Do You Have To Be A Selfish Bastard To Be A Writer?

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.

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14 Responses to Do You Have To Be A Selfish Bastard To Be A Writer?

  1. Sam Kirshaw says:

    Ah! A fascinating revelation and one all writers will recognise. I was intrigued by your anonymous guest writer on your course. From your description I can guess who it is and confirm that not only is he arrogant but a plagiarist and a cheat who came to prominence on the back of other artists’ original work. In no way would I wish you to follow his unethical path to a Booker!

    • claudia says:

      Ooh, Sam, I don’t know if that is the person I’m referring to. I’d be really surprised if he was a plagiarist. He’s probably not as bad a person as I make him sound (furious backtracking!), but a lot of successful people do seem very prone to disappear up their own backsides. ; )

  2. Jan Hopper says:

    Interesting Claudia ! I don’t think your guest was particularly representative of writers ……………. just of selfish people ! 🙂

  3. Sam Kirshaw says:

    Maybe not. The one I am thinking about won with a comic novel in the last ten years. Not so much a selfish bastard as a thieving bastard.

  4. Sam Kirshaw says:

    Another selfish bastard, then. Sorry for the confusion. We need to be self-centred to write but not necessarily selfish!

  5. Marina Sofia says:

    I think the difference is that women feel guilty about neglecting the family, while men usually don’t. My husband’s idea of ‘entertaining the children’ is very often that of benign neglect (him on the laptop or tablet, them fending for themselves). As for when he has work to do… well! While I may close the door occasionally or say ‘Not now, please’, but then I always try to make up for it afterwards.

  6. Andrea Muir says:

    Ha! Ha! Claudia – He was a ‘d**k’ wasn’t he?

  7. Andy Wilson says:

    Would endorse the other comments here, especially Andrea’s one referring to a certain part of the male anatomy!

    But Claudia, how can you say you will never win the Booker? Certainly, it’s an exclusive club, but not THAT exclusive!

    To return to the original question, no you don’t have to be selfish to be a writer, just focused. Perhaps selfish people have a built-in advantage, but even that’s debatable. Presumably selfishness also filters out stuff like empathy too. Apart from social convention (perhaps?) there aren’t any rules about when we should or shouldn’t write. Much the same as a career, or a passion for participating in sport, it’s a lifestyle choice. We fit it around partners, children and important others as best we can. Even if we never publish, it doesn’t mean our work is any less valid than a Booker Prize winner (and some of them are total tosh).

    • claudia says:

      Hi Andy

      I think Booker winners generally need to be especially original, be it on the technical or content side, and carry some moral or ethical weight too. Maybe not.

      I agree empathy is critical for a writer so pure selfishness won’t work. Being focussed is a much better way to describe what’s needed.

  8. Richard MacKay says:

    Your response or maybe more of a reaction to this writer is somewhat compelling for me. Your argument, though engaging weighs in decidedly for me on the more critical side, so I can’t totally agree. I will state, though I’m sure you’ve gotten it by now, “I am an American”. Hopefully, you see me in a more positive light.

    I recently read a beautiful book by the Celtic author John O’Donohue – “Beauty – Rediscovering the True sources of Compassion, Serenity, and Hope”

    Here’s a quote that speaks to my inner self critic: (I’m not sure if it will speak to you or if it’s an exact quote)

    “Your Sacred Flaw – Seeing the beauty in your flaw”

    Where is my sacred flaw? (Flaw= a fixed point of vulnerability)
    Open to your flaw
    Embrace your flaw with graciousness
    “Perfectionism is the enemy of results.”
    See your problem as an opportunity

    Yes, for me, the practices that you mention for a writer to accentuate: empathy, openness rather than selfishness, and focus are good feedback for us newly emerging writers. I also know that wisdom’s voice says to me: “What I see out there in others, may be something I have to pay attention to in myself.”

    I wish I could say what I want more briefly. I hope that I made my point.

  9. Pingback: Why Being (a Little) Selfish Might Be the Best Thing You Do for Your Writing | Aliventures

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