Who wants to be a writer?

Did I want to be a writer? I don’t remember.

Until I was eighteen I didn’t know anyone who’d written anything beyond what they’d had to at school. Writing essays was certainly easy for me, which was reason enough for me to be content to do it. But school essays were a superficial intellectual exercise. That is not what writing is; not as I understand it now. So I suppose I’m talking about creative writing, wanting to be a creative writer.

At school we had to write fiction as well. When I did that my hand moved over the paper and I went into a trance. I didn’t enjoy it. I didn’t enjoy anything. But when I did it something different happened in my brain. I went deeply into myself. Writing fiction, even while sitting in the classroom with my peers, wasn’t about the cleverness of an essay, wasn’t about how to get the top marks. It was something that came from inside. I had no idea what inside was. Often I didn’t hear the bell go at the end of the lesson.

When I was a student in Oxford I knew a proper poet who later also wrote novels. I didn’t think to ask him about what writing poetry was. It didn’t occur to me to write poetry for the class he offered. Clearly that was for other people, though it never crossed my mind to think that either. I asked him once whether it was ‘worth my while going’ to improve my essay writing. He said it might be. I still didn’t go. Rationally, I told myself my essays were good enough. Actually, I was scared.

I imagined beautiful people lounging over the furniture doing some sort of magic with words. I didn’t know what that would be. I didn’t link it either to the poetry I read, sank deeply into. The poetry that kept me awake at night.

Poet. Writer. No-one suggested it to me.

I wasn’t looking for an artsy way to earn my living; so it didn’t get me from that angle either. I was expecting to work hard and where I came from hard work meant an office and duty and probably a grind. I applied for the most competitive hard-work jobs I could find. When I got one I was exhilarated by how fast I had to think, how much I had to learn and do. It wasn’t a wrong way to work. But it wasn’t (isn’t) what psychologists would call ‘deep work’.

The practice of writing never occurred to me. Nor did learning how these novels which I read non-stop came to be.

But something was there all the same.

In my twenties, travelling for work abroad, I started storing up notes. I thought up characters. I structured novels. It was all an intellectual exercise; and I never got even the first paragraph down.

Then at thirty I started a novel because the poet, whom I spoke to again after a number of years, told me that I should. I kept going because I had become interested in how to do this thing that was so intricate, so complex, so intimate.

My writing pattern was haphazard. Splurges and droughts, and an astonishing spectrum of quality. I drowned in what I was writing, was again in the trance I had experienced in my teens, but this time I couldn’t escape. I stopped again for months. I restarted and again was drawn in. I hadn’t discovered by then that writing well is a discipline, a practice, that in the practice, as well, is the mastery of a skill that can keep the writer safe and sane.

Somehow, even in that haphazard way, I glued together the seventy thousand words of The Storyteller.

Then, it seemed, I was a writer. By accident. Having never set out to be one. But having tried to write, and having then found the deep material inside me that came out in paragraphs that were true to something.

Now I write because it seems to be who I have become.

It scares me.

To do it well I have to be who I am. Nothing can be faked.

More than that, I have to know and accept who that person is. Because creative writing is a practice of going deeply inside myself, and of coming safely back up again, with the words. How to be a writer? On my current understanding it’s depth, that’s all.


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