When I started posting here again after a long gap, it was because I was coming to the end of writing a novel and I thought this might be a place where I could reflect on the process of beginning something new. And beginning something new is definitely what I feel I should be doing. So where’s that should coming from? What’s the compulsion to write?
Samuel Johnson said that no man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money, and so far no one’s made me an offer I can’t refuse. More often than not, writing fiction is a speculative activity, and not one that’s likely to make you rich. The upfront costs are minimal (a room of one’s own being handy rather than essential) but that means anyone can have a go, so there’s a lot of competition out there.
And if I’m not sure what to write next, why not put my energy into some day job or other until the writing mood takes me – next week, next month, next year? A few reasons come to mind.
Because if I’m going to call myself a writer, I ought to be writing.
This is partly about building some career momentum, but it’s also personal. I know people for whom being Irish is crucially important, or Jewish, or working class, and I’ve never fully understood the importance of those attachments, perhaps because I’m a half this, half that, lower-middle, upwardly-mobile, ex-something or other. But I feel like a writer, and once you’ve found out what you are, you should probably be that thing.
Because if inspiration is the solution, first you have to pose the problem.
For the ancient Greeks it was the breath of the muse. After Freud we’re less likely to think of it descending from the gods than rising from the unconscious. I’ll go with that, though not with Freud’s notion of the id as a seething chaos of anarchic impulses. I once thought that the role of the unconscious in art was to provide the formless raw material that the conscious mind must craft into a coherent shape. Then I actually wrote a novel and discovered that a surprising amount of crafting goes on while you’re asleep or otherwise occupied. I also discovered that some days you have to write rubbish so that you can wake up next morning knowing how to fix it.
Because I’m happier when I’m doing it.
The thing about writing a story is that it takes you into some other place. The particular thing about writing a novel is that it’s a place you can spend months or years constructing around you. No doubt there’s an escapist element to that. But there’s also the appeal of being repeatedly challenged, by the logic of the narrative, to write about things you would otherwise have avoided, or to try ways of writing you thought were beyond you. At some point, in other words, you stop having to push and you start feeling pulled.