By D. Agnew
By D. Agnew
The truth is I’m not a particularly good writer. At least I’m nowhere near as gifted as I would like to be. I don’t know what defines a writer in this reflective age, but I can’t seriously claim to be one. Despite fantasising about having a novel, short story, or article published, I remain an exiled Scottish blogger who writes in the minor key. I don’t get invited to cheese and wine parties. I have no literary friends or peers.
Furthermore, my spelling is average and I have a miserable relationship with English grammar. I have a propensity to miss out key words when composing new sentences. That’s my biggest flaw. I’m half-convinced that I’m dyslexic but it has never been formally diagnosed.
Writing for me is a cathartic experience and I have always been preoccupied with capturing feelings and poetry than abiding by the rules. During my younger blogging years in Glasgow, I even dismissed my grammar flaws as a romantic virtue. A legal secretary can spell perfectly for heaven’s sake. What really matters is flowing elegant prose and maverick creativity. Grammar is for dry-minded box tickers.
Like many aspiring writers, I harboured delusions that, unlike my outwardly successful peers, I had innate literary gifts no one else had. Back in the 2000s I convinced myself that my visually descriptive writing style would be rewarded and acknowledged by a higher power. That it wouldn’t all be for nothing. I would be recognised and rewarded one day for being a writer.
But I’m a fool. Understanding grammar does matter if you want to succeed in the writing profession. I now mourn every typo and errant apostrophe. It’s a rudimentary source of anguish and despair, and it’s taken me a long time to acknowledge my limitations.
I’m in my early thirties and running out of time.
With its menacing violence, religious iconography, and twee bourgeois sensibility, Glasgow captured my imagination as a young student. Scotland’s largest city was my university town and the birthplace of my writing career. As a shy, awkward teenager in the northeast of Scotland, I didn’t start reading until my late teens, which only heightened my sense of insecurity. Even now there are a few holes on my bookshelf, as I’ve always read novels in spasmodic fashion. I have my favourite writers, artists and musicians like everyone else, but I would be hard-pressed to say who my influences are.
Unlike real novelists, I couldn’t write dialogue properly. I’m naturally introverted, so I’ve always written how I think, and I realised early on that storytelling is a gift I do not have. Therefore, I channelled a new path by maintaining an online journal where I wrote “creative non-fiction,” or at least that’s what I told myself.
Despite studying at a Russell Group university, I maintained a virtuous lack in formal training. Consistently lost inside my blogging world, I took pride in being a self-taught creative with a DIY philosophy. These delusional fantasies took place during my early to mid-twenties, where I maintained a Blogger diary that captured the mundane joys of life in Glasgow.
Recording moments that otherwise would’ve been forgotten, I wrote freely about drinking with Aberdeen loons in Sauchiehall Street or going for a lonely walk along the River Kelvin. Written without the aid of images or the social media tools available to writers today, my blog described Glasgow in a pensive and occasionally incomprehensible fashion. I convinced myself that there was poetry in the flat circle of everyday life. That nothing overtly exciting had to happen for my words to silently roar.
Over time I gained a tiny international following that I obsessed over relentlessly with the support of my precious Statcounter. By God I loved my stats. All bloggers love their stats – it’s all they really have. I remember being obsessed about gaining international visitors. I wrote for them, mostly. They were special because, unlike my real-life friends and acquaintances, my beloved data dots from New Jersey and San Jose checked in for the words alone.
I graduated from Glasgow University with an MA Honours Degree in History. Unsurprisingly, I didn’t have a career map or internship in place. I had no idea what I wanted to do. The concept of working for a living never really occurred to me as a twenty-something student.
I miss that stupid boy.
On the few occasions I did show some interest in career opportunities, I instinctively recoiled in horror as the majority of graduate jobs looked unbelievably depressing. One glossy brochure in the careers department tried to entice students to work for Micro Chips, a UK microwavable chips company renowned for simplifying an already simplified junk food. Needless to say, I wasn't convinced. Surrounded by shiny, crisp leaflets all promising me a bright future, I felt completely adrift from my fellow graduates who were already getting ready for adulthood without me.
I certainly didn’t want to put on a suit and work for a corporate brand when I left university either. No, that didn’t appeal to me at all. Expressing cautious sentiments about brands is fine if you choose public service and become a teacher.
