Are writers masochists or egomaniacs, or on a see-saw ride between the two?
Writing is a strange beast. A calling? Definitely. Why else would anyone stare at words as much as we do, roll them around on our tongue, like honey? Worship them? Why would we spend so long trying to perfect a sentence or a story only a handful of people will read and then, promptly, forget (like this piece)?
Especially when it’s not our job, we’re not paid for it – or at least not much. And no-one seems keen to read our jottings.
No money, no readers, no point.
So why do it?
Are we narcissists, showing off our clever way with words, venting our grand opinions and hoping to achieve fame and glory in the process?
Or desk-bound philosophers, looking into the deepest parts of ourselves and the human condition for answers to universal questions.
(If we’re the former, we will probably want to believe it’s the latter!)
Or perhaps we’re just kids who grew up and found the adult world was not all it was cracked up to be, so decided to retreat to the fantasy of childhood now and again.
Writers are all of the above.
We’re a scruffy lot, full of twitchy sensitivities, punchy from well-meant criticism. Single children are over-represented in our ranks, because we’re observers of life. We sit back, watch, think and wonder – what if…aliens invaded, a terrorist came into the cafe, our son or daughter was kidnapped? We’re armchair adventurers and control-freaks, thinking everything through to the last detail. We eavesdrop on cafe conversations, mine our friends’ lives for plot points, hunch over screens for hours instead of going to the beach or bed. We endure bad backs, sticky fingers and stiff necks in our quest – and that’s what it is – for just the right scene or simile.
As we wash the dishes, we stare through the window and see, not the garden in need of weeding, or the neighbour’s bulging bins, but medieval tournaments, pirates lashed to the rigging on stormy seas, the sun setting behind a skyline on an alien planet.
I love writing. It absorbs and challenges you and fills the empty hours – and there are potentially a lot of those in life. It’s something you can do even when you’re old, so long as your fingers can still scuttle spider-like across the keyboard, or haul an ink stick across a page and you still have the energy to think and imagine.
But I hate it, too. Because most of the time it’s hard slog. Especially if you’re writing a big piece – a novel. It’s a process of sitting with uncertainty, hitting dead-ends, confronting self-doubt, fretting about failure. Snow-ploughing through the blank pages, filling in details about the world, the characters you’ve created – hundreds, thousands of details.
Are we having fun yet? you wonder, midway through the process with fifty thousand words of meandering crap written, and as many still to go. You ask yourself why the Hell you’re even doing this in a world with so many writers and reading in decline.
Think the Balrog, from Lord of the Rings, an amorphous beast, its tail whip sharp wrapped around Gandalf’s foot as, wide-eyed and sweaty, the wizard clings to the rock, trying not to fall into the abyss.
We writers are Gandalf, barely hanging on. The beast is our writing, trying to drag us down. . . down. . . to where there’s nothing but darkness, self-loathing, recycled manuscript pages.
But then you find a story thread to follow and keep going. And going.
And that feeling of finishing a work you’re proud of – all writers know – is truly wonderful. Worth all the pain.
To create something from nothing is a major high. And sometimes, though we’re mucky and testy and flawed (like the characters we create) and paranoid (‘Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you’ – Joseph Heller, Catch-22), the work that comes out of it is bigger than us. In all those words, you may hit on a moment, which has meaning. And surprise even yourself.
A sort of magic can result from the deep in-the-moment process of creation. Like when a musician, drug-addled and pretentious, writes a song that touches your soul. Or an artist does a painting or sculpture of surpassing beauty that stops you in your tracks. Despite our personal shortcomings, occasionally we manage to create something which shines a light – however briefly – on this crazy mess called life.
And that’s why we do it.
(That, and the chance of fame and fortune, of course.)
Scott Lynch, writer of The Lies of Locke Lamora once said writers were afflicted with two simultaneous delusions – the burning certainty we’re unique geniuses and the constant fear we’re witless frauds speeding towards epic failure.
Sounds about right. Without a strong self-belief, you’d never push through all that uncertainty. But you need healthy dose of humility for an essential reality check, so you can see your work for what it is – not for what you wish it to be.
We keep going – despite a tsunami of rejections, the crushing disappointment of projects that don’t work out, the harsh assessments “well-meant” which are a writer’s lot – because one day, all those keystrokes might actually produce something worth reading?
Or at least diverting and enjoyable.
One day. Maybe.
We write on in hope.