Sometimes I hate myself. As soon as the last entry was posted I saw and disliked its flippancy. “Cosy up to the greats”?? [Top Tips for Novelists (2) January 14th]
Here’s the thing: remarks we might throw out without a second thought in conversation do not sit well on page or screen. They don’t know how to fade, or modulate. They lack humour, or proportion, and worst of all, they refuse to leave. This is one of many pits that open at our feet when we enter Blogland. I wanted to cut the phrase straight away, but then decided to let it stand, as a reminder and a warning to myself. And look, the subject of another entry.
Why the angst? Here are two reasons, to be going on with:
Ernest Hemingway: “Once writing has become your major vice and greatest pleasure, only death can stop it.” (Paris Review Interview, 1958)
Dorothy Parker: “If you’re going to write, don’t pretend to write down. It’s going to be the best you can do, and it’s the fact that it’s the best you can do that kills you. I want so much to write well, though I know I don’t, and that I didn’t make it. But during and at the end of my life, I will adore those who have.” (Paris Review Interview, 1956)
The painful honesty and truth of these two statements make me blush for the crass, offhand tone of the cosy up to the greats remark. It’s hard to imagine many writers in this age of self-promotion (facebook, twitter and yes, dear reader, blogging) who would be willing to reveal such need, such a naked sense of failure. Or who would reveal it with such style. But the effect on a reader – well, this reader, anyway – is one of grateful recognition. There is forgiveness in such admissions, and more humanity than any amount of cosying-up deserves.
There are so many reasons why reading the work of the great and the good is important. Let’s see: there is the work itself, the sheer, unadulterated pleasure of it; infinite worlds to enter and explore; glimpses of the art of the possible; masterclasses in craft. And that’s just for starters.
Just as important, maybe even more important, is what they give us in letters, interviews, essays on writing. They show us what writing means to them, the challenges they face, how they tackle those challenges, their frustrations and their joys.
One of the many gifts of reading is that it gives us a pass to sit in a corner and listen to what these writers have to say, even when they’re dead. If we choose, we can have breakfast, lunch or dinner with them. We can take a coffee break and meet them anywhere, at a time and place of our choosing. We can take them to bed, and if we turn to them in the middle of a sleepless night, they’ll stay with us til morning and not complain, not even once. The only price we have to pay is our attention – and look at all we stand to gain.