During the early noughties, the Scottish Government was actively pushing arts graduates to become teachers. One year’s training and you could teach your favourite subject at a local secondary school. Pushing otherwise useless arts graduates into the public sector was good for the government’s unemployment figures at the time. Many of my university peers went down that path and now receive a decent salary, generous holiday allowance, and civil respect too. Everyone can get behind teachers and children, surely.
Only I had no interest in going back to secondary school as a teacher. I ended up temping for a series of unscrupulous finance companies instead.
Glasgow is a post-industrial city heavily reliant on the public sector, retail shopping, and financial services. Unlike its bitter rival Edinburgh and anything in England, all of the city’s tourist attractions are free of charge.
As a History graduate I would have loved to work for a museum. But being an Aberdeen-born outsider with no local connections, I found that door firmly shut. You need to know people in Glasgow to get a museum job. Therefore, I was limited to working in retail, pulling pints, or getting a temp job working in the financial service sector. Before I knew it I was running out of options, so I settled for the latter. Low wages and tax breaks made Glasgow a perfect place for banks and insurance companies to wade in and set up their beloved call centres. Glasgow remains the “call centre capital of Europe” to this day.
Punching the clock for minimum wage quickly disillusioned me, and I unwittingly fell into a career trap of sorts. You are defined by your first job almost immediately, and my resume was getting chiseled in stone. Most graduates do shit jobs after leaving university, but I never expected it to be this bad.
Eventually, downtrodden from stamping forms and taking calls for the Abbey National, I dreamed of becoming a travel writer and no longer having a middle-aged boss. On borrowed money and last week’s salary, my girlfriend at the time, Judith, and I quit our jobs, then hopped over to Europe for eight weeks in late 2005. I adored the lyrical freedom travelling gave me and the profound sense of experiencing something new. It’s not the same thereafter. Ostensibly, you have to travel and fall in love while you’re still young and malleable. It’s the most tangible and life-affirming experience of all, and my means for sanity to this day.
We began in the steamy Moorish fields of Andalucía and concluded our journey in pre-crash Athens. Everything was rosy in paradise back then. My written diary and blog complemented each other remarkably well, documenting stories about Spanish olive groves, Portuguese taxi drivers, and Italian boys sexually harassing Judith on a night train from Roma to Bari.
Funnily enough, it was only when I blogged while traveling under time constraints and rushed circumstances that I seriously began to worry about grammar. Updating my blog in youth hostels and Internet cafes, I simply didn’t have time to endlessly double-check my posts before they went live. But I wanted every update to be perfect and I became deeply frustrated seeing my error strewn posts online. By writing about my travels in thirty minute intervals and desperate to publish in real time, I realised I had an innate problem with syntax and no remedy apart from practice.
Despite my best efforts, I continually wrote excessively long sentences and had recurring problems with tenses, apostrophes, and contractions. This is partly because I had no interest in writing like a broadsheet newspaper critic or, even worse, a “hey guys, look at us, we’re on holiday” blogger. I’ve always wanted to write in a flowing, metaphysical fashion with whimsical, fairy tale touches. Dig up a universal truth in my own language that would capture the reader’s imagination. Unfortunately, my writing aspirations went far beyond my technical ability. I was becoming increasingly frustrated, and I kept on re-editing my old posts and chopping away at excessive descriptions and narrative passages. Even the holiday itself couldn't placate my need, my desire for better grammar.
On returning to rainy Glasgow and working in the finance sector once again, I took solace from writing at lunchtimes. Like many writers, I couldn’t bear to lose an ephemeral phrase to the wind. Memory is dynamic, it’s alive and forever changing. You can’t expect to remember anything without the aid of a pen. Stuffing quotes down the margins of notepads, I immersed myself in words as a means of escape.
But I wasn’t going anywhere.
Come nightfall I would update my blog and alleviate the nine-to-five misery by writing about worldly things. I was straddling my literary fantasies alongside lengthy diary tales about everyday life. I maintained a blog like it was an imaginary friend. But time passes quickly, and blogging doesn’t pay the rent or buy you jeans. My dour, pretentious diary was both career and social suicide, and I fell out of love with Glasgow. I desperately needed to move on.
