“Being a writer” is a very appealing identity. No extraordinary skills are required, and the initial investment is small – just a pad of paper and some pens. Musicians have to learn difficult things like sight reading and playing an instrument. Artists need a ton of expensive equipment and (as with musicians) their creative product is judged instantly, the moment it is seen or heard. People will say “Like it” or “Don’t like it,” and that’s the end of the matter.
A writer, by contrast, can be finishing a novel or working on a poetry collection for years, or even decades, with virtually no overhead expenses. Nothing can be judged until the end, which may never come. The writer’s ego and identity are safe as long as s/he refrains from publishing anything, rather like the character Bradley Pearson in Iris Murdoch’s novel The Black Prince who is always on the verge of writing his masterpiece.
I must have been dimly aware of these advantages when I seized on the idea of being a writer at about the age of fifteen. At school my writing was praised, although nothing else was, and I was addicted to reading. It always seemed to me that the written word was a kind of talisman. There was something more reliable, more substantial about it than either speech or images.
At that impressionable age I acquired an ancient Underwood typewriter, which seemed to give my words a greater significance, and I developed an absolute fascination with print. A toy rubber block printing kit, then a crude duplicator allowed me to reproduce my words again and again. When I started work as a very junior reporter at the age of sixteen I was able to visit the printing plant and watch my words being reproduced on great rolls of paper before my eyes. I was hooked.
Just below the surface of this excitement was the sober knowledge that my words were not worth reproducing at all. I was writing sketches, humorous stories and essays, all of them now mercifully lost. The material was feeble, and I longed to do more adventurous, more dramatic things so that I could write about them. But there were few opportunities for a schoolboy in the London suburbs to live like Hemmingway or Robert Louis Stevenson.
What I learned from all of these early explorations was that there’s no magic in writing. The magic is all in the thinking. There may well be great writers (composers), gifted with superb sensitivity and technical skills, but who have nothing to say – and contrariwise.
There’s also no magic in being published. A lot of writers have unrealistic expectations about how it will change their lives to be “in print.” This may be true if you hit the critical jackpot with a first novel (for example). But in general publication is just a step – a slightly embarrassing step if you see flaws in your work afterwards! The excitement fades. Now I scarcely even glance at my old writing, printed or not.
But I pressed on, becoming more realistic every day. As a very junior journalist I learned to write and edit as I was instructed. There was no dramatic breakthrough, but then I hardly expected one. It was just a pleasure to write, and test all the different forms. From time to time a magazine or newspaper would take one of my freelance pieces, but I didn’t break through into books until a university teaching position gave me the necessary prestige (another important lesson). Then, ironically, I had to unlearn everything I had learned about clear and concise writing and adopt the autistic, involuted style of academic discourse. Now with eight books and many hundreds of published essays I suppose I can call myself a writer, tho’ in my own mind I was a writer from the moment I learned to use that old Underwood typewriter.
The age of print may now be over, but not for those of us who lived through it.