After spending four hours exploring the plot of the novel I am writing with my wife on Monday night, the texture of it emerging simply as a result of us talking about it, nobody can tell me these things don’t write themselves.
Unless, admittedly, you stick to the strict definition of ‘write’. Because regardless of how naturally the novel’s arc seemed to surface while we asked questions and went searching for answers, I will now sit and take my fingers to the typewriter and write the thing.
The idea that something ‘writes itself’ could drain writing of respect, or make taking it seriously more difficult. The writer becomes a powerless bystander. But as a way to explain how naturally an idea can unwrap itself right in front of you, it’s a concept which takes some beating.
Crucially for me, the craft of writing is far less about imposing and much more about exposing. I think of ideas/writing like sculpture, where the skill of the artist is in seeing the shape hidden within a featureless block of stone, and in how well they expose this shape by removing all the excess material.
Supposedly, everyone has an idea for a novel – their one story which, if they could only get enough time in among the demands of life to write, would propel them to fame and fortune. This should mean everyone sees writing and having ideas as unremarkable, but actually I’ve found it’s the opposite.
Perhaps because a writer has ideas and projects – plurals, not singular. Not a single inner novel, something to be written and ‘gotten over’ before getting back to real things, as if it were an obstacle or an affliction, a boil in need of lancing. Writers have hundreds of possible projects, endless ideas, too many to consign to the domain of a hobby.
Which means choosing writing not as an interest, but as a path, as a calling. This choice is seen as a literal fantasy – an unrealistic hope to live a make-believe life making things up for fun. It’s something you do outside of pursuing real life, not something which defines your life. Writing and having ideas are fantasies, not ‘useful’ realities.
And given the ‘real life’ pressure to earn money and that choosing a career unavoidably equals choosing a way to make money, the next challenge is that to believe in yourself as a writer is to mislead yourself into thinking that you could be as successful or as good as X, or X, or X. Say, “I’m a writer, that’s what I do,” and you risk being treated as naive, as if you’d announced a decision to lead a career in winning the lottery.
It doesn’t help that the publishing industry is notoriously risk-averse, this apparent fact stressed again and again by articles, comments, vox-pops or advice reinforcing the “it’s impossible to get published” message, making efforts to protect aspiring best-sellers from being burnt by their own ambition. People scared that other people might not have considered all the things that there are to be scared of.
I struggled for much of my life to overcome this sea of encouraged self-doubt, paralysed by the question of whether anything was worth writing, worth spending my time doing something that would get me nowhere, something self-indulgent, pursuing a fantasy instead of coming to terms with the fact that life is what everyone else is living.
I am lucky now. My wife and her family are creative people who see my own creative belief, my need to pursue writing with all my energy, and they believe in me. Not one of them would tell me that a novel “wouldn’t write itself,” because not one of them would ever suggest that I hurry up, finish living out my fantasy and then get back on with real life.
This encouragement is so moving, so important in the face of a world otherwise desperately concerned with preventing me sacrificing everything on the naive pursuit of a dream, attempting to live out a fantasy in a real world where I haven’t properly considered the consequences. Because anyone who believes in you isn’t just saying “You can do it”. They’re saying “I believe in you whether you succeed or not“.
When I talk to people about what I’m writing, earnestly and seriously, I can’t honestly read their faces, their raised-eyebrows. Is this really so surprising, that people should have ideas and spend their time following these ideas as far as they go? My suspicions are always that people are amazed I put so much thought into a hobby.
It isn’t a hobby. It isn’t a hobby. It isn’t a hobby. It’s a calling, it’s what I’m built to do, it’s a seriously considered career choice pursued with the awareness that I am not guaranteed anything. Anything, that is, but the exhileration of being proud of what I do. I am not guaranteed anything but the rewards of a life spent pursuing what makes me who I am, instead of what makes the world what it is.
I confess that I crave financial security. I’ve followed the ‘take what you love and make it pay’ approach as far as it will go, four or five jobs down and still with the knowledge that this will never bring me peace. It will never make me happy. I will always want more. I will always want to be me. And I have a piece of that, sat in my studio, writing. But it is not enough.
The sheer weight of emphasis placed on highlighting the financial insecurity of a career in the arts, the humanities, the non-normal, is distressing. It may be done in kindness, in concern, but for people like me who desire reinforcement and support, and who respect advice when it comes, it only serves to discourage, warn-off, quash.
I hate to think that my sons and daughters might be told, as my own mother told me, that if they want to be writers then they better be prepared to starve. And yet I know that at the same time I have to deal with my own competing desires to express myself entirely and to be financially stable. But I only have to ask myself – would I rather live like this, or sacrifice stability for the opportunity to be who I really am.