When I grew up I wanted to be a proper writer…


From Olivetti typewriter poster, c.1969

by Jenny Diski

‘All pens are filled with potential’. So begins an advertisement in the Guardian newspaper for its ‘new idea’. The paper is offering weekend masterclasses in creative writing and publishing, taught by novelists (‘discover the novelist within’), historical fiction writers (‘Historical novels have been riding high in the best-seller lists of late. Fancy writing one of your own?’) and editors (‘Getting your novel published’). Ink, actually, is what my pen is filled with, although the ink has dried up in my best ever pen (a Pilot Decimo, the only fountain pen that has a retractible nib like a biro so doesn’t have a lid to lose), and I need to soak it overnight in water to get it back to having any potential as a pen at all. I don’t write anything other than notes with my pen, but I do have a longstanding writer’s fetish for the objects that might be considered to be relevant to my trade.

My longing for a typewriter began when I was 7 years old, and that’s what I got for Christmas. It was called a Petite Typewriter, and was a toy, which wasn’t really what I wanted. It was supposed to work but it didn’t, not properly, it kept getting stuck, and my disappointment was so palpable that it was the worst Christmas I can remember. I tried to pretend I was happy with it, but my unmissable ingratitude ruined the day. My mother screamed, my father shouted, there was weeping and gnashing of teeth. Awful. I had to wait until I was sixteen before I got a real working typewriter: one of those sit-up-and-beg, black shiny monsters, a proper machine, which I bought second-hand, and loved as people are supposed to love the person with whom they have their first kiss. All typewriters are filled with potential.

Why did I want a typewriter so badly for so long? Because as far back as I can remember, I wanted to be a writer (a reporter, a novelist, a poet? Anything that involved sitting at a desk putting words or the world in good order). I think I believed at seven that what I wrote – a diary, perhaps, a story or a journalistic report on family life – would be more like a real book if it was typed. I was clear even then that writers had to have typewriters, I can’t remember exactly why. Films probably gave me the image of a writer as a figure tapping out words on a contraption. Clearly, pen and paper are far more portable and flexible (until my beloved 11inch Macbook Air came along), but a typewriter (and later a computer) would somehow ground me into a being I wanted to be. It settled me in a place and in a position of work. I wanted to be a professional writer. I never saw writing as an activity done reclining, ladylike, on my bed or pacing the romantic hollows of Coleridge’s Quantock hills and valleys.

Nevertheless, the typewriter was only always only an adjunct. I knew perfectly well that the potential had to come from me. The machine just made me feel more like a grown-up writer – I knew exactly what I meant by that: authoritative in my use of language and thought in a way that would convince me (and secondarily any readers I might have) that I was indeed A Writer. I’ve been striving for that since I was seven and I still don’t feel I’m there and doubt now that I ever will be. I keep trying, and that, as well as having to pay bills, is why I keep writing. But I worry sometimes about what would happen if I ever believed I’d achieved it. If I ever woke up one morning convinced that I was the writer I always wanted to be, and not always falling short, what would I do? Very likely never get out of bed again. Or be someone entirely different. That might be a relief of sorts, but I’m too old now to go out and get a proper job.

I have never thought of writing as ‘creative’. I’ve wondered constantly if I had any imagination, or ability, or talent, or anything to write about, but I’ve never used the word ‘creative’ to describe anything I do (apart from lying). ‘Creative’ is not a word I can use even to myself without embarrassment, and placing in distancing quotation marks. Yet the quite recent marriage of ‘creative’ with ‘writing’ has brought very large amounts of money to universities and colleges who institute such courses (almost all of them now), and it secures a livelihood for many writers who, like all of us, are finding it increasingly hard to live from their own work. It isn’t just the Guardian; Faber and Faber, a publishing house of great repute, now has the ‘Faber Academy’, which offers courses tutored by its own writers and staff for  large sums of money. Finding your inner novelist doesn’t come cheap.

