Why I Write

Olivia Laing, a judge of this year’s Frieze Writer’s Prize, explains how she became a writer

I cut my teeth on bedroom zines. I was a riot grrrl in the early 1990s, and so my first teenage productions were cut and paste jobs, photocopied in the village shop. I've always liked that kind of freedom: writing that's driven by curiosity, that's local, idiosyncratic and unafraid of feeling. What was I reading then? Derek Jarman, Cookie Mueller, Gary Indiana – people who wrote about art and made it too; people who were immersed and funny and present on the page. 

That DIY ethos runs very deep in me. I spent my twenties in Brighton's counter-culture, living in tree-houses on road protests and setting up art shows in squats we cracked while disguised as workers for British Gas. My friends were artists and I learned most of what I know from loitering in studios, taking every reading recommendation that came my way. I got to journalism late, and from an unconventional place. Writing for me was never separate from the world, and I'm still phobic about art-writing that treats art as if it doesn't have something real to say about the lives we live.

There's still something of the zine about my work. I'm not an art historian, though I do spend months at a time in archives, driven by curiosity, trying to get as deep as I can into an artist's work. But I use what I find to think about large questions, to wrestle with politics and history and emotional states. I write about things I love and things that make me angry. No surprise, then, that my favourite critic is the poet Frank O'Hara, who was also a curator at MoMA, New York, and a friend of many artists. ‘I want to be at least as alive as the vulgar’ he says in 'My Heart', a poem that's about the virtues of being independent, flexible, emotionally engaged. Pay attention and stay open, says Frank, and I think that's really all you need to know.

For more information about the 2016 Frieze Writer's Prize, click here.

Olivia Laing lives in Cambridge, UK. Her book The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone (2016) is published by Canongate.

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