Sitting in my room alone while writing every night made me feel a bit unwell. Even my dear old landlord, Gordon, expressed concern about my solitary lifestyle. His constant reassurances that I was a “smart lad” were a not-too-subtle reminder that I should be doing something meaningful with my life. An inevitable quarter-life crisis ensued, triggering a series of oddball volunteering jobs and thousands of desperate emails advertising my writing services.
Increasingly in debt and sleeping in an Edwardian sandstone bedsit with a romantic fireplace and shared toilet, I had to do something. I had no washing machine or central heating. Blogging about cramped quarters and low wages had become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Thus, I walked out on what would be my last temp job and stopped the cycle of decay.
I had to do something.
I delivered leaflets for a hairdresser, gambled on football results, and sacrificed my body to science. The bodily sacrifice consisted of a low salt dieting experiment for Edinburgh University, where I had to carry a large plastic carton with me at all times in order to conserve a week’s supply of urine for the greater good of mankind, clearly. For a three-figure sum, I concluded this experiment to be quite comparable to a lab rat being drip fed in a hospital bed overseen by two Polish nurses. Otherwise, I paid my rent via a series of high interest credit cards.
And then, there was a glitch in the universe. It took me about four months, but for the first time in my life I could do it. I could write for a living. After applying for writing positions in Dublin, Edinburgh, and Cairo, I managed to secure an editorial job for an arts listing company in Fitzrovia, London. I was dumbfounded, truly unable to comprehend a place for myself in the writing world. But it was indeed happening, and I was going to take the leap. Even if the job was editing pub quiz descriptions in a giant database updated by an outsourced team in India.
At the tender age of twenty six I left Scotland with debts, memories, and two bags full of clothes. I really should have moved on a year earlier, but inertia and sentimentality make the worst of friends. I felt incredibly sad quitting Glasgow, but it was time to go. Everyone else I knew or cared about had left already, and my employment prospects were minimal.
While my new London job was largely administrative, I enjoyed working for a media company. Most days I would sit on the company Myspace and write editorially neutral copy about forthcoming films, gigs, and shows. Our entertainment database had explicit rules against subjectivity and exclamation marks. My less endearing duties like checking if the film listings were accurate usually resorted to Google Chatting with reps in India. They worked far harder and more diligently than the editors in London. Delegating inane tasks to people far better educated than yourself is a humbling experience if nothing else.
Fitzrovia also had an understated bohemian glamour. George Orwell and Dylan Thomas used to drink in the old Edwardian pubs near my office. At lunchtime I would walk past blue English heritage plaques commemorating the lives of Virginia Woolf and George Bernard Shaw.
Life had become interesting again, but that’s not before I underwent some awkward growing pains. Coming from a wee village in the northeast of Scotland, I remember feeling distinctly unsophisticated when it came to fashion, languages, and music. I didn’t know anyone in London, and having undergone a year of self-imposed exile in Glasgow, I felt uncomfortable in this super-cosmopolitan metropolis. Everyone seemed so confident and good looking.
I didn’t belong here and neither did my written past.
All you had to do was type my name into Google and it would come up at the top of the rankings. I knew most people wouldn’t care, but I couldn’t risk my nouveau, trendy colleagues becoming acquainted with my Glasgow diaries. My lost "Danny Boy" posts were far too angst-ridden and embarrassing to be read by normal people. I therefore took my old blog offline and put a marker on the past. It was the right thing to do at the time.
Only now, without a publishing platform, my words and thoughts were confined to notepads and Google-chat conversations. The latter being great fun with like-minded individuals. Yet still, it wasn't really writing. Not in the truest sense. If reality begins with the human mind and nothing more, then instant messaging is an enchanting romantic prison. Like many people, I could portray a wittier, funnier and more entertaining me on Google Chat than I could in person. Unable to write stories or dialogue in traditional form, I always found the right words on chat. Even now I remain enthralled at how our imaginations are no longer constrained by physical dimensions. Cyberspace is a riotously intelligent place and often far more interesting than everyday life.
Back in the real world, I entertained the idea of becoming a man of letters and I continued to read novels and scribble down beautiful passages and quotes. My bookshelf expanded with every passing month.
And while my arts listing job provided a low, steady income and free cinema screenings, over time I found myself trapped in a weird and dysfunctional environment. We all knew that no one actually read our listing guides, and this eventually triggered a number of existential crises. Cliques and feuds emerge when you work for a company that doesn’t make any money. Frustration brings out the worst in people.
