Wednesday, 22 August 2007

What do you want to be when you grow up?

The Guardian yesterday discussed a YouGov poll in which it turns out 10% of us want to be writers, more even than those who want to be sports personalities, pilots or astronauts! Those over 50 are most prone to this desire - the younger lot are keener on being a Beckham or Lewis Hamilton. This just demonstrates the halo of glamour that adheres to the concept of the writing life - along with the delusion that there's always gold in them thar literary hills.

This led me to think about the numerous courses, handbooks and articles all of which have at their core that enticing message, that lure - 'You too can be a writer!' 'Why not be a writer!'

I myself contribute to this, in that I have my own small involvement in creative writing teaching. Often the people I teach have a burning urge to do it, often they've proven their motivation by writing stories and novels, by entering competitions, by, quite simply, sticking to it. However, all too often, people claim they want to be writers in the same way that lanky sixteen year old girls want to be models - they do it by steadfastly ignoring what is actually involved.

So, what does it take to be a writer? First of all, bloody hard graft. Forget airy fairy notions of the sensitive writer at the desk, chewing the quill pen, furrowing the brow, then being struck with the white heat of inspiration and scribbling furiously through the night, scribbling his or her way into immortality. This is not to say that inspiration doesn't work like that - it can and when it does it's a wonderful trip. The point is, it doesn't work like that all the time. The Muse, as Stephen King says, is a basement kind of guy - not an ethereal Greek spirit wafting down from Parnassus. You need to beat your Muse with a stick. You need to get it out of bed - and it's usually as reluctant to do so as my teenage son. And that's Reluctant.

Not only is it hard graft but long drawn out hard graft. You have to commit yourself to the long haul, to the ups and downs, to the supercharged enthusiasm followed by the long dark night of the soul, to the wrenching of precious time out of the daily confusion of thoughts and activities, and most of all to the lack of understanding, open hostility, or cold rejection of others. When I was young there was an advert for toys called Weebles and the jingle was 'Weebles wobble but they don't fall down.' You've got to be a Weeble.

You've got to be your own best friend; nurture and comfort yourself with pride in what you've done and faith in what you want to do. You've got to be your own worst enemy, your harshest critic, subjecting everything you write to fierce relentless scrutiny.

You've got to be honest. You've got to let projects go if they're not working out. You've got to focus on your own capacities as a writer, not eat yourself up in envy of others. Honesty may well mean facing up to the fact that ultimately, this is a race you can't run, a goal you can't reach. The biggest honest favour you may have to do for yourself is to admit that you don't actually have the talent. However much books can advise and teachers can coach - and they can do a lot - there are times when, whisper it, the aspirant just cannot write for toffee. Here again, writing seems to have its own uniquely perverted way of selling itself as a profession - nobody thinks they've got a godgiven right to be a brainsurgeon or a concert pianist or even a painter. Often people will reach their mature years and retire from the day job and say blithely 'I'm going to be a writer now' - as if it's a switch you can flip. To those people I'd say - yes, you may well have a talent which has been bubbling within you all these years and now's the time for it to bubble up - but then again you may not. Wishing isn't doing. When I was a student my best friends were around a size 10 and I starved myself to try to get down to that happy state, and certainly I got thin, but I couldn't get thinner than my bone structure would allow, I couldn't look boyish for the life of me. I had the body I had and still have (only more so now!). Being a writer comes from a germ within, and the nurturing of that with industry and practice and the recognition that that's a process that ought never to end. You can always be better.

When I was a little girl and was asked 'Little girl, what do you want to be when you grow up?' I'd answer, primly and no doubt revoltingly, 'An authoress.' It's all I've ever wanted to be. It's always mattered, it still matters, through all the dilatoriness, the self-doubt, the despair. It's what I am and what I always aspire to be. It defines me. I hate it, I'm burdened by it, but I love it and relish it and wallow in it all the time.

If any of this has made you go 'Ouch' I'm sorry - but then again I'm not. It was an honest lecture, honestly meant.


Muvva said...

Well said, Lorna. Writing requires extraordinary levels of determination and hard work - all the harder because it almost entirely relies on being self-motivated.

I used to get people asking me for advice on becoming a freelance journalist. I'd tell them about the need for persistence and a very thick-skin, as well as a modicum of good-sense, professionalism and talent. But they still went off believing that all they had to do was write an article and send it off to some magazine or newspaper, and their career would be launched. Sigh.

Mind you, fiction is a whole different ball game, with the odds far more stacked against success, and lots more ego laid on the line. Very daunting!

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