The bitter and twisted writer in the blue silk dress

Added on Saturday 5 May 2012

So you want to be a writer?


Well, as John Steinbeck himself said in a letter to friends in 1957:


“I shudder to tell you what I have strongly suspected – that you have a writer in the family.  This is sad news, but I can’t think of a thing you can do about it …  What you have … to look forward to is life made intolerable by a mean, cantankerous, opinionated, moody, quarrelsome, unreasonable, nervous, flighty, irresponsible son.  You will get no loyalty, little consideration and desperately little attention from him.  In fact you will want to kill him.  I’m sure my father and mother often must have considered poisoning me.”


(Steinbeck: a life in letters, p. 550)


Later on, writing to the very author he had just vilified, or (if you’re a writer) praised, he also mentioned.


“…don’t think for a moment that you will ever be forgiven for being what they call ‘different.’ You won’t!”


(Ibid., p. 539)


Over the course of my life I have annoyed my friends, infuriated my father, upset my mother, summed up my sister as “a bunch of misfiring emotional hormones with a marshmallow for a brain,” won the College Rag wearing a blue silk dress and black lace underwear, spent three nights in a women’s residence, climbed up the outside of the leaning tower of Pisa and been thrown out of the Empire State Building.


Then there was the night I met Sir Walter Scott’s ghost, and the road trip across America to meet the star on Sunset Boulevard.


This is not the life most men lead, and it cannot be taught in school or college.  What would they do?  Have seminars on how to be a horror?


There is the practise, yes, and the work required to gain mastery of plot, prose, subtext and theme; but unless that demonic motivation, ascribed (according to Steinbeck) to the devil or evil spirits in the Middle Ages, lies within, then it is all for nothing.  The spirit cannot move you if the spirit is not there.


Many do not get the message or kid themselves about the writer’s craft.  As David Lodge (an extremely good writer) put it in Paradise News, referring to a fictional tour guide who wanted to become a travel writer:


“I wouldn’t mind that for a job.”


“First you’ve got to be able to write, Trevor.  First you’ve got to be able to spell.”


“Don’t need to, nowadays, do you?  Computers do it all for you.”


No, Trevor, they don’t, and if you start off gleefully thinking it’ll all be easy because you’ve got Facebook, Wikipedia and/or the latest version of Word, God help you.  The first draft of Dear Miss Landau was largely written on paper by hand.  In my time, I have written in jotters, on manual typewriters, electronic typewriters, word processors, PCs and latterly upon dear old Juliet the Notebook (whom I truly love); but none – absolutely none - of these means could do it for me.


Then there’s middle-class morality.  Call it the belief that someone – someone else, that is – somewhere can “do something.”


I ran into this the other day, in conversation with a very nice, very civilised West End lady.


Definitely not a writer.


I explained to her the near-impossibility of anyone being published.  The lady in question kept suggesting that perhaps Glasgow University’s creative writing course could “do something.”


I patiently made it clear that all any course can do is teach students some of the basics of the craft and insist they buy a copy of the Writer’s Handbook.  After that, it’s down to brutal Darwinism: most will fail, very few will reach the high standards required, fewer will have a manuscript accepted, even fewer will succeed commercially or critically.


There is no nice, civilised (middle-class, if you will), route to being published.  It requires a load of talent, a great dollop of luck, hideous perseverance and the kind of mean, cantankerous and moody character beneath it all which no course can graft onto you.


But still I meet those who kid themselves.  Just the other day, my publisher reminded me to stress the fact that I am now a real, commercially-published author.  There are many who self or vanity publish and kid themselves they’re genuine writers.  They are not.


The real litmus test is to have your work accepted for publication by a professional.  I faced that fact for twenty-two years of personal and professional hell, and if I had kidded myself it is a virtual certainty I would never have got anywhere.


So, do you still want to be a writer?


The question, as posed, is somewhat inaccurate.  If that demon already resides within you, then the question is moot.  You’re going to write, or want to write, and be damned for being different all your days.


More precisely, then, do you still want to be a published writer?


Then accept the poverty of the soul, the pain of rejection, the brutal critiques and that other poverty, not of the soul but of the wallet.  Accept you are different and be done with it.


And don’t forget to wear a blue silk dress every now and then!