything in terms of 'you' - Obviously it's part of how and why this blog was constructed, but knowing the reason behind it makes it so much more personal.

A lot of your previous posts relate to me in ways that I have never felt before - almost every post I can find something that I relate to. So thank you, again, for expressing things I never thought I could before.

dearwest said...

There was only one word that I heard from you , that changed me ....hello....and you smiled .At that very moment your smile became the only thing of value to me..I new then that I will never be truly happy ever again untill I could hear just two more from you to make my life complete .....I do.....

dearwest said...

You stoped me in my tracks with the first word I heard from you ...hello....I never want you stop saying
This to me.....then you smiled at me and at that moment this became the only thing of value to me l became sad because I new at that moment I would never be happy truely happy again untill I hear you say two more word .....I do......these words would make this lonly journey worth all the pain and suffering that life is to finaly feel whole.I can finly live.

Anonymous said...

Please for give me for my very bad grammer. I thank you for sharing my heart .Not onec but twice love for trueth was boiling over when i read you words i long to be one with this pureness. Your writeing is wonderful ive not been an avid reader to tell you the trueth your word painting held me cared for me and made me grow from a broke soul back to a adventrurous spirit the love that ive spoken about where ever and who ever she is I now . I realize is realy just the one person I need to know the most myself...I need to say I do to me...before I could ever ask any beautiful soul to walk with me .this also would clear the path of relationship that aren't in a higher state of self instead like my self for many years a state of selfishness.I cant tell you how much your words remind me of this one specific soul I was blessed to have on my path .she has like your word shaken me to my core and dared me to live live live then second love all first thanks for your awakening for I was a corps now im wind earth ocean......not a writer or a speller lol is what I want to be....thank u Dearwest

Anonymous said...

Thank you for telling us this very touching truth. And thank you for all the wonderful words you've given us these years. I wish you the best of luck and take care.

Unknown said...

thank God for your wonderful words. thank you for not giving up on me.

Anonymous said...

Today I had to cry when happy memories flashed by.

I miss my best friend. Lead me to where I should go. I'm confused if it was the right thing to do to quit. I'm confused. I like the work and study but maybe I'm not ready for it. Maybe I idealize it too much.

I wish I could let God take control. Everything happens for a reason. I dont hope Im making more struggles. It hurts to have you in heaven. I love you. I love you like I loved you when you were alive. I loved you that intense. I love you so much. I care so much for you. I miss you.

I came here, always, to this website. So I could write to the ones that passed away.

Anonymous said...

When I'm pissed off the only two things that can console me now are severe exercice or reading the bible.

Anonymous said...

I put my faith in something unknown.

Shannon said...

Thank you for this piece of your soul. And thank you for walking away before you lost it in this. I hope you're happy out there. I really do.

You once asked how long we are willing to miss you for? The answer is forever. Take your time.

Kelsey Thomson said...

Perfect. I understand this feeling entirely. Being addicted to sadness, hell, being addicted to any strong feelings.

It's so powerful, it feels so alive, but it's not really living. It's reliving. Really living is being here in the present moment.

I think you are making the best decision for yourself, and while I will miss your writing, I will be more happy for you to be looking after yourself and enjoying life at each moment

Anonymous said...

Listen to these two songs please.
Michael Prins - Close to you
Maaike Oubouter - Dat ik je mis

A said...

You are my art teacher. I will continue to write, for you, because of you,

Anonymous said...

Blown away by your writing through all these years. Thank you for keeping this space alive.
I heard the music by the way. :)
Thanks for the recommendation Anon.
Michael Prins blew me away too.

Foreveraroamer said...

Your story got to me more than any poem you've written. Thank you for sayin this:
"There’s this horrible equation that creative people can sometimes buy into, which is “No one else has felt what I’ve felt, therefor no one else can do what I do.” Which isn’t true. What you feel doesn’t make you creative. Who you are makes you creative."