The reaction to the poll which revealed 60% of people want to be authors has been puzzling. It provoked Tim Lott to write about the ‘horrors’ of the writing life in the Guardian, and Chas Newkey-Burden gave 14 reasons why you shouldn’t be an author in The Telegraph. There was much that I recognised in both articles, but as my eyes progressed down the pages, I could not help feeling embarrassed and ashamed as both authors tried to describe just how awful our profession is. Don’t get me wrong. I complain often and frequently about how hard this writing malarkey is – mostly to myself as I collapse into bed in the early hours of the morning, or to my long-suffering partner as I struggle to get up again. What I don’t do is moan to my dad about how hard the writing life is. My 75 year-old dad used to work night shifts laying pipes in the roads outside in the rain, wind and snow. That was hard work. All the harder because he did not have a ‘calling’ to do his job, he had a necessity. Without his wage, his three children would not have had winter coats or new shoes for their growing feet. He received no awards for his hard work; there were no reviews or articles written about the utility or skill of what he did. In fact, I am pretty sure I complained about having to buy shoes that were ‘durable’ rather than pretty, sulking whenever my mum picked coats that would still fit next winter, rather than look good ‘now’.
I am fortunate that I went to University and that I have a very good job, a home, a computer and am healthy enough to survive on just 4-6 hours sleep a night. In short, I have the means to write: once the children are in bed, between 10-12pm I tap away, before getting back up at 6am to go to my daytime job. It is not ideal: I am frequently exhausted, and I cut more corners than I would like on mothering and house cleaning. Perhaps more importantly, I have the confidence to write. Much has been written about the paranoia and insecurity of writers. But it takes a monumental ego to sit down, night after night, believing that you can write a story, and moreover, believing that other people should read it. Tim Lott calls it a ‘demon’; I believe it is the creative urge of all humans that we see expressed in that poll, but a few of us are blessed/cursed with the confidence and drive to think that we can do it, in the face of all rational evidence and experience to the contrary.
Perhaps the bit that bothers me most about these debates is the implicit irritation at the idea that other ‘ordinary’ people (as many as 60%) would like to write. Chris Newkey-Burden’s response is to try and frighten them off, setting out how awful the writer’s life is, in an effort to squash such foolish dreams. I am struggling to think of any other profession or artistic endeavor that tries so hard to put other people off. Where are the athletes who say there’s no point going jogging in the morning, because you’ll never make it to the Olympics? Where are the footballers scoffing at the dads with their sons in the park, telling children they’ll never make it, and if they do, how dreadful it is at the top? Other professions appear more confident of what they do and are more generous and encouraging of others. Singers and dancers and actors nourish and support the efforts of others – not just for the success it can bring, but for the jeer joy of the activity itself. To dance, to sing, to run, to write, all of these activities are delightfully irrational and beautifully human. We should embrace the 60% who want to write, and encourage the other 40% to have a go too. The goal is not to be published or praised, but to feel the pain and pride of creating something that did not exist yesterday, and will still be there tomorrow.
We don’t need to tell those who have yet to pick up a pen just how hard writing is. Like all expectant parents, they will soon find out for themselves, and they wouldn’t believe you anyway. The conversations about the difficulty of writing are for writers only. Nobody else understands, and quite frankly, nobody else cares. The most galling part of Tim Lott’s article was where he likened the complexity and skill of writing to that of a brain surgeon (yes, really, I had to read it twice too). I think I understand what Tim Lott was, rather clumsily trying to say. Everybody knows how skilled a brain surgeon is, and he was, I think, trying to explain just how skillful our apparently effortless profession is. But he failed to acknowledge the importance of consequences. I, for example, could choose to stop writing anytime I like. Nobody else would care (my family would be delighted). And let’s face it, the world is full of books, I am sure it will survive just fine without mine. But if a brain surgeon does not operate, people will suffer and die. There are real and immediate consequences to what they and others do or do not do, and we should have the confidence to show more humility about this.
So in short, I think we need to be more confident as a profession: to not feel the need to explain how very hard it is, or to try and liken ourselves and our work to others. We need the confidence to be generous, and the confidence to be grateful for the gift that we have. And by gift, I don’t mean writers are the chosen ones: we are fortunate enough to have acquired and earned the tools of the trade, and we have the gift of confidence/time/opportunity (however hard fought) to deploy them. For that, I am thankful. And for my father, the idea that his daughter has the opportunity to write (however unsuccessfully), is not a ‘horror film’ but a dream come true.