Do writers need to be outsiders?

Marcel_Proust_1900-2I think it helps a writer if you are something of an ‘outsider’ looking in – I’ve always felt a little that way myself and I believe it has helped me write.

I remember a literary critic offering the view that the best writers spend a short time immersed in ‘society’ and then a longer time outside of it, presumably in their room, writing – he offered Proust as an example of this effect.

Well I’m no Proust, but it’s a notion which rings true with me in some ways – not because I have at some period been part of a mad social whirl, then found myself excluded from it with only a pen and a Moleskine notebook for comfort, but because I am the sort of person who can feel a little detached even when surrounded by people.

Whenever I hear something funny for example, part of me has the urge to laugh, and part is squirreling it away for future use. This sense of separateness is necessary I think, but where does it come from?

When I was a kid I was obsessed with books and writing but I spent my days in a comprehensive school in a town in the north of England which has recently been declared the most ‘working class’ town in the UK. That kind of picked me out as different – to the extent that, when I went away at 18 to do my English Literature degree I was the only person in the whole of the town doing such a degree that year, and there hadn’t been anybody at all the year before.

When I arrived at University I didn’t exactly have two heads, but there’s no doubt I was different. It didn’t bother me particularly, not even when one of the junior lecturers asked me: “What’s someone with an accent like yours doing studying English Literature?”

432px-William_wordsworthIf I’d known what I know now I’d have told him that William Wordsworth had an accent like mine, except that his was more pronounced. But you don’t really know that stuff when you’re 19.

After Uni, I took a job as a newspaper journalist, a profession where you spend your time observing others and writing about them, no coincidence. Then later I moved to the south of England.

People from the UK will understand immediately the perceived social divide between the north and south of England, but, for readers from elsewhere, it basically goes like this. People in the north believe that those in the south look down on them as being poor, ‘common’ and socially inferior. And, having lived in the south for 20 years I can tell them – they are right. Not everyone shares this blind prejudice towards northerners of course, but plenty do. If you have a northern accent it marks you out as different, and I’ve always had one. I could have lost it I suppose, but I’m just not a very good mimic, I still sound like the kid from the northern working class town I used to be.

So, marked out as different again, and again – couldn’t care less!

Wherever I’ve been I’ve felt slightly out-of-place, where I grew up and where I ended up. Not to the extent that it causes me any real problems, but enough so I feel it.

So I do have that separateness that many writers seem to have. It’s been thrust upon me in some ways but perhaps I’ve also courted it.  If you write, do you feel this way too?
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14 thoughts on “Do writers need to be outsiders?”

  1. Your assessment is spot on from my perspective. I’m actually in a similar situation. A year and a half ago I left life in the suburb of a large city where I fit in easily to live in the tiny village my spouse grew up in. Everyone here has known everyone else here since they were in diapers or the babysat you when you were. I’m definitely and outsider but I use that perspective to my advantage in my writing.

  2. Chris, thanks for the quick info about the north vs the south in the UK. I guess all countries have their inner stuff. But writers are able to help make a sense of it by penning it and making their readers aware of it. And, yes, I believe that writing is thrust upon us, though we are often seen as odd or even eccentric. It comes with the territory.

  3. Yes – it must seem a curious one to those outside the UK, it’s amazing what people can find to be prejudiced about isn’t it?

  4. I can relate to this a lot Chris. I’ve been a ‘stranger in a strange land’ most of my life, so have that separateness too. I don’t know if it really has an impact on my writing, but it might do. Very interesting thought!

    1. Thanks Val – I bet it will have affected your writing – you have written a lot about your life and experiences after all!

  5. I won’t repeat the expletive I uttered aloud on reading what your lecturer said to you at university, but it was no doubt in an accent similar to yours, or even more like Wordsworth’s. How very odd! And had the fool never heard of Lord Bragg?
    Interesting to speculate on whether the process of “outsidering” that comes with an accent unfamiliar to British Southerners contributes to making someone a writer. Hadn’t really thought of it this way.

    1. Hmm no, he was a public school type as I remember and his point was that this made him in some way superior. But I don’t want to fall into the trap he did – he was one individual and not representative of anybody else. 🙂

  6. I don’t know, I think we’re a sum of our experiences. If we’ve never been in the cool crowd, we can only write from our assumption of what it’s like to be in that group. Same thing for people who write about frat parties, joining sororities, being involved in big social efforts. If we’re outside of society, we bring to the table that other end of experience that the extrovert writers only have to guess at. I think we should strive for a mix of both.

    1. Yes – I think my lit critic, whose name I’ve long forgotten, was making that point – that as a writer you need a mixture of both being part of society and standing apart from it.

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