Graeme Fife


Why I Write

I can’t remember a time when the impulse to write wasn’t there. Even as a fairly young kid, I lay awake at night making up long stories in my head. Even though I didn’t write them down, they were there. Poetry came at school, the inspiration of Keats and Gerard Manley Hopkins pre-eminently. Letters, comic fantasies for a girlfriend in my first year of teaching. One germ of advice to an aspiring writer: write lots. I did, but the thought of publishing or even offering for publication was remote. That was cowardice. It’s not uncommon. An accumulating backlog of material consigned to, and perhaps deserving of, oblivion, littered my failure to progress from even dim promise to even slim achievement.

            When, finally, I did send something to a radio producer at the BBC, it was accepted. I was, by then, in my early 30s. The fact is, I almost certainly wasn’t good enough at the craft to have merited notice until then. But this is a line of enquiry not worth exploring. I was about to have a piece of my work broadcast.

            Now I was, I thought, on my way, and the next few pieces I sent in – stories about composers, fiction but based on a recorded incident – were accepted, read and aired. The first rejection, therefore, hit me hard. And it was the first of another 10 rejections. I’d entered the merciless wind-tunnel of doubt and dejection. In a gathering mood of confusion, I wrote the outline of a play, sent it to the then Head of Drama, and with it a letter. I wanted to write for radio, I said. I was getting nowhere and didn’t know why. I needed help, advice, direction. She called me in and we talked. Finally, she said: ‘Well, I think we should commission the piece. Go home and write it.’ I did and it was performed. Her intervention had been timely, gracious and salutary. Moreover, the experience of being turned down, hard as it was, and continues to be, had toughened my resolve, a necessary aspect of what is never an easy ride.

            When I survey the list of my work – it’s detailed on the web – I wonder where on earth it all came from. It makes me tired just to look at it. However, the impulse remains as strong as ever, tested by all manner of questioning doubts and hesitancies. Writing doesn’t get easier, it gets harder, and that I trust (hope) is an indication of the quality. Keener questioning, always, a more penetrating search for answers.

            For the radio: stories, plays, features, talks, documentaries. For the stage, plays, musicals, songs and a chamber opera (in which I also sang…perhaps the first librettist to perform their own lines since Boito). Countless articles for newspapers and magazines. A growing list of books. And now: novels. I have, at long last, learnt to tell fibs again, to make things up.