grumbles and asterisks
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)