Northie is the pen name of a non-binary writer based in the English West Midlands. They came to writing late, but haven’t looked back since. In this guest post, they look at the self-transformative effect of writing.
Us as writers
When we write, some element of our personalities, our being, makes an appearance on every page.
An acerbic sense of humour, a particular political viewpoint, a tendency to waffle, or maybe, more subtly, a story and its characters filtered through a particular worldview.
Our worldview. Yours. Mine.
It’s that sense of self and where we fit in. How we regard what goes on around us, our hopes and aspirations.
On a journey
Now consider writing as part of a journey to discover who you are. I don’t mean this in the sense of tracing your family tree or musing on the results of a “where do I come from” DNA test. Rather, imagine setting out as an author, unsure of why you’re putting pencil to (digital) paper and definitely without that settled personal worldview.
It’s tricky. Unsettling, in both good and bad ways.
How do I know?
Because this is my story. How efforts to understand myself informed my writing and how in turn, writing became a catalyst to self-knowledge.
It’s taken me a long time to know myself. Most of my adult life, in fact.
How writing fits into this journey is something I find fascinating.
The need to write
Up until six years ago, I never had an urge to write. I read, yes, but there was no itch, no sense of an unfulfilled destiny, at all. My leisure-time pursuits revolved mostly around making music. In 2015, things with my employer changed. Faced with a variety of unpalatable options, I decided to reduce my hours. Did I know what I was going to do with the extra time? No. Well, sort of. Maybe?
I imagine plenty of people choose this course with only a wishlist in mind. Some will make their change of circumstances a success. Others won’t. Me? Well, I’m not the most self-motivated individual around. One downside of living alone is the lack of someone else to give you that initial shove or hold you to your fantasies.
That first winter passed without any of my supposed plans being put into operation. Learning French – why? An Open University course – too expensive. Editing – really? I did spend more time online – no surprise there – and for the first time tried to make sense of me. Who I am.
However, it’s very difficult to search for something when you don’t know what it is; when you lack both language and concept to describe who you are or how you feel.
I’ve never belonged. That’s hardly a unique statement. Numerous people experience this, whether because of external prejudice or internal turmoil. For me, it was knowing, at a basic, unspoken level, that I lived life on the outside. Being a teen at school and not taking part in the gossip, petty rivalries, or the inevitable pairing rituals — loving, breaking up, and loving again.
Growing up in 1970’s Northumberland, I was sexually ignorant in a way I hope is almost extinct nowadays. Even so, I imagine instinct would’ve taken over if things had been straightforward. They weren’t though. At university, my attempts at a relationship were killed off by crippling anxiety. Neither of us broached the reasons why. Looking back, it boiled down to did I fancy an individual for the right reasons? Whatever they may be. The question itself is a much later product of my current self-awareness.
Does that sound weird? Young people can be so aware of themselves today. The internet, information at school, parents who communicate on an emotional level – they all help to create a space in which it is possible to fully know yourself. The early 1980s, on the other hand, meant, even at university, I wasn’t aware of anything outside the cis-het norm. The fact I went from one small town to another – Aberystwyth – for university didn’t help.
A subsequent move to Birmingham didn’t change anything. Brum has a thriving, highly-visible queer community. Even in peak Section 28 times, they were there. Was I in denial? No. Profound ignorance. Confusion. Isolation. But not denial – that suggests I knew who I am now and chose to turn away.
Much later, when I changed to part-time working in 2015, I felt more at ease with myself. This had been a slow, intermittent process achieved without speaking to family, friends, or health professionals or counsellors. And yet the central question remained unanswered. The easing was very far from complete.
I joined Gay Authors in March 2016. Although GA is primarily a story site, it also has a friendly, active community. It was this social aspect that drew me in, along with the reading. I still couldn’t have told you why queer spaces attracted me or why they seemed the right place to be. I didn’t even regard myself as queer.
Again, I was an outsider, lacking a label and the means to select one.
Although GA quieted some of my frustrations, others grew. Looking back, it was seeing the fruits of other people’s creativity grow and blossom that really got to me. I contributed in minor ways, but I wasn’t an author.
One of my new friends asked the question, Why didn’t I write? I can’t now find the actual exchange, but here’s my part of a later conversation:
The piece of grit [about writing] you managed to insinuate into my head is still there, niggling away at my mind. I don’t know whether I should thank or curse you… I’ve managed to resist so far and now the weather’s much cooler, I’ll be able to find other things to do to drown out its siren call.
WhenShould I get round to tackling something, I’ll be your proverbial puppy bringing you some execrable offering for which I’ll expect a pat on the head and praise! You nearly got me saying ‘when’ in that last sentence…
I seem to recall this concerned writing verse rather than prose. Here’s part of my friend’s reply:
Good. I am glad that tiny bit of grit is insinuated deep down, like the sand in the oyster that generates the pearl. And of course, I too am a puppy, we all are. So what?
