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 when they teach on writing courses, and the students, without knowing it, offer something back. They are in a sense the pure article before the market, the snares and compromises of professional life, have got at them.

It is all here: the hopes, the illusions, the reasons for eventual success or failure. To meet the different types of would-be authors is to be taken back to the reasons why one became a writer in the first place. At this time of peculiar pressure and uncertainty in the beleaguered book trade, it is worth recalling that original spark.

Survival as a professional author has always involved maintaining a balance between the demands of creativity and of the bank manager – between, at one extreme, pursuing a love so pure that one could end up starving and, at the other, becoming just another slut in the market-place of books. Both tendencies can be found in extreme form among students on almost every creative writing course.

The Careerist has no doubt about why he (or she) wants to write. Being an author is a positive professional option, leading, with the right management, to considerable potential rewards. He has bought into the fantasy version of overnight literary success which is peddled every few weeks or so in the press: the story of an author tapping away in obscurity, rejected by countless publishers, who finds wealth, renown and film deals become the dreams of avarice.

A keen student of trends and bestseller lists, the Careerist needs to know about agents and publishers. He is as keen to master the art of the synopsis and self-presentation as the writing itself. He believes in the great lie, established in the 1980s and still widely believed, that a successful writer’s greatest talent must be self-marketing.

Of course, he invariably fails. The trend he has been pursuing will have passed by the time he completes his book. It is a tiring business to write for a market without enjoying the process in the slightest bit. At some point, probably quite soon, it will dawn on him that, if a person is interested in making money, writing should be at the bottom of a very long list.

At the other end of the scale, there is the Purist. She (or he) writes out of an often desperate inner compulsion. Perhaps setting down the past, ordering it on the page, is the only way to make sense of her life. Or maybe it offers an escape from present unhappiness. She too has a myth to which she clings: that of the healing pen. If you write something down, your inner wounds will begin to heal.

For the Purist, scribbling away is not far from being a psychotic disorder. She may write one novel after another, each exploring some aspect of her past. Or perhaps there is one great work, added to and expanded over the years, doomed never to be satisfactorily completed. Editing or re-writing are of litle interest. Her only reader is herself. She needs to keep moving forward. The idea that she should write something which is not essentially autobiographical has not the slightest interest.

The Careerist’s sense of a market and the Purist’s need to write are both important. The trick is to negotiate a way between the two.

The problem today is that the pressures and temptations of the writing life, whether towards the market or into self-indulgence, are greater than ever. Reeling from the effects of the recession, the rise of ebooks and the general effect of Amazon and the internet, publishers are increasingly obsessed by marketing. They are fretful about authors promoting themselves and encourage them to dance about in online chatrooms and blogs.

In this mad market-place, fraudulence abounds. Authors, and probably publishers, create “sock-puppets”, invented online personae who earnestly discuss the authors’ books and give them enthusiastic reviews. It is the Careerist’s playground.

At the other end of the book trade, the new respectability of self-publishing allows an outlet for writers following the way of the Purist. The media is obsessed by emotion and self. It is tempting for authors, released from the demands of the market and eye of an editor, to become self-indulgent.

Yet it is moments like these which offer opportunities to real writers. The more market-obsessed, and crazed by money that the world becomes, the more useful it is for writers to look below the busy surface of things. The more the daily print and screen media demands tears and self-obsession, the more urgent the requirement for those writing books to be cool and thoughtful.

I suspect that these years will turn out to be good for writers. It is a time of change and dangers, always stimulating for the creative process. Already there are wiry, dynamic new publishers and new ideas about reaching readers emerging in the chaos.

In the meantime, teaching on a creative writing course takes one back to what lies beneath our fragile careers. It reminds us that, while a new model of publishing develops, it will be strong, professionally-minded authors balancing the demands of the muse and the market-place who will keep the show together – as usual.

Winter 2012

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