Over the past couple of days I’ve ended up doing a lot of waiting. Over two hours in a train station on Sunday and in a hospital all afternoon yesterday (don’t worry, I’m fine). And, being as I usually have no time to think about much at all I used that time, waiting, to think.
At some point I was thinking about what it means to be writer. What people might think that means Vs what it is. I said on Facebook, almost in passing:
Writing advice: be a writer because there are stories you need to tell, not because you want to be a writer. Stories come first, always. Especially before us.
Writing is pretty simple when you look at it for what it is. You make stuff up and write it down and wing it and work hard at making it into something worthwhile. And then, if you’re lucky, someone else enjoys it or buys it or publishes what you’ve written.
You will only ever be a writer if you let stories, or poems, or whatever it is you write come first. It is not about you. Not about you being ‘a writer’. And even if it was wouldn’t you rather be known as that person who wrote the brilliant BOOK than Bob the Writer.
I never did this job for admiration or to look cool or interesting or bohemian or clever or anything like that. Fortunate really because I don’t think I could carry any one of those things off. I like stories. I like telling stories. They are important – they’re culture, they’re identity, they’re education and freedom and escape. They’re fantasy, they’re comfort. They’re microscopes, flies on walls, excuses – they’re things to talk about at work. They’re anything you want them to be. And I love that I’m lucky enough to be playing my own small part in all of that.
So the motivation for writing (in my very humble opinion) should be story. Maybe it’s one that’s inside us and is dying to burst out. Maybe it’s something we want to explore. Maybe it’s answering a question or maybe it’s asking one. Maybe it’s because we love to make characters up, to hear their voices, to see something new. It doesn’t matter. What matters, over and over and over is story – and that desire and that respect to appreciate it and to get it out in the best way we can and not being egotistical enough to let us stand in its way. It shouldn’t be because we want to use ‘writer’ as a tag. (And I do meet those.)
Back to being a writer then. Here’s the thing. Sometimes, it’s the best damned job in the world. We get paid to make stuff up and we get to have our names on book covers and sign them and read from them and feel important at events and seem interesting at parties (not that I’m ever invited to any). We are lucky.
For me, one of the genuinely best things in the history of anything is when I hear I’ve made a stranger cry through my stories (and hopefully not because they’re shit). That I’ve been able to affect anyone that much through something as simple as through a bunch of well-ordered words is a brilliant feeling. It means I’m doing my job well.
But that is only such a tiny little part of the job – sometimes it’s a bit pants and tiring and frustrating and poorly paid and really, really hard. Those good bits only come once we’ve been lucky enough to have written something good – and I worry, sometimes, that that’s the bit that gets overlooked.
I can get a bit suspicious of people who want to be a writer because they think it sounds interesting (or will make them sound interesting). Often it is interesting. Often I’m not though. Often I’m a bit boring. And that’s not a criticism. I think I spend more time doing dishes than writing some days.
What’s interesting, for me at least, is looking at how the process of writing doesn’t really change. For me, it’s pretty much as fun as it was when I first started out, and just as difficult too. I think I worry more about my stories now when I’m shaping them and I’m not sure if that’s because my standards are higher or because I’ve had more experience or, most likely, because I’m still terrified that, one day, I’ll be found out as someone who makes stuff up and writes it down and wings it as best he can – because that’s all that writing is, really. But that process is still the same – and it’s the same for me, ten or eleven years on from first being published to anyone just starting out.
If you want to get into this game you only need a few things. You need good ideas, your own good ideas. You need to be able to make them into good stories. You need tenacity and a thick skin because not everyone will like what you do and you need to remember that that’s fine because you don’t like everything everyone else does and it’s nothing personal. Integrity and passion are good things to have too. You need to be professional. And you need to remember that there are people like me (and many far better people) waiting to champion you and to help because WE CAN NEVER, EVER, HAVE TOO MUCH GOOD STUFF TO CHOOSE FROM. Believe me, if it’s good there’s room for it. It’s not a competition. Don’t ever think that just because mine’s published yours won’t be. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise (if they do they either don’t know or they’re trying to be clever).
So there you have my rambling, tumbling thoughts on things. And stuff.
So some advice again, from someone who works hard winging it and pretending to know what he’s doing and who you should probably never listen to even if your life depended on it…
Basically: write for your stories, not for yourself. And mean it. Really mean it. The rest will come.