The writing bug
This dear, dear, sensible friend not only infected me with the writing bug but has accompanied me throughout.
Poetry quickly gave way to short stories. At first, fantastical and often humorous, these stories generally settled down to something more like my current style.
Story ideas can come from anywhere – a prompt, a photo, a conversation, or a news item. The germ for the novel that’s featured nearly all my time as a writer came about when the principal character presented himself in my head one day and demanded his story be told.
Maybe you imagine my hero to be the young, beautiful man that so many novelists use as their default. You know the sort, with their glamorous or dangerous occupation, few money worries, and a passionate, swoon-worthy love affair. The answer? Err… no. Eric Whitehouse is an older guy – retired, lonely, impoverished, and living out an existence in rural Herefordshire. Laughably, I only realised just how antithetical he was when I started to post the first 16 chapters on GA and got the sort of reader comments that marvelled I’d chosen to write Eric’s story.
Is Eric me? No.
There are elements of me in him. There are elements of me in all my principal characters. Where Eric and I come together, really together, is in our joint exploration of what it means to be queer. His, out on the page; mine, more privately. Eric is a cis, older gay man who opens up about his queerness for the first time. A major plot arc across the entire novel is how this journey affects Eric and those around him. For me to function as his chronicler, I had to fully open my eyes to the diverse, multi-faceted world we live in.
This was a gradual process. A learning process. A process of reorientating myself.
The three parts of Eric’s story have taken me five and a half years to write. Posting each tranche on GA as it was completed means the story clearly follows my development both as a writer and as a queer individual. Taking what there is and making it into one homogeneous novel is going to be a task for this winter and well beyond. It is instructive though to look back.
In the first book, I don’t get much past Eric and the gay volunteer social worker he’s paired with. Andy is rather closer to the stereotypical hero; his fiancé, Adam, possibly more so. Even this meant involving myself in the queer online world – getting a real sense of people, the issues, and most importantly, absorbing the language.
The second volume of Eric’s tale started posting in January, 2019. Both in this and my other writing from the time, I made a conscious effort to widen my palette of characters. It frustrates and worries me that there’s still so much commercial queer fiction out there that concentrates solely on white, cis, gay men. This hetero-influenced orthodoxy appears to be the extent of their queer universe. If one of these authors is feeling brave, maybe they’ll add in some poorly-understood bdsm or make a character somewhat less than masc.
Am I looking down from a position of moral superiority?
Absolutely not. Been there, done that. Fortunately, I learned quickly and moved on. For example, I’m white. I would hesitate many times over whether to include a principal character from a non-white background. It’s too far from my experience. That hasn’t stopped me from employing recurring characters from other backgrounds though. Enough to acknowledge that queer colour diversity not only exists, but needs to be represented. It’s not difficult to do.
However, I still didn’t fully understand my connection to the characters I wrote about. How could I, when I didn’t understand myself. Why did it feel right to explore queer lives over those of their straight counterparts?
This changed almost in the blink of an eye.
One morning in the summer of 2019, I was sitting at home, minding my own business, when a thought popped into my head. Not a question or a proposition or a “What shall I do today” but simply a statement. A statement which answered so many questions.
I’d found my centre. My worldview.
Did everything change around me? No. First off, it took several weeks to get my head around being genderqueer. Next, although I’m out to varying degrees in writing arenas and social media, I’m not otherwise. At least, not with any particular label.
So, did this mean my writing changed as well? Yes, and no.
As far as Eric went, I could hardly change him or the other major characters in the third volume without repudiating what I’d posted previously. What it did mean was a deeper, more visceral understanding of difference. Of not fitting in. And it allowed me to further refine my depictions of other, less prominent, queer characters.
Elsewhere, I wrote Shaken (https://gayauthors.org/story/northie/shaken/), a novelette with a major non-binary character. This posted only a few months after my self-revelation. It’s a different story and one that sparked a lot of comment on GA, all of it respectful. However, the use of ‘tranvestite’ and ‘cross-dresser’ as terms to describe that non-binary character’s choices. were, to me at least, disappointing and out-dated. I’m a newbie to the queer universe. Maybe other people have things to do with there lives apart from keeping up with appropriate uses of language.
With the first version of Eric’s story complete, my current project also has a starring role for a genderqueer character. Some three years into my new understanding, this character has more depth. They’re also making me examine myself. Question myself.
As I said at the start, this is tricky, and again, occasionally unsettling. But this time, the writing comes out of knowing who I am. My new-found worldview gives it confidence. These are vital differences.
For me, writing and self-knowledge are inextricably entwined. Without the first, I doubt I would have ever achieved the second.
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