“You should write the books that only you can write.” (Pat Barker)
When I quote this observation at workshops, students make dutiful notes, even though I suspect some of them find it about as clear as glue. To me, it’s always been obvious that Barker is talking about ownership and originality. She means that the books you write should be books that no one else could write. Why else would they be worth writing?
Exactly four years ago, I was discharged from hospital for the third time in a series of admissions relating to treatment for mouth cancer. I’d been brought in by ambulance a week earlier, so ill and weak I didn’t have the energy to care whether I’d leave the hospital alive. I didn’t know it then, but that admission would be the last in a series of difficult corners I had to turn. The road to recovery that lay ahead was long, but essentially straight. The engine that would carry me there was writing.
During my recovery I wrote a book about the illness (In Your Face). With every day that passed, I knew how lucky I was to be a writer, because I could work at my own pace. I didn’t need anyone else to give me permission (or pay me) to do it. I could write when I felt strong and stop when I was tired. I didn’t have to get out and do battle with public transport or commuter traffic or weather. I didn’t have to deal with office politics or personalities. I could turn up for work in my pyjamas, fall asleep with a problem and wake with a solution. No one (except my editor, who never seemed to mind spasmodic bouts of delirium) had to invest in me to the point of choosing to employ me over someone else, or gamble on my staying power or ability to focus, or worry that, if my energy failed, someone else would have to take on my work in addition to their own. In those days (?) I was pretty much unemployable in conventional terms, but I could still write. Besides, no matter what else was true, one fact was undeniable: no one else could write that book. If the pubishers wanted it at all, they had to take their chances on my ability to deliver. Meanwhile, every word I wrote restored my belief in the possibility of returning to an active, strong, capable self, a life after illness. Writing was as valuable and necessary to me as the units of blood I’d been given in hospital, true vampire-at-Hallowe’en that I’d become.
There’s a lot to be said for work like this, work that will stand by you when you need it most. Work that is absolutely yours, rather than being in someone else’s gift. Especially now, surrounded as we are by stories of redundancy, unemployment and under-employment, the frustrations of young people unable to support themselves, the creeping return of emigration. Writers are lucky. We don’t need anyone else to make it possible for us to write, to take us on, or keep us. Reaching an audience is another matter – but hey, we’re online here, aren’t we? Getting paid is a whole other can of worms, but I’m not here to talk economics. Not today.
What’s on my mind is this: the corollary of having work that is in no one’s gift but your own is that the work depends, for its existence, absolutely on you. Work that will stand by you no matter what deserves at least the same loyalty in return, no matter what other insistent claims are made on your time and attention.
A few weeks ago, on my way to a committee meeting (one of many) I had a Damascene moment on the northbound platform of Dalkey Dart station. There I was, one foot on the platform, one on the train, one part of my mind reviewing the agenda, another going over the other things I had to do that day: visit a friend in hospital, a report I’d promised to write, writing up the minutes of this meeting and whatever follow-up actions it would require, emails waiting for an answer: requests to give workshops or do readings, to set up other meetings. When, I wondered, would I get back to my actual, my real work?
At that point, a new voice stood up in my head, distinct from the familiar, warring litany. It spoke in a clear, furious voice. What are you doing? it demanded to know. (If a voice could have hips, that’s where this one’s hands were. If it had feet, they were stamping, for emphasis, on my toes.) Don’t you get it? If you don’t write the books you want to write, they won’t get written.
There was standing room only on the train. The whole way into town, its rocking, swaying motion drove the message home, drumming it into the soles of my feet and on up through knees, hips, spine to rattle around the base of my skull: You are the only person who can write the books, stories and essays you want to write. You are the only …
Is this what Pat Barker really meant? You should write the books that only you can write – because if you don’t, they won’t get written.
This might not matter much to the world at large, but it matters to me, and it certainly matters to the characters who depend on me for their literal existence. The force of the realisation was every bit as shocking as if those characters are real, because they are, to me. The only chance they have to escape my cluttered mind and have an independent life on the page is if I do my job and get them there, safely and with a minimum of fuss.
I resigned from that committee, although I did agree to stay and see a particular project through before I left, because it was important, and not just to me. It is important that certain things get done, and sometimes it’s important that we are the ones to do them, but the graveyards are full of people who thought they were indispensable. There are plenty of people who can sit on committees and write reports, but there’s only one person who can write the books, stories, essays and characters that live in my head, just as there’s only one person who can write the ones that live in yours. The question is, do I believe in them enough, do I care enough, to turn aside from other things to write them?