Pep Talk

“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.

Simple as.

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?

Do you?

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5 Responses to Pep Talk

  1. medea999 says:

    So true Lia. All those little obligations we surround outselves with, many of which could be dispensed with, are the enemy of creative promise. I try to dispense with them myself. Sometimes I succeed. Sometimes I fail. But it’s true what you say: we have it in our gift to do just what we want and should be doing as writers.

  2. Luz Mar Gonzalez-Arias says:

    Lia, a million thanks for this posting. It is such a pleasure to read you, in whatever form (fiction, essays, blogs …).
    Two things came to my mind as I was reading you:
    1) Yes, we should write the books only we can write. Originality, care. Our stories and characters. Our poems. Yet, sometimes I read a poem and I say to myself: “Wow, I wish I had written this becasue this is exactly how I feel. Thisi s exactly what I had to say”. So, although we do have an individual voice, we do have books inside only we can write, sometimes it also looks as if nothing was new under the sun, as if many of the stories we have inside had already been written . Sometimes I feel frustrated when I find that something I am writing about has already been done, and very well so, before.
    2) Turning aside from other duties is a big struggle, indeed. I understand that bit of your posting soooo well. I remember talking with our common friend, Eithne, about attending book launches and conferences and lectures and round table discussions. She said then that she couldn’t bother any more. But sometimes, I said, and she agreed, you get energy out of those other commitments. Because writing is a very isolated activity and sometimes you can get discouraged and feel like giving up. Seeing other people who are on the same boat may help. I have always found readings and launches very stimulating and energizing. I guess the challenge is to draw the line somwhere and to lear to say “no”. Writing, of whatever kind, demands time, isolation and complete focus.
    Sorry if I ramble too much but i was so interesting in what you said. I am struggling myself to get organised and have time for my academic writing and also for some poems that keep knocking on my door and that demand time. I am not sure I will make it! Sigh!

    • libranwriter says:

      TIme is such a problem – aways running out on us, like an unruly teenager with a better party to go to on the other side of town. But I think the bigger problem is when our attention is divided, and it’s even worse when you have competing deadlines to deal with – especially with something like teaching, which comes with recurring deadlines and responsibilities attached. I think that’s what I liked about this bizarre flash of insight – it really hit me that the stories and ideas any of us might want to develop and explore will die with us, or be lost as memory fails, when we get older; that our characters depend, absolutely, on us for their existence. If we don’t deliver them to the page, no one else will. No one will even know (or care) that they’re missing! It makes a difference if you add them in to the general equation, and consider that they have urgent and justifiable claims to make. The good thing about it is that their interests coincide with ours … Maybe this is all just semantics, but I found it useful.
      I think there are rhythms and cycles of working as well – there’s a time to retreat from outside stimulus and a time to go out and look for it. This time of year is always great for the going-in phase. Hibernation. Sounds like a solution to our various political nonsenses, doesn’t it? We should just become the hiber-nation, and come out to play when the bitter winter’s over. (Yes, I know: Hibernia. Indulge me a little.)
      And write those poems, Luz.

  3. Maya Hanley says:

    Oh My goodness, if ever there was a perfect message for me to read today it was this one. I am just about to start on the second chapter of my memoir, after delays and procrastination and saying yes to too many things other people want me to do. Thank you, thank you, thank you. You said what I needed to hear, right here, right now. I am so happy for you that you had this Damascene moment and shared it with me!

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