Saturday, 21 April 2012

Settling down to write (1): playing truant

The girl is my mother, the dapper man is her father (who died long before I came along). The photo was taken in the 1920s in Bridlington by, I think, a beach photographer. They’re on holiday. She’s as happy as can be; he, though he’s keeping it under his hat, is no less proud.

Hers wasn’t a particularly churchy family, but they were Methodists, and she always jokingly, but half-seriously, blamed her strong sense of duty – work before pleasure, even though this meant the latter might be endlessly deferred, and putting others’ needs before her own – on her Methodist upbringing. For good or ill (both, probably), I’ve inherited some of that. Others who’ve known me at certain times will laugh, but it feels to be so, and it has coloured, even shaped, my own habits of writing.

Between the time I left university, early 1970s, and 2005 I was in full-time 9-to-5 employment. Writing was something that got done in the interstices, in the small hours – an activity that took place in despite of the official timetable. I’ve been freelance since 2005 but even now never a whole day, rarely a half-day, is given over to writing, which still gets itself done in the gaps – between the hackwork jobs that pay the bills, between the shopping and the cooking and the regular putting of food on the table. The latter (thank you, mum) is the real work, and comes first.

Writing has been a way of playing truant from the work of the world, or the way the world works. Other than the very occasional book review, I’ve never written anything to commission, certainly not poems or stories, nor do I think I could do so – it would be a job, which is what writing isn’t. Last year I went to a writers’ place on an island in the Baltic where I had nothing to do for a whole month but write, and I came home with a few paragraphs, no more; the rest was walks by the sea, saunas, talking, watching films – in other words, in a situation where I’m supposed to be writing, I play truant even from that.

At the time I started, writing-as-playing-truant was the only way on offer. Painting, sculpture, the other arts, were different: there were art colleges, a support network built into the system. Writing has now caught up: you can do BA degrees, MAs, PhDs, in creative writing, and then you can go on and teach others. Writing, you could say, is now a profession. This isn’t a wholly bad thing. I missed out on a lot of good things that writing students now get: exposure to a wider range of literature, chances to play around and mess up, influences, inspiring teachers, the daily company of others for whom this thing, writing, is pretty damn central. But for me the term ‘professional writer’ remains a contradiction in terms.


Matthew Francis said...

Increasingly I find I can't write except when I am supposed to be doing it, professionally. That's why I love retreats, such as Hawthornden. One effect of that is that the off-the-cuff poem has almost disappeared from my writing: I write projects now, not one-offs. So I've become a writer of long poems and sequences. I don't really mind that - it's natural to change over the years, in response to changed circumstances. But I miss that tingling feeling that used to accompany an unexpected poem.

charles said...

Habits of work, creating the conditions in which, from past experience, one knows the writing is most likely to flow . . . But also openness, surely, to the muse (bless her, and her little cotton socks too) turning up as and when she will, without having booked an appointment.