When I was growing up, my father used to say that deciding what you were going to do with your life was difficult, because it was very hard to tell from the outside what a particular job would be like, day to day. Things which looked fun – like being an air hostess – often weren’t. I was a bit bemused by that, because I’d never thought being an air hostess would be fun, but in any case I knew what he really wanted me to be was prime minister, and we both agreed that that would be fun. All through primary school I was going to be the country’s first female prime minister, but when I was fourteen Maggie Thatcher beat me to it, and I had to think again.
I’m not sure whether I heeded my father’s warning before settling for a career in medicine, but he was certainly right that it was hard to tell from the outside what that was going to be like. And these days, I could say the same for writing.
All the time I was practising medicine, I longed for a spare hour to write in. I filled many boxes, in those pre-computer days, with story ideas and fragments of would-be novels. My idea of utter bliss was to have nothing to do all day but string sentences together, and when I had to stop work half way through my first pregnancy I rejoiced at the opportunity to get started on my grand novel of life. But all too soon the baby arrived – a joyous event, don’t get me wrong – and soon after that I was back at work (and, indeed, I’d realised the grand novel of life really needed a bit more material).
It was many years, many babies, and many medical jobs later before I found myself again in a position to devote some concerted time to writing, and it didn’t disappoint. I went on an Arvon course one summer (with that first baby, who was sixteen by then) and spent a glorious week with like-minded people, and was convinced all over again that spending your days stringing sentences together really was the best possible thing to do.
But here’s a funny thing: as I’ve migrated from being a doctor who aspired to write into a writer who used to be a doctor, the amount of time I get to spend stringing sentences together hasn’t gone up much. Partly because life is full of other demands and commitments, but mainly because Being a Writer isn’t the same thing as writing. At least not in the sense of raw, something-from-nothing, you-and-your-pen (or your keyboard) creativity. That’s part of it, but only part.
So what do writers do all day? Is it as much fun as it looks from outside?
There are the things authors need to do to get published, of course – researching agents and publishers, crafting synopses and introductory letters, entering competitions and submitting to magazines. There are the things authors need to do to get read – tweeting and writing blogs, doing readings and interviews, making websites and sweet-talking local bookshops. There are the things authors need to do to stay sane, like reading what other people have to say about writing, and what other people have written.
But what I’m really talking about is the complex business of what goes into writing, say, a novel. The preparation, the revision, the setbacks, the bad days and indeed bad weeks. It reminds me of sailing: the stringing sentences together bit, the sheer pleasure of letting the words flow out onto the page (or the screen), is the bit when you’re in the middle of the bay and the wind has filled the sails, and you’re hanging onto the ropes and the rudder but mainly filled with the exhilaration of whipping along, slap-slap through the waves, and the sound of rushing air and water is loud enough to block out everything else. Those are the days when you keep a smug tally of your word count, and you can see the total creeping up and up like a Blue Peter appeal, and you feel you’re really achieving something. This is the life, you think. This is what being a writer is all about.
Well, yes. But before you can get to that point there’s the boat to procure, the location to find, the painstaking setting up of all the kit and caboodle – sails and ropes and life jackets and what have you. And then there might be no wind, or too much rain, or you might misjudge the direction you set off in. You might capsize, or run aground, or realise, when you’re some way from the shore, that you’ve forgotten the centreboard or something equally vital. And even if you do manage a wonderful day on the water, there’s all the sorting out and clearing up to do afterwards, when you’re tired and windswept and badly want a hot bath: all the business of trolleys and tarpaulins, a lot of wet gear and cold people and nothing in the fridge for supper.
All of which is not intended to be dispiriting; rather the opposite. Because as any sailor will tell you, all the preamble and aftermath is worth it for those hours of pure joy – and they wouldn’t be possible without the hard slog. And because actually, if you’re a true sailor (or a true writer), lavishing care and attention on your boat, refining the rigging, scraping the barnacles off in the winter is all part of the fun. Dreaming about sailing when you’re not doing it is all part of the fun, and looking back and analysing what you could do better next time is too.
So Being a Writer isn’t just a matter of getting down so many words a day. Sure, there are times when there’s nothing to stop you racing ahead, but there are also times when you need to think, or reread, or delete – when the novel is gestating, or when you’re getting your head round a major edit. Sometimes the best days are the ones when you have one breakthrough idea about a character or a plot twist, or get one troublesome paragraph right at last. Taking pride in all that is very much part of what writers do. And (unless you have a particularly ferocious publisher on your back) no one but you is totting up your words or assessing your productivity at the end of the day anyway. Those moments of flying free, whipping down the page, might feel like what it’s all about, but in terms of job satisfaction, it makes a big difference if you can see your way to enjoying the careful labour of mending your nets (OK, I know I’m a bit off metaphor here) and scrubbing your decks. And, indeed, if you can manage not to be too hard on yourself on the days when you get the wind direction wrong and end up back where you started.
This piece first appeared on We Heart Writing