Return to site


This Writing Life


The writer walks out of his workroom in a daze. He wants a drink. He needs it. It happens to be a fact that nearly every writer of fiction in the world drinks more whisky than is good for him. He does it to give himself faith, hope and courage. A person is a fool to become a writer. His only compensation is absolute freedom. He has no master except his own soul and that, I am sure, is why he does it. Roald Dahl 

Working on a singularly challenging short story, I agonise for half an hour over the appropriate word for a particular phrase, only to see the situation remain frustratingly unresolved. It’s doing my head in, so I take a break. That’s 30 minutes of my life that I’ll never get back. I’m 67 years old and more or less retired. I should be taking a leisurely stroll in the park. Counting the stars in the Milky Way. Baking a batch of sausage rolls. Watching the latest series of Fargo on Netflix. Chilling. Yet here I am, tormenting myself over the delegation of a single elusive adjective.

What’s the story here?

We wonder sometimes, don’t we?

And then we don’t.

Creation – that’s the story.

We wordmongers can be an odd assortment of nutjobs. Who of us in our right minds, if we ever found ourselves to be in right minds, would choose this writing life? What innate insanity, we wonder, impels us day after day, week after week, month after month, year after excruciating year, to pick up a pen or a laptop, imprison ourselves in lonely solitude and subject our sensitive souls to the hard labour of putting together an assembly of words and ideas that is somehow deemed to be worthy and meaningful?

It doesn’t make sense.

Hugh Leonard, the late dramatist and essayist, described writing as: an illness, a virus that no science can isolate and cure, and Ray Bradbury, in his book Zen in the Art of Writing, said: Writing is supposed to be difficult, agonizing, a dreadful exercise, a terrible occupation.

Yet we persist. It’s madness.

Oh, it’s all very fine for the lucky few who have scaled the dizzy heights of fame and fortune. The likes of Anne Enright, JK Rawlings and Roddy Doyle have prevailed against the odds and penned their way to literary Eldorado. They are champions. They are the Manchester United, the Barcelona, the Juventus of the literary firmament. For good or ill, their stardom has helped to promote the notion among the populace at large that writing is a glamorous business.

Would that that were so for those of us who ply our trade in the lesser leagues of this creative field. The collective noun to describe us should be a martyrdom of scriveners. For us, arguably, writing is a mug’s game.

There’s no money in it. Studies consistently show that the average full-time writer in the UK earns less than the minimum wage (and I suspect that the same applies to Ireland). Nonetheless, Britain remains a nation of aspiring authors; a recent YouGov poll revealed that, of those asked, 60% said they aspired to make a living from writing. Good luck with that, folks.

Most of us who practise the scribbling trade slave away in semi-oblivion. I’m of an age to have conducted much of my business in the era of snail-mail, when hopeful writers waited for the verdicts of publishers to be dropped through the letterbox. I daresay I could wallpaper my office with my collection of rejection letters.

Like auditioning actors, we wordsmiths constantly test the limits of our emotional constitutions. We send our work out into the world with trepidation, ever-conscious of the lurking analogy of the tree falling in a forest – if nobody hears its noise, does it exist in any real sense? Writers’ groups, literary publications and writing competitions (and, of course, The Blue Nib) can be godsends, reassuring us that, yes, people are indeed hearing our noise.

But, all in all, it’s a perilous business.

So, why do we do it? Where does this compulsion come from?

Hugh Leonard also said: I’m a writer and what I do is write. I wasn’t able to do anything else. I couldn’t say it better myself, so I won’t torment myself by seeking the words.

Yes, this writing game is an insanity that consumes us, but it’s a glorious kind of madness with its own unique set of compensations and, although I sometimes rail against the torture of wrestling for the ideal onomatopoeia, I am cognizant of the rewards. Some of these are:

The rapturous, almost ridiculous, sense of satisfaction on completion of a well-wrought sentence, paragraph, verse or chapter;

The surge of righteous vindication when, on knowing that you have creditably concluded a project, you can happily type THE END;

The fullness of the heart when, on sitting on a train or a bus and you notice someone reading something you wrote, you observe a laugh, a tear, a jolt of shock, a sigh or a shiver in response to your endeavours;

The sweet, succulent smell of success on realising that, through your work, you have touched the soul of a stranger.

So yes, I suppose we writers can be a crazy, tortured, masochistic lot but we have our moments. These moments are not why we write but they help us on our way. As to the why – it’s compulsion, pure and simple. Ray Bradbury put it in a nutshell:

You grow ravenous. You run fevers. You know exhilarations. You can’t sleep at night, because your beast-creature ideas want out and turn you in your bed. It is a grand way to live.