At some point in my childhood I announced that I wanted to be a writer. I usually say I was seven years old, but this may be apocryphal – the age to which defining moments are regularly attributed. However, I do remember completing some four-line stanzas about fairies, and announcing my intention to my mother. In my memory this was before I moved to a new school, in a new area, which was shortly before my seventh birthday.
At that point I had no idea what it might mean to be ‘a writer’. Certainly I had never met one, except through books. To me, writers were mysterious beings. If pressed, I might have said that they lived in the country somewhere. I don’t know why I thought this. My experience of the country was almost as limited as my experience of writers. Perhaps that was why, in fact. Writers, those mysterious beings, lived somewhere I didn’t. If pressed further, I might generously have given them each a cottage, with a garden, and a typewriter. A typewriter was the most professional writing instrument I knew – my mother was a typist. Typing was a complicated, slightly noisy and messy process involving carbon paper and tippex. Most writers would have had stained fingers. But I didn’t really concentrate on this. The writer of my imagination would live in her cottage producing her books. Or rather, vast sheaves of paper which would be sent out to publishing firms (even more mysterious – I had no concept of what they were). To other people, therefore, who lived at some distance from the writer, whose job it was to turn those inky sheaves of paper into books. There was no interaction between the writer and these invisible people, apart from the fact that at some later point they would send the writer a copy of her book, and distribute all the other copies to bookshops around the world.
There was something effortless and seamless about this process. Magical, even. Books to me were magical things, and that was the way magic happened, without effort or pain.
It was part of the magical process that books were passed from writer to reader, and from one reader to another. That I, a seven-year-old girl, might find in a second-hand bookshop, a forgotten story such as Naughty Sophia, by an author whose name I can’t remember, and read and re-read it until it fell to pieces. And then grieve for it, because I never found it again. I knew nothing about the author, but the story lived in me. For a while, when I was reading it, I was Naughty Sophia, because it is part of the magic of reading that it extends the boundaries of the self.
This anonymous transmission is essential to writing. It is a form of communication that transcends the personal. Jung might have called it a communication with the collective. It has an apparently random quality. The work of some long-dead (I think!) writer who may have lived in an entirely different country, can find its way onto the bookshelf of a little girl and enter her imaginative world. Helping to shape her dream of becoming a writer.
No writer wants to be read solely by people he or she knows. The work has to go out there, it has to travel. While the first part of the writing process can be done independently (you just need a cottage) the second part requires the intervention of others; editors, publishers, readers. Even if you are going to self-publish you may require the services of a proof-reader, designer and the mysterious machinery of e-book publishing that has been invented by someone else.
At this point, therefore, the writer ceases to be autonomous. They submit their work to the publishing process. And if we look at the different meanings of the word submit:
- To give or offer something for a decision to be made by others
- To allow another person or group to have power over you
- To accept something unwillingly
We can see why this point is fraught with writerly angst. The process is no longer as effortless, seamless and autonomous as it appeared to my youthful imagination; the creative output is subjected to scrutiny, criticism, and, most painfully, rejection.
Of course, now that I am very much older, I can see that my notions of autonomy were illusory. Inspiration and influence may come partly from life, but also, inevitably, they come from books. Books that have already been published feed the imaginary world of the writer. So it seems that he or she is, at the most intimate level, dependent on the publishing world.
There are other components of the writing urge that didn’t even feature in my original vision; the desire for attention, recognition, money, that propel the writer out of his or her ivory tower (cottage garden, terraced house or bedsit) into the world of publicity, marketing and shameless networking.
No writer is an island.
So far, so obvious. And none of this is a problem, so long as we are happy with the course of our writing careers. At a guess, however, I would say that the number of writers who are happy with their writing careers can be counted in a very short time indeed. There are the writers who are trying, without success, to place their first novels, and the writers who have published several books but who have never had major sales, who now find it hard to publish their work. There are writers who have had major sales in the past, but these have gradually dropped off. And there are those writers whose last book sold brilliantly well, and may have won awards, who fear that their next novel may not live up to expectations.
In my own case, I have been writing and publishing for some thirty years. My latest novel is finished and sent off. It wasn’t contracted, I have no steady relationship with an editor or publishing firm. I am therefore experiencing (again!) the part of the process I find most difficult; the agonising limbo of waiting to see if anyone will pick it up. Will it find the right person who feels a sympathetic response to my story, or will it just lie unread in the inbox of editors who have checked my sales history first? And, how long will it be before I find out?
If it is never published, will I pick myself up, dust myself off, and start all over again?
Is it important to carry on writing, and if so, why?
That, my friends, is the purpose of this blog.