Why do it? Notes from a writer’s shed
Beyond the daily grind of the thousand words, there is a rhythm to life as a writer. The commission of the moment (if there is one), the pressure of the work in progress, the seductive possibilities of those what-if, why-not?, would-be projects that you always mean to get around to writing: these tasks impose a sort of professional pattern on life.
And the rhythm keeps changing. Over the past three decades as an author, I’ve had periods in which adult fiction is interrupted once every couple of months by a joyous, month-long holiday of writing a book for children. Later there was a time when five days of fiction would be followed by a day of column-writing. More recently newspaper work has set the pace, squeezing book-work to the edge of the schedule, and songs have demanded time, too.
One commission, though, has been unchanging since the mid-1990s. Every three months, I have written a piece for The Author, the magazine published by the Society of Authors, about the pains and consolations of writing for a living. In a shambolic career, I have at various times been a bookseller and a publisher, and have written fiction and non-fiction for adults and for children and earned a living as a newspaper columnist. The Author column, which was called ‘Endpaper’, allowed me to pass on small items of battered wisdom, caught somewhere between cynicism and hope, which I have acquired down the years.
It has always been enjoyable, this moment of contact with thousands of other writers. It felt as if I were among kindred spirits – people who, even though their kinds of writing were different from mine, knew all too well the trials, the setbacks, the small triumphs and everyday humiliations of life as an author.
Then, in the autumn, I was sacked. It was an upsetting and rather surprising moment – somehow, I had never expected my own professional body to put the boot in – but then, as I had argued in the column down the years, survival as a writer involves being able to take the knocks. Nobody forced us to do this for a living.
But what of the rhythm? In the past, I would have moved on to the next task. Now, having been tossed off the big boat, I have found, rather to my surprise, that I want to keep paddling away on my own little plank. After I wrote my last column for The Author, so many readers contacted me, and in such kind terms, that it seemed a touch feeble to give up when the internet offers a perfectly adequate medium of communication.
All the same, the question hovers over my head as I write this column, and it is the big one – the question which all authors probably ask themselves at one stage or another.
Why? Why write? There is no editor waiting for this piece of copy; no small but welcome reward will be paid into my bank account. In what possible way can this blog be described as the work of a professional writer?
There was a time when the reasons for writing were straightforward. It was work without a boss. It allowed me to show off with words, now and then to make people laugh, or feel sad, or annoyed. It was tough to survive, but the work was satisfying and sometimes even fun.
Money always mattered. It helped to shape me as a writer. I see now that having to take on some kinds of hack-work during the early days – ghost-writing, for example – was professionally useful. The need to stay solvent is the best defence against self-indulgence and laziness. Having to earn a living from your words toughens you as a writer and a person.
Now though, with the family grown and gone, the money panic begins to subside. It is no longer thoughts of the bank balance that send me to the desk every morning.
Yet, through the disappointments and setbacks (which get no easier to take), the pen keeps moving.
It couldn’t be therapy, could it? I have always been sceptical of the idea of the ‘healing pen’ so beloved of creative writing classes. The briefest glance at those who write for a living is enough to dispel the notion that writing stuff down every day has the magical effect of making a person saner and less neurotic. All the same, the process does help to order one’s life; it house-keeps the brain. Bad experiences become good material. Uncertainties and conflicts are worked out on the page. A story told to oneself, a character coming to life, still has the power to surprise and sometimes to make you laugh.
Then there is the matter of communication. Some people write compulsively, without the slightest care as to whether their words will eventually be read, but I am not one of them. Readers remain an essential part of the deal.
The rhythm may change, but it continues. There is still a market out there. The next book, as always, is going to be the best one written by me – in fact, possibly by anyone. And every three months or so, I plan to write these notes from my shed.
The beat goes on.
My Endpaper pieces for The Author can be found here.