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The walk

He was taking his morning walk with the dog. It would be the river walk: through the orchard, into the wood, along the riverside path, then back up the lane, into the field and home. It was early June, a time when the fields and the hedgerows were bursting with renewal. Every year, he would grumble to Mary about it. ‘Bloody nature,’ he would say, wetting his scythe, then sharpening the blade. ‘It’s getting away from us this year.’ Yet he, like the nettles and the elder and hawthorn, was energised, too. He normally liked their annual tussle with the elements, pulling the weeds from the flower-bed at the front of the house, netting the vegetable garden, to the sound of fledgeling blackbirds or great tits in the bushes nearby, hacking back brambles, setting mole-traps, checking the hens with their latest brood of chicks. Yet this Spring, unseasonably wet and...

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An ill-fated journey into the world of TV writers (contains sex and violence)

The BBC bigwig was shouting at me. Every time I started to speak in the debate, he came barrelling in, objecting and refuting. The audience of writers gathered in the lecture hall seemed, rather to my surprise, to be on his side. After repeated interruptions, I said with mild exasperation that I was very glad I never had to pitch ideas to him. “So am I!” he bellowed. It had all seemed rather different when I had first been invited to a convention of TV writers. The two-day event was to discuss matters of common interest and concern, one of which was the depiction of violence against women on TV. I had written a column in the Independent about the way TV tends to glamorise the psychopath and the stalker. Now I was being invited was invited to be a guest participant in what was described as the keynote debate. It was...

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Sex, children, friendship, health – by the experts (Tolstoy, Amis, Dickens, Mantel, Larkin and a few others)

At a reading given by Ian McEwan and Richard Ford, the question-and-answer session with the audience took an unexpected turn. One of the two novelists was asked about marriage and writing. There followed a strangely intense discussion about love and work, commitment and children – about life, in other words.. A hush descended on the auditorium. It was the real thing which was being explored here, and it was rather more absorbing than what had inspired Atonement or The Sportswriter. It seemed that the audience saw the two men not only as successful novelists, but as seers, top-of-the-range agony uncles. On the face of it, that was an odd idea. The private lives of professional authors hardly suggest a profound level of emotional intelligence. Alain de Botton may have made his name with How Proust Can Change Your Life but there has been no sign of a vogue for authorial...

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From InstaNovel to NervousBreakdown: the next generation of apps for the busy modern writer

A writers’ organization recently conducted an online survey. Is there anyone out there, it asked, who still writes by hand rather than on a computer? A few people confessed, shame-facedly, that, in spite of the many wonderful opportunities offered by the new technology, they still worked in the old-fashioned, inky way. As one of those poor benighted creatures myself, I briefly felt like a comical character out of Dickens, dusty and absurd, clinging on to the traditional way of doing things out of fear of the present and the future. Clearly, we should do better. A wonderland of apps and aids is to be found online offering to make the writing process easier and more enjoyable. Some will ‘help access your inner muse’, others will ‘kickstart your creativity’, ‘embed essential writing tools’ or – particularly useful - ’organise your brain-dumps’. Helpful as these apps are, they only deal with the...

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On being a careerist or a purist

It was the usual highly-charged last day at a creative writing course. Some students wanted to ask one of the tutors a few last-minute questions (Have I got it? Can I send you my stuff to read? Could you mention my name to an agent?). Others were triumphant - or a touch muted - about the coursework they had completed. One confessed that, after her last session of the week, she had danced around her room, singing 'I'm a writer! I'm a writer!' She was not, of course. Maybe in a few months, or years, she might become a writer but that would require a long and tricky journey, mostly spent alone rather than in a group. It is more likely that, after enjoying her moment of creative dreaming, she would return to the safer, saner civilian world, all the wiser for her adventure. Experienced writers bring their hard-won experience...

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On discovering whether you are really, truly an author

My latest Endpaper column for The Author magazine poses the big question. Inner authorliness: have you got it? * In the manner of the 1950s Persil ads which asked 'What is a mum?', the poet Robert Hull raised an important issue in these pages last year. What, he asked, is an author? It is a hauntingly tricky question to answer at this particular moment, because everything is changing. Once authors who paid to publish their own books could be assumed to be vain or deluded; now they are probably canny operators. Once having one's work in print with a publisher was the accepted criterion of authorliness; today, print is an outmoded concept and even publishers are not quite sure what they should be doing. As Mr Hull wrote, a touch plaintively, 'there seems to be a good deal of existential uncertainty about.' Clearly, the official, book trade designation, 'author', has...

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On the seven great questions of an author’s life.

When a recent contributor to The Author described himself as 'something of a writing guru', I was aware of a lurch of jealousy within me. What a wonderful life it would be to live as a guru for would-be authors, spending one's days dispensing gnomic thoughts about irony, structure and narrative voice with a serene, goofy smile. The connection with a spiritual quest is a valid one. Writing, it has been said, is a form of prayer. When adherents gather for enlightenment, they can experience moments of joy, revelation and, if one of the gamier gurus is involved, misbehaviour. On the road to Nirvana - a publishing deal, a single-figure Amazon rating, a critical benediction from Professor John Carey - many are called, but few are chosen. What, though, are the articles of faith around which a belief system should based? Mine, were I ever to attain guru status, would be single...

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On not writing at all

In response to the many successful author-based columns - 'My Favourite Character in Fiction, 'Me and My Editor', 'How I Write' and so on - I have been asked to initiate an occasional Endpaper series which will provide advice and support for those working in one of the most neglected, and least glamorous, areas of literary life. 'How I Don't Write' will address those professionals who refuse to compromise their imaginative vision by reducing it to mere words, who have recognised that not writing something is incomparably more difficult and demanding than writing it - something that, as we know to our cost, virtually any unseated MP or resting actor can do at the drop of a cheque. Many writers have considered moving into non-production but have been daunted by the competition. They think of Ernest Hemingway who, towards the end of his life, was so blocked that he was...

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On being a genius, a talker or a one-book wonder

You are getting a partial view. Occasionally, through the clamour of writers having their say in these pages, the voice of a publisher can be heard, speaking up nervously, politely and with proper respect for the great profession of authorhood. You don’t fall for that, do you? You know that he’s either going through the motions, or has dreams of being a writer himself, or is simply some kind of throwback to the days when publishers and authors used to get on. In book trade circles, he will soon get the reputation of having gone over to the other side. By this time next year, he’ll be probably be on the scrapheap. Because, as a general rule, the modern publisher is far too busy to worry about authors - their blocks, their breakdowns, their hilariously untidy personal lives. Listening to their views about how to run his business would be...

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On keeping yourself pure

So now we know. One great writer is arrogant and a snob. Another great writer is a mean-spirited marital bully. A third great writer has dodgy attitudes towards food and sex. The new school of confessional memoir, literature’s answer to the tabloid kiss-and-tell story, has of late been taking us behind the revered printed page for a sneak, voyeuristic peep at the flawed personality who created it. Big, uncompromising writers have always, and for obvious reasons, been suspect to the average working journalist, and recent memoirs from Philip Roth’s ex wife Claire Bloom, from JD Salinger’s ex-girlfriend Joyce Maynard and from VS Naipaul’s ex-disciple Paul Theroux have provided the vast army of press opinion-mongers with acres of sanctimonious copy. But those who write for living will read these accounts in a different spirit. Taken together, they can be seen to represent a model of artistic will and purity - an...

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