University courses, especially the most desirable ones, also and crucially offer the opportunity to network. Students are introduced to professional writers and, much more importantly, literary agents and editors. I’ve been to one of their ‘network’ parties and it was grim. Students eyeing up your usefulness, getting speedily around the room. Perhaps the creative writing course will eventually become the only way to get published – why read manuscripts on spec when you can get them from your students who are actually paying you to tell them what you want them to write? Why write on spec when you can pay for a course to ensure that someone close to the business will read and assist you with your manuscript? The creative fiction writing/travel writing/screen writing/life-writing/nature-writing courses now offered are an important new income stream for newspapers, publishers and universities, all of whom are suffering devastating losses in their businesses and grants. Is it good for aspiring writers? For some, I imagine. Those who are good writers anyway will benefit from the time, space and editing expertise, while those who aren’t will produce something they will be told they can be proud of, and, if the PR is right, be poorer but apparently more satisfied with their lives. They’ve discovered their novelist within even if no one else will. What is more important than self-fulfilment, these days?

And here’s my problem. Why, since I’m living the dream with 17 books published, and a 25 year career as a writer, do I not feel fulfilled? All I wanted was to ‘be a writer’ when I grew up. I am. However, nothing about writing and being published has fulfilled me, justified me, or made me feel better about myself – but then I never thought that writing was supposed to make me feel better about myself. The satisfaction you get is ten minutes in the bath feeling relief that a manuscript is finished and sent away, and then it’s all anxiety about what didn’t work in the last one and whether you can make the next one more like the book you really wanted to write. But I admit that my vision of being a writer is just as – actually more – romantic than those who pay good money to be taught to write and get published. My daydream of writing comes from a time (the 1950s and 60s) when angst was in fashion, when writing was angelic and crazy. Dostoyevsky, Joyce, Beckett, Duras, the Beats, they all anguished about writing, as if it was the most important thing a person could do. It was a vocation, the writer was the monk, the nun, who devoted themselves to the written word, to extracting some sort of special insight about existence from the combining of discrete letters of the alphabet. It was a dogged quest that was conducted by keeping as still and alone as possible. Something to live and die for. Both at the same time, always. And that was the writer I wanted to be. It is, as any modern publisher will tell you (and has told me), a hopelessly sentimental view of the literary world. But I did know people who lived that sort of life, who were published in spite of selling only a few copies, because their publishers were excited about what they did. They didn’t make much or even any money, and they weren’t mobbed in the streets. They didn’t, unless they were poets, go about doing readings or book signings. They didn’t figure which genres they should write according to market demands. They didn’t attend focus groups (as novelists have done recently) of ‘ordinary readers’ set up by publishers to ask chapter by chapter how they were doing and what should be altered. They just wrote and worried.

Nor did they win prizes – apart obviously from the Nobel (‘Catastrophe,’ said Beckett when he was told). Early on in my writing career, I said to my then publisher that I didn’t want to be entered for prizes, not the Booker, certainly not the Orange Prize for women, none of them. I hated the idea of being in competition with other writers, of books being judged winners or losers by committee. I was told that they wouldn’t publish me unless I changed my attitude. Prizes are essential, even more now than then. They are in fact the only lifeline left for ‘literary’ writers. Publishing houses, like any other business (and they usually are also several other businesses, including in some cases arms dealers) are interested in profit. I am repeatedly told that. They will not spend money on publicity or lay out between £20,000 and £80,000 for a good spot on the front table of bookshop, unless they are certain the product will recoup the investment. The supermarkets and large distributors tell publishers what will and won’t sell. If yours is deemed one that won’t, no one will know you have a book out unless you get some reviews; bookshops will buy a single copy but won’t display it, and the only hope you have of getting sales is if you go head-to-head with other writers and manage to beat them or at least get shortlisted. The public love a race, they might take enough interest to buy a copy of your book. Writers become winners or losers in the eyes of publishers even if they admire your writing in the old fashioned way that publishers used to. If you don’t play the game or don’t get shortlisted your shelf-life is up.

I’m told that this is fine. That books are a market like everything else. Even young literature undergraduates have told me that a book which doesn’t sell is, by definition, not a good book. Popular books that please and don’t demand too much of readers once subsidised new non-bestselling writers. Now that doesn’t make economic sense. Why wouldn’t you engineer more bestsellers and make more profit? Though it seems a shame to me, I can’t say that the books that won’t be published would necessarily have improved the world. Perhaps it’s not a tragedy, but I’m grateful that I had the opportunity to daydream about being a writer, before the world became more sensible.

Piece crossposted with This and That Continued