SO YOU WANT TO BE A WRITER…
Coleridge was a drug addict. Poe was an alcoholic. Marlowe was killed by a man whom he was treacherously trying to stab. Pope took money to keep a woman's name out of a satire, and then wrote a piece so that she could still be recognized. Chatterton killed himself. Byron was accused of incest. Do you still want to a writer -- and if so, why?
So wrote Bennett Cerf – publisher, man of letters, social commentator and humorist.
Leo Rosten said that the only reason for being a professional writer is that you just couldn’t help it.
A recent survey of the public regarding preferred professions placed ‘professional footballer’ at number one, and second only to that was ‘writer’.
It made me wonder what it was that was so utterly captivating about such an idea. Was it the fact that you were self-employed? The simple case of not actually having to get out of bed if you didn’t feel like it? The utter simplicity of one’s job – that all it required was hammering out a few dozen words on your battered Underwood typewriter, and publishers, screenplay writers and movie producers would elbow one another out of the way to push six figure cheques under your nose? (As if…)
Perhaps all of those things, and - then again – perhaps none.
Telling stories is as old as speech, and no less important.
Telling stories is a tradition, a heritage, a legacy…it is the past making its way toward the future in an effort to show us those things we have failed to learn by our own experience.
Telling stories is a hope that magic can be restored to an age that has almost forgotten.
Paul Auster said that becoming a writer was not a ‘career decision’ like becoming a doctor or a policeman. You don’t choose it so much as get chosen, and once you accepted the fact that you were not fit for anything else, you had to be prepared to walk a long, hard road for the rest of your days, and I concur with his attitude.
Some of us, I imagine, write out of anger; some out of pain; some write out of prejudice or loss, some out of passion, the promise of something better, perhaps the belief that – even now – a book can be capable of changing a life. Some of us write to remember, some to forget; some to change things, some to ensure things stay the same.
Some of us – as my agent and editor will all too easily testify – write because we cannot stop.
I consider myself extraordinarily fortunate to have the job I do. John Lennon said that if you find something that you love you’ll never work another day in your life. I agree unreservedly.
With the upcoming release of my sixth book, ‘A Simple Act of Violence’, behind it the success of the Richard and Judy Book Club nominated ‘A Quiet Belief in Angels’, I find myself in a situation I have always dreamed of: attending a book signing or an author event and having people show up that I don’t actually know!
A few days ago I was at a Young Offenders’ Institution talking to two dozen 15-18 year olds. On Monday night I went to a High School in Derby and talked to pupils, teachers, parents and governors. Last night I was at waterstones in Bristol and receivered a wonderfully warm reception from the staff and their Reading Group. Last week I did three events in Milton Keynes, all of them to promote the National Year of Reading. I am off to Reading, Guildford, Manchester, Harrogate, Cambridge and Port Talbot. I almost spend more time on the train now than I do behind a typewriter, and I ask myself why?
Because being a writer is a pleasure and a wonder. Because having a story to tell obligates you to tell it. Because, as Moliere said, first we write for ourselves, then we write for our friends, and lastly we write for money. I am doing it for reasons one and two, and I don’t know that I ever will arrive at number three.
There was a line uttered by a character in my last book. I stole the line directly from my grandmother when she said, "Doesn’t matter who you are, where you live, what you do, how much money you make…if you can read, well you can experience pretty much everything there is to experience."
And Sol Stein, a famous New York editor, once said that the primary motivation behind non-fiction was to convey information, whereas the primary motivation behind fiction was to evoke an emotion.
That’s what happens when I find a book I love. It becomes personal. It becomes something you’ll never forget. You find yourself wrestling people to the ground, threatening not to let them up until they give their word that they’ll read the book that you’ve just finished. And sometimes they love it the same way. And sometimes they are singularly unimpressed and cannot comprehend what the fuss was all about. But it starts a discussion or a disagreement or a debate, and out of it comes the names of their favourite books, and you make a mental note to find those books, to read them, to begin another adventure in some other place and meet fictional characters that somehow connect with you and make you believe they might, in fact, be real.
That is what writing is all about, and that it why I write.
It is perhaps true, as Jean Renard said, that writing is the only profession where no one considers you ridiculous if you earn no money. The red carpet is not rolled out every time you nip to Asda or Waitrose. Your life is not an endless stream of dazzling parties where you rub shoulders with George Clooney, Cate Blanchett and Stephen Soderbergh. The paparazzi do not give handfuls of grubby fivers to your local taxi firm so they can be tipped off when you order a cab. The publishers and producers and film directors camping on your front lawn and thrusting six figure cheques at you every time you leave the house is a myth.
The thing that is not a myth is the magic of storytelling, and the tremendous sense of value that a great book has always had. And will always have.
Helen Exley said, "Books can be dangerous. The best ones should be labelled ‘This could change your life’".
And the inscription over the doorway at the Library of Thebes was just four words:
"Medicine For The Soul"