grumbles and asterisks

April 9th, 2011 | Category: writing

Depending on how my brio levels are, or how impatient I’m feeling, I have occasionally given the old chestnut response when someone says, ‘I’m going to write a film script one of these days – when I get some spare time’, or ‘I’m writing a book when I retire’…which is to say that I will also adopt their profession when I retire. A writer at lunch earlier this week told me that it was Margaret Atwood who coined this response. Innumerable writers have shared the sentiment.

Why is it so annoying? Because it casts writing as something akin to recreation, the writer as a dilettante, and the whole difficult, wonderful, badly paid and time consuming endeavour as nothing more than an interesting hobby, one in which the interlocutor may join you for a dabble one day, when they have nothing else better to do.

‘How do you get into TV? I’ve got a great idea for a series’ is another one that can, on the right – or wrong – day, make my blood boil. And here is the answer: ‘You take the second corridor, then third door on your left, and don’t forget the secret knock’.

When I talk to school groups, I do tell people how you actually ‘get into’ TV. Similar to the requirements of many other jobs it involves study, lots of hard work, talent, persistence in the face of many knock-backs and a willingness to forego the idea of job security entirely. And getting your great idea for a series made? It’s not too far removed from camel and eye of needle territory.

Underneath these blithe and innocent remarks is the lack of understanding of how hard it is to write, to get something published, to get something produced. And how much good work gets very close but for various reasons doesn’t ever make the cut*.

But no one is forcing writers to write, right? So why do so many of us turn up at the page** day after day, year after year.

For me it is, despite its many frustrations, amazingly satisfying work, work that consumes me and feeds me in a way no other work can.

And this is true of every stage – in the before, at which point characters and ideas are gathering and thickening. And you are working just by staring into space, or cooking, or walking.

During the during. A sentence feels complete***, and ‘right’, a metaphor, original. You put something on the page that makes you laugh, or cry, or gives you goosebumps. Or an edit starts giving you the flow you were looking for way back in first draft days.

And in the afterwards, when a book leaves you and starts its own life, it is a seductive idea indeed that your book may land in the lap of a reader who needs it. Just this book at just this time. For me, writing for younger readers, there is inside this notion also an element of writing to my younger self. It is so lovely when a reader gets in touch to tell you how much they enjoyed the book. It is the very definition of job satisfaction.

*Different entirely is the person who has written a manuscript or a screenplay. They’ve done time – fellow inmates.

**’Turning up at the page’ is Julia Cameron’s great description of the work: this act of faith that you’ll have something to put on the page.

***Yeah – I know – ‘During the during’, for example, is not a complete sentence. I like little unsentences, too. And I have my own ideas about complete.

(I was really in the mood for a bit of grumble and asterisk, and I think it was because builders’ noise woke me up at 7 o’clock. And that’s not the time for a Saturday to start. The photo was taken after Christmas in Prague)

18 responses to “grumbles and asterisks”

  1. cath Crowley says:

    I love this post because writing is so very hard at the moment. But I am turning up at the page. I love the idea that I’m writing to my younger self.
    Keep grumbling. It’s given me a little push to stay at the page today.

  2. Great post Fiona.
    Yes, being a writer is an all consuming passion. We sleep it, walk it, talk it, dream it, cook it, shower it, love it. The brain doesn’t switch off even when we are reading someone else’s book, or watching a movie.
    But we wouldn’t give it up even if we could.

    • fiona says:

      So true – ‘even if we could’ – it’s addictive. But a day out of my head would be nice every now and then!

  3. claire says:

    I had the new man in an old friend’s life try to compliment me recently. It started well…’I think it’s a great thing you’re doing’…but finished particularly badly…’even if it’s only writing for children.’

    There is no answer to that. None that will keep you your friend anyway. I discovered an urgent need to be somewhere else…

  4. Kirsty Murray says:

    Great post, Fiona. I’ve got seasonal resistance (not writer’s block) at the moment so felt a little guilty stab about ‘turning up at the page’ as I’ve been flakily AWOL. Thanks for the nudge.

    • fiona says:

      Thanks, Kirsty. I do love Julia Cameron’s ideas about writing, the ‘morning pages’ is another thing come back to every now and then.

  5. I like your post very much for saying up front what goes into writing, and also what comes out — hard work, it can be physically and emotionally draining, there’s achievement but also disappointment, and it’s weird when those two feelings rise up at the same time. Though whenever people have made those comments to me, not all the time but sometimes I feel they are being apologetic; apologetic for not having done something they have really wanted to do, and sometimes what they are expressing is their admiration of you for sticking to it without the promise of fame or fortune, maybe?. I have to admit those types of comments are annoying, but they also slide into feelings of frustration, and that my ‘advice’ I guess, has been to say, ‘just start, the someday is now, and take it slow’, though I think that always comes across as flippant and not serious. That said, I think retirement is a good time to start writing, and that it’s almost like a natural thing to do at that stage of life, I think it was… well, either Campbell or Schopenhauer, maybe both, who said that when we look back at the life lived, it is a symphony, every note is the right note. Even younger generations, I think, feel this need(?) to make a record of some sort when they see their parents retire and get older, and I think it’s part of all cultures, because it a legacy thing, leaving something behind of depth and meaning. When I think of it, so many books get written at that late stage in life. Anyway, that’s my two cents for the week. I’m taking Six Impossible Things away on holidays next week; looking forward to it.

    • fiona says:

      Raffaele – I’ve probably generalised a bit in the post, because I do agree with you that retirement can be a wonderful time to start writing. And people like Elizabeth Jolley and Rosalie Gascoigne come to mind as artists who started very late in their respective fields and did the most amazing work. The thing that bugs me is the lack of understanding implicit in some of these comments about the requirements of the job – as though anyone could dash off a book if they just had some spare time. In fact, I think being older and having some life experience helps – it gives you a richness of context that you can’t have until you’ve strung a few years together. I like the advice of ‘someday is now, and take it slow’, and I think it’s sad for people who do have a serious wish to do something creative and don’t give themselves ‘permission’ (for any number of reasons) to give it a shot. Thanks for visiting, and have a great holiday!

  6. Raffaele Caputo says:

    I didn’t think you were generalising; just wanted to add some notion of humility, admiration, frustration as part of the mix. What I like is that you’ve said it neat – no rocks and no chaser – writing is a job, and a tough one at that, and writers, especially in today’s world, cannot afford to be dilettantes.

  7. Alison says:


  8. Thanks for this post Fiona, I’m so stuck in the”during the during” rather than the writing at the moment and it’s nice to hear that others feel the same sometimes. Congrats on your short list too!

  9. Diem says:

    OMG!!! Your book is on the shortlist. AHHHHHHH! Congratulations!

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