I’m currently working with Simon R Green (best selling novelist) and Stephen Volk (BAFTA winning screenwriter) on a short story writing workshop – and in case you’re wondering, yes that was a blatant attempt to lure you in from Google by name dropping. Stay with me though, I’ve got a good point to make.
Like many creative pros, when called upon give advice to new writers we find ourselves inclined to offer nothing but discouragement. I know it sounds strange, but I think we’re impelled to do this out of sincere kindness.
There are hundreds of adverts for writing courses in the press and on-line with headings like “Why Not Be A Writer” and “Make Money Writing”. The copy that goes with these headings gives the impression that the publishing world is bursting at the seams with editors squatting on large piles of money. What’s more these editors are desperate to stuff said money into the pockets of anyone who can write a legible sentence.
The truth, of course, is quite the reverse. The blizzard of rejection letters that greets most people’s first submissions is a testament to this sad (but undeniable) fact. The dejection and disillusion that many feel in the face of this is our main reason for wanting to discourage them. That and the fact that we want to thin out the potential competition.
Writing professionally isn’t for everyone. Success, and I use this term in its loosest possible sense, is as much a matter of temperament and character as it is talent. You have to want to spend the majority of your time (roughly 14 hours a day) locked away from the outside world, shunning all human contact, save for the odd visit to Facebook. You must be prepared to treat the moronic whims of editors, producers and directors as though they were profound creative insights and endlessly alter your work to accommodate them.
And it is essential that you develop the ability to go for long periods of time without eating. Not because fasting sharpens the creative instinct, simply because you will have no money to buy food or any other of life’s essentials. Never go out drinking with a group of professional writers. Not one of them can afford to buy a round of drinks. Even those that can have forgotten how to do so.
If I were to sum the professional writer’s temperament up in one word it would be: ‘Insanity’.
After a lot of careful consideration I’ve come to the conclusion that writing full time is actually a form of insanity, and as such should be added to every known text book on Psychiatry.
For a start, nothing simulates manic depression quite like a freelance creative career. Imagine logging on to the net in the morning to be greeted with a stinking review or your latest book that reads more like a personal assault than a piece of criticism. Then follow that with an e-mail from a publisher with an offer of work that pays enough for you and your family to eat for the next six months. While you’re still digesting this news consider getting a phone call that afternoon telling you that the dream project you’ve spent three years bringing to fruition has been unexpectedly cancelled and stands no chance of ever going ahead. Later that evening as you’re staring at Facebook in a semi-drunken stupour and pretending to work, imagine getting an instant message from a colleague congratulating you on being shortlisted for a prestigious award that you had no idea about.
I’m really not exaggerating here, it’s not uncommon to have a day like this around once a week. While I appreciate that many people have high pressure jobs that bring their own highs and lows, I don’t think there’s any other career that marries a feast or famine pay structure to a job assessment that swings between public censure and public acclaim in quite the same way that a creative profession does.
Then there’s the fact that the majority of any writer’s day is spent inducing hallucinations. Writing good dialogue is essentially nurturing a multiple personality disorder. Many jobs involve some form of role play at one time or another, but these are nothing like as intense as the writer’s experience.
One phenomena to which most writers will attest is that if you’re doing your job right then your characters take on a life of their own. After a while you’re not writing a thing, you’re simply taking dictation. But the characters don’t stop there, they want a say in your plotting too, often refusing to do what you want them to and sabotaging months of carefully prepared story arcs. And there’s nothing you can do about this, you just have to roll with it and do what they say. So just to reiterate, what I’m saying here is that I spend a good part of my life being told what to do by imaginary voices in my head. You see where I’m going with this don’t you …?
The level of obsession necessary not only to find work in the world of publishing, but also to deliver it, would rival any unfortunate OCD sufferer. I once spent a week exchanging countless 2,000 word e-mails with an editor debating the merits of including or discounting the word ‘easy’ from a line a of dialogue. No really, I can give you the poor woman’s contact details if you don’t believe me, and she can show your her scars.
To counter this insanity some writers inflict themselves upon long suffering spouses and children. If nothing else it gives us a reason to come out of our studies and wash occasionally, and I do mean occasionally. It also takes us away from our work for hours at a time.
This means that, due to the economics of writing for a living – namely that you have to take on far more work than you can actually do in order to earn far less than you can live on – when not working we are always worrying about work. So we will usually work till the wee hours even though we have to be up for school runs the next morning. This effectively adds sleep deprivation and a nice juicy guilt complex to the already volatile mix that used to be our mental health.
To be serious for a moment, I want to stress that I’m not trying to romanticise the writer’s life by comparing it to mental illness. Nor am I trying to make light of the day to day experiences of those who live with mental health issues. In fact, if anything, I’m genuinely trying to show my solidarity.
I’m also trying to answer the rhetorical question posed in the subject heading. I’m doing this out of kindness. And to thin out any potential competition.
Did I mention I’m doing a workshop for aspiring short story writers very soon? It’s on Monday 21st of September as part of the Bradford on Avon Festival. My two collaborators, Simon and Stephen have both been professional writers at least a decade and a half longer than me. Can you imagine how jaded they are? Why not come along and find out?
And while you’re at it, why not be a writer …?