The Sad Truth About Writing

There is a sad truth about the struggle to earn a living as a writer, and it is something that has been - exercising - me. That's probably the right word. It exercises me, usually at four in the morning when, to quote Marian Keyes, I wake up to have a bit of a worry.
This sad truth is that eventually, whenever you get a modicum of success, you know full well that you've been there before, all too many times, and it means very little in terms of your future ambitions.
Let me try to explain what I mean, because I don't want to sound cynical or unhappy or ungracious. I'm none of these things. I love writing. And I don't have many regrets.
Way back in the 1980s, I can vividly remember the phonecall from Philip Howard, the artistic director of the Traverse Theatre, in Edinburgh, telling me that he wanted to direct Wormwood, my play about Chernobyl, in the coming season. I can remember the elation, the sheer happiness, the feeling that I had finally arrived. There were other times: my first book of poetry, the notification that I had received an Arts Council bursary, finding an agent, finding a publisher for my first novel, winning a couple of major awards for radio plays. Then there was the film company who were interested in my idea for a television series about a group of unemployed Glasgow men, who got together to become male strippers. I'm not joking. That was years before the Full Monty, it was called They're Lovely and They Dance and I still have the scripts. We had meetings in One Devonshire Gardens in Glasgow. They were enthusiastic. I wrote and rewrote for no payment. Then, of course, nothing happened.
The sad truth is that for all but a tiny minority of writers (and it is infinitesimally small) each success is not some kind of milestone on the route to somewhere else. Most of the time, for most of us, in the long run, it makes no appreciable difference.
Wormwood had excellent reviews and there have been other extremely well reviewed plays. The Price of a Fish Supper was one of them. I still send plays out to no response. The Curiosity Cabinet was shortlisted for a prize, published, was well received, sold out. As I write this, there isn't even a single second hand copy available on Amazon. But I still can't sell the next novel, Corncrake. I could cite many more examples, but I won't bore you. There is no progression, no real continuity. Some you win, some you lose. That's just the way it is.
Which means - and this is the good bit - that it is the work itself in which any satisfaction must and indeed should lie. The immediacy of the work as you are writing it is what is really important.
I think I always knew this, or why would I have carried on writing?
But I don't think I saw it so clearly as I do now, with a modicum of age and wisdom.
All the other stuff, the stars, the ratings, the competitions, the cv only matter a little. The occasional payment is nice. It's good to get stuff out there. But you should never, ever write what you don't really want to write, just because somebody says it will look good on your CV.
Write because you truly, madly, deeply want to do it. Or failing that, write for money.
If you can manage to do both at once, you are one lucky person.
But believe me, in the long term, to write what you don't much want to write, solely because somebody tells you that it will be 'good experience for you' is probably useless, and will finally prove vexatious to the soul.


Sherry Austin said…
What you have said is absolutely true.