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.