A few years ago I went on a residential writing course. Whilst there, we were visited by a well known and rather brilliant writer, who went on that year to win the Booker Prize. He read to us an extract from his prize winning novel. It was fairly stunning. He was, however, a supremely arrogant individual who put the backs up of many people on the course, not least the tutors. He began his reading by saying, ‘You too, one day, could be standing here where I am.’ It seemed a patronising comment because a) he was unnecessarily pointing out the chasm between us and b) the way he said it made it sound like he didn’t for a moment believe it to be true.
He told us a little about the life of a writer, the necessity for withdrawal and isolation and dogged determination. He told us tales of family holidays when his wife and kids frolicked outside on the beach or in a sunny garden while he drew the shutters on his room and remained indoors for the duration, ensconced in his writing. He told it as a story against himself: ‘I might be a great writer, but I was a shit husband and father.’ The implication was, if you’re serious about writing don’t expect to be popular, or even to fulfill your most basic familial duties. This writer wasn’t really castigating himself. He was congratulating himself. He either didn’t believe his absence had caused his wife and children to suffer greatly, or he simply didn’t care.
My children are used to finding me hunched over my computer in the study and, if they enter, being asked rather sharply, ‘What?’ followed by, ‘Not now.’ My extended family and friends are used to my phone not being answered at certain times of the day. Perhaps I would feel less guilty if my work were salaried employment somewhere outside the home. Perhaps then, also, I would be more actively present when I was at home. Writing is an insidious activity. It can creep into every aspect of your life. I can be writing when I’m cooking tea. It is possible I am never fully there.
What separates me from the distinguished author on my residential course is that I can absolutely guarantee I’m never going to win the Booker Prize. It’s quite likely I won’t even get published. What does this mean in terms of my compromised commitments to other areas of my life? Is it less justifiable to dedicate myself to writing if I’m not successful? Is there some sort of moral pay off, whereby recognition and acclaim make up for negligence? If I set my stall by being a writer and then ‘fail,’ does that mean I was wrong, arrogant, or even immoral, to have tried?
Of course, there is a balance to be struck. I don’t neglect my other duties ALL the time. Honest. And I think those close to me benefit in other ways from my writing, not least because I am engaged in an activity which fulfills me. I am not a selfish bastard, but in the pursuit of any dream, or career, there has to be an element of selfishness.
When that illustrious author stood before us, perhaps he should have thanked us for giving up some of our valuable writing time to listen to him.