Thursday, 12 November 2009

Why Not Simply Live?

Why write at all?

Why closet oneself away (or worse go out somewhere, then wilfully ignore your surroundings) and weave patterns of unreality when there is so much to be seen and experienced?

Put another way, what makes someone a writer? It has been said that writers write ‘because it isn’t there’ – every work of fiction Fiction Books is an attempt, conscious or unconscious, to recast the world in a mould closer to the writer’s ideal. Or to colour the world the colour of the writer’s darkest nightmares (an even more obscurely-motivated action). Whichever, it bespeaks a certain dissatisfaction with the way the world actually ‘is’. A writer has other worlds and other people calling, worlds and people which somehow seem more important, for a period, than anything the ‘real’ world has to offer.

This could be applied, of course, to reading—and by extension many forms of entertainment, from TV to playing Farmville on facebook. This is a turning away from reality, also, a plunge into a sub-world that bears many resemblances to real life but carries none of its responsibilities. And (almost) everyone does this...for relaxation, for relief, for diversion.

The act of writing is at once similar and very different. It is an act, a conscious effort (and what an effort, sometimes). So why do it? What is about that world beyond the world that draws us so powerfully? Hemingway said about writing daily that ‘when you stop you are as empty, and at the same time never empty but filling, as when you have made love to someone you love. Nothing can hurt you, nothing can happen, nothing means anything until the next day when you do it again.’ I know that feeling. There is something about this recasting of the world that reconciles us to it in some powerful way; somehow fiction Fiction Books is, for some of us, an essential way of dealing with reality.

Martin Amis said good writers must be innocent; I would go further and say that for good writers writing is a way of rediscovering their innocence, reconnecting to the world and their perception of it. Done right, it is the ultimate working meditation. A true religious experience: the creator’s. And because it involves that effort, the rewards are much greater, if occasionally more slow-burning, than those of the more passive acts of relaxation.

The short answer to the question why write is ‘because it’s necessary’. That’s my answer; even if I’m not physically writing, there are characters, scenes and situations playing themselves out in my mind. They never go away. These characters present themselves as if they are real (I once caught myself wondering what a certain character of mine would think of how I was behaving), and the act of transcribing their reality becomes a way of connecting to what common sense would call ‘reality’, a way of mastering it and understanding it—and most deeply, of appreciating it.

Why write? Because it is an aid to living.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Make it count

Writing is a luxury. Reading is a luxury. Curious things for a writer to say? Stories may go back to the Palaeolithic campfires, but when they were told then the day’s work was done; any crisis was past. That is no longer the case. A tragedy or a triumph, if it is of sufficient magnitude, is all around the world in minutes. Famine, disease, crime, war: we know, we can see, that these things afflict real living people every moment of every day. And this is without even mentioning that the ecosystem is in a state of potentially disastrous flux. Everywhere there is suffering, every week brings a new crisis.

And we sit and write, we lounge and read. Is there anything we can say to ourselves that justifies such self-indulgence, such apparently wilful negligence of real problems?

I don’t know the answer to that. I have 1700 books in one room, more than I can ever read in the time I have left to live—if I want to actually live as well. Averaging out their value, every single one of those books could provide money to save a human life, somewhere in the world. (Let’s not even go near the DVD box sets…) How can I even hesitate, if I can pick up a collected volume of comics and know that it’s worth four or five human lives?

Stories are part of our human makeup, it could be retorted; literature is a treasury of the human spirit, a repository of inspirational dreams and salutary nightmares. We require myths, ancient and modern, in order to better understand the world and ourselves. We need fiction: even the lightest, most superficial works provide relief from the harpies and furies of the world, giving our hearts and minds essential rest before we plunge back in. And writers need to nourish their work; we need the stories of others to stoke the fires of our own inspiration. Fiction Books

Perhaps this is the crux. I look around at the books I have collected and know that at the time each one seemed essential, served a purpose, if only for some tangential aspect of research. If I am to justify these acquisitions, it must be through the work that they support. In an age when people starve almost literally in front of my eyes, if I can break away from my desk to get a biscuit, I had better be fucking certain that what I write when I come back to that desk (too busy usually to even attend properly to the taste of the food) is worth the effort. Dig deep, mine the very depths of your experience and your imagination, write true, make it good—make it count.

Raymond Chandler said we’re competing for beer money, so we have a duty to make our work gripping, entertaining. If we write with our eye on everything the world is, everything about it that demands our attention, we have a duty to do much, much more.

Fiction Books