On Being A Writer

By Paul Grainger

In modern day society, the nomenclature ‘writer’ is no longer attributed to those who merely engage in writing, but to those whose aim it is to get their work published. All those hours spent in isolation, drumming up inspiration, producing page after page of ground-breaking prose, only for the manuscript to get no further than the desk drawer, count for nothing. To earn the title ‘writer’, one must nowadays achieve recognition, be it by way of titles on bookshop shelves, articles in journals, magazines and newspapers, or examples of one’s work on fee-paying internet sites.

Thousands of aspiring writers dream of publication, and one of the main things that causes them to keep on trying is the notion that already-established authors were once in the same position. The Ian McEwans, John Irvings and Miranda Seymours (to take just three names at random) have all sat on the edge of the literary limelight. Perhaps they’ve forgotten it themselves, but there was once a time when they too were in search of their literary ‘voice’.

There are three sorts of aspiring writer who have the potential to follow in the footsteps of the aforementioned. First, those blessed with abundant talent. Second, those who prove to be commercially attractive (whether or not in a strictly literary direction). Third, those who have the stamina and endurance of the hippopotamus. Next to these are the hobby-writers, those who write simply for pleasure and have no ambition to get their work published. By virtue of this choice they shield themselves from the critical eye of the outside world but consequently disqualify themselves as ‘writers’ in the received sense of the word.

A writer’s career begins with a willingness to invest unlimited time in an activity that has an uncertain outcome. Even someone who is successful with the first attempt at producing, say, a novel, needs at least a year of intensive effort. The world groans under the weight of printed material, so it is not as if the reading public is awaiting the result of a first-timer’s labour. The writer must believe in himself, a necessity that is not easy to maintain.

Why write? It is a given that there can be little or no substantial financial reward for the majority of writers and, as far as membership of an exclusive club is concerned, there is little proof of that either. So what motivation there is is down to that of the story, that in the opinion of the writer, needs to be told. It is a need that assumes the mantle of a terrorist, an autist, and an egoist; it sabotages all other activity in order to germinate, grow and blossom; it assumes complete control of the writer’s life.

That earlier time scale of a year is also of significance. The main reason the writer isn’t able to complete the story in, say, three months, is because the involvement in it caresses his ego, tempers his impatience, and transports him on to cloud nine. Such is his infusion of confidence he is, in his imagination, already basking in the glory of success, knowing that he is producing a unique piece of work. In this frame of mind he tends to forget the times when he thought his muse had abandoned him. When he anguished over whether the next punctuation mark ought to be a semi-colon or a dash, or when he was tempted to push his fist through the screen of his computer monitor out of frustration. Instead he is panning out the pleasure of writing, though it is the story that’s in control; it is fearful of being left to its own devices. It demands attention from nine until five daily, seven days a week. Is the writer not in the mood today? Then get in the mood! Time for a holiday? Then the story goes too! It assumes an indomitable hold over its slave, the writer.

To the best of my knowledge there is no other experience to compare with the almost explosive pleasure that writing in full flow can bring. Forgotten is the aforementioned frustration: suddenly, as if through the will of God, the way ahead is clear. Your fingers scurry over the keyboard, the monitor sparkles with row upon row of words full of wisdom, you could almost kiss the screen. Euphoria takes over, you don’t know if the next paragraph will signal the end of your current bout of inspiration or twenty pages further, you cease to be amazed by your creativity. All right, it has to end sometime, but why not enjoy it while you can?

Paul Grainger, 10 Jun 02


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