As the global economic crisis gripped the world, you were lucky to have a job, or that’s what I was repeatedly told when I complained about my existing one. Three years had now passed, and despite a customary promotion, I had overstayed my welcome. I needed to get out.
And that’s where I returned to my blogging roots. Stuck for ideas and with no friends in high places, I figured I could write myself out of a bad situation. I started a new website. Unlike before, I would write serious feature articles and have no elegiac Smiths songs for blog titles. I realised how much I missed writing when I first embraced the emerging social media.
Twitter was brilliant fun in the early days. Microblogging my views in real-time made me believe I could reach millions of new people. All writers need vast audiences to massage their lonely egos, even if it involves sharing your inner thoughts with robots and dead accounts. Twitter certainly sharpens your craft, and unlike Facebook, I didn’t feel constrained by the presence of old school friends. Eventually, my follower count plateaued around the 300 mark, and I was unwilling to compromise or take part in viral hashtag games, so I gave up trying to get any more.
With my shiny new Wordpress account, I wrote a series of blogs about my Scottish past, East London gentrification, Internet culture, and the virtual projection of human consciousness. Once again I hoped someone would find my blog and lift me out of this sterile quagmire. But my love of writing went far beyond work and my professional development. I didn’t spend hours every evening staring at an electronic light for money or Klout value. I wrote, implored, and endlessly revised my posts because I had no choice.
Even if our lives had now become little more than the aggregation of shared content, I still felt my words mattered. That it wouldn’t all be for nothing.
Alas, nothing changed. Everyday blogging was becoming progressively entrepreneurial, and almost everyone had a profile or handle now. No one read personal blogs anymore. Unable to find my calling, I ploughed on and picked up some freelance work on the side writing for a cheap holiday airline.
Meanwhile, the inevitable finally happened in Fitzrovia. My beloved arts and media company gathered everyone ‘round one wet, spring morning and laid off all of their staff.
No one was the least bit surprised.
While most of my colleagues were upset and traumatised, I was secretly delighted at being laid off. I had been wanting to leave for years, and now they were paying me seven thousand pounds to do just that. Enjoying the proceeds of my redundancy package and newfound freedom, I travelled to New York, Istanbul, and spent a ridiculous amount of money at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. I kept on blogging and wrote stories about travelling, virtual love, and the sadness of growing old. Single digit visits from Aberdeen and Kirkcaldy confirmed my blog still didn’t have an audience, and if no one was reading then I no longer had to worry about being embarrassing.
Growing tired of purity politics and Buzzfeed culture, I longed to write about something everlasting. My feelings and problems are universal enough to be made meaningful, and with the SEO inspired destruction of the English language taking place, I took solace in retaining my writing style. There is a small victory in not writing about the ISIS bucket challenge, or whatever.
Tumblr became my favourite creative platform and remains a wonderful source of abandonment to this day. I loved how no one cared or enquired about your whereabouts or occupation. No one knows who you are on Tumblr, and what you choose to write, upload, or reblog is pure spirit. The nineteen-year-old Scottish boy in me could now live vicariously through my writing, completely ridding of the unrelenting enemy: time.
Back in the real world where I’m in my early thirties, that same world where I can’t spend all day drinking imaginary quarts of bourbon with nude art models, I made a terrible mistake in becoming a copywriter for an international travel company in Farringdon. I was running out of money and professional credibility, so I simply had to get a job before the clocks turned back. Never had I worked as a copywriter before, nor had I ever worked for a global corporation.
Working in a large departmental office and responsible for the company’s b2c marketing copy, I had to embrace their irreverent brand and the dumb, mass audience they were attempting to reach. I struggled terribly, and my clunking grammar soon became sorely exposed. My confidence faded, and I deemed my colleagues to be of a different breed, so I left the company and vowed never to work for a big corporation again.
I am freelancing for a living and making precious little money. I am half-considering giving up altogether. My writing dreams have left me without a trade or purpose in Europe’s largest metropolis. I walk alone amongst the fluorescent towers and medieval churches in a city of cranes, a lifestyle hub for the super-rich and outwardly successful. That’s not to say I want to stop learning. I attend more plays and read more novels than ever before. I still love words and update my blog occasionally without any fanfare. That’s my forte.
I’m a diarist and always have been. I observe and pay attention to what goes on in my heart. I write about little things in my own way.
I’m not a writer.