My supervisor at the uni has asked me to speak to a class about ‘The Writer’s Life’.
Everybody likes talking about themself. Anyone who tells you they don’t is lying, or trying to sound modest. You don’t have to be arrogant to talk about yourself. Our memories, hopes, desires, hurts and successes are our most precious possessions and to pass them on to others and see them experience that through our words gives us a primal joy. The greatest way to talk about yourself is in a way that is designed to help, grow, warn or express love to others. So I’m not worried about that. I’m worried about the content. What do I tell a group of aspiring writers? How do I treat that fragile, beautiful, elusive dream that is the artist’s life?
You can crush a writer’s hopes so easily. We’re emotional people. We listen, reflect, dream and wonder unlike any other species of artist. Unlike visual artists, we paint in symbols, sounds, tones and shapes in two colours only: black on white. Unlike musicians we sing in silence and rise and fall through artificially constructed lives and worlds, not notes and beats and voices. It takes a different kind of mind to do what we do, and a group of those special minds are going to be trained on me.
What do I say? Most of you will never show your work to anyone outside your immediate family. You will write it, love writing it, cherish its characters and wander its halls and alleys, and then you will put it away somewhere dusty and dark, and there it will live until its pages crumble and ink smears and eventually it is thrown away. Some of you will forget that childish desire to escape into your fantasies and turn your love of words to news, magazines, blogs, television, and tell the stories of others, forgetting your own. Some of you will drop the dream all together and give your stories to your children in lamp-lit rooms years from now, and in a way they will live on through their words to their own little ones.
Some of you will push your stories out, however. Share them, change them, build them, tear them apart, obsess over them until they are polished beyond recognition: something you began that escaped you and turned into a beast with its own mind. Some of you will fight, and beg, and pray, and scream, until you hunt down and convince those who share your love of the lives you created, those people with the power to lift your work up, to let it fly free.
What happens to your art, whether it’s printed and sold and carried by strangers on trains, or whether it languishes in the back of your mind or the back of your drawer, relies on so many things. Your patience. Your heart. Your determination. How you wrote it. Where you wrote it. When you wrote it. Who you wrote it for. But before all of those things, before the thing was anything, before your fingers set to the keys and the words started spilling out of you, you had a desire: the writer’s desire to tell the story. And where ever that came from – god, the wiring of your brain, your need to escape, your upbringing, your boredom or discontent or sadness or relief – it is unique. My desire to write, the need that thrives in me, that has always been there and that I grow a little each day, is the greatest gift I have ever been given.
Gratitude for that gift, I think, should guide you.