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Because it’s there (not because it pays)

Sometimes, when you’re casting around for something to blog about, you can receive a helping hand from a traditional media outlet or vehicle. Today this happened for me when I came upon a blog by Ros Barber that appears today upon the website of The Guardian, giving her opinion on the experience of being a writer and dealing with the world of publishing.

It seems to me to make some interesting points about personal expression, life as it can be lived in the modern world of lightning-fast communications, social media and maybe also something about the human condition.

Follow this link to read it for yourself – THE GUARDIAN

From one perspective or another we all have our own personal takes on the ‘Nature versus Nurture’ argument and indeed, of course, the ‘10,000 hours’ rule of practising – the theory that didn’t so much launch a thousand ships (Helen of Tory-style) as decimate a thousand Norwegian forests in producing books and articles over the past decade.

Even basking in the wake of England’s rugby Six Nations Grand Slam last weekend, their Australian head coach Eddie Jones was referring to a book by an American coaching great that identified ‘mind-set’ as ultimate the key to winning and improving. Being ‘good enough’ was not good enough. What separated the true greats from the ordinary was an unquenchable desire for improvement.

One assumes that, in a rugby context, playing for your country is a height of ambition. How many of us would have loved to have been talented and lucky enough to jog out onto the Twickenham Stadium turf in our England tracksuit tops, stand shoulder to shoulder with our team-mates for the anthems, and then take part in a clash with Wales in from of an 80,000 crowd and maybe 5 million television viewers? I know that in one life, if I could have had two or more of them, I would.

But – the point that Eddie Jones was making – being satisfied with playing just one international doesn’t make anyone a great.

Why? Because of that old chestnut that the only limitations we have as human beings are those that we place upon ourselves.

Let me put it another way. I might have been the happiest man in the world if I’d possessed the wherewithal to win the Wimbledon men’s singles title just the once – indeed, had I managed it, I’d have probably retired immediately, simply because of the huge likelihood that my tennis career would be downhill all the way from there.

Which makes me instantly different from Bjorn Borg, Roger Federer and Nova Djokovic (and the rest) who have won Wimbledon multi-times. They weren’t satisfied with winning the once – they wanted to improve, to go to the next level, to attain immortality maybe.

Here, of course, I could hide behind the excuse that I’m just not that greedy a person. However, the reality is that by harbouring the ambition to win the greatest prize in tennis just the once, or by being satisfied with just the single experience of running out to represent my country at Twickenham, by definition I was already flagging to myself (if not the rest of the world) that I didn’t have what it takes to go on and spend a long sporting career striving to reach ever greater heights of excellence and achievement.

It’s the same in every avenue of human endeavour.

writerIn the past decade or so our weekend television schedules have been filled with a plethora of reality-talent shows – such as Pop Idol, The X-Factor, The Voice, Britain’s Got Talent to name but a few – in which panels of supposedly successful music industry producers or performers ‘discover’ and then mentor talented members of the public and – if they win the contest – give them an opportunity to get a leg-up in the music industry with a recording contract and/or – in the case of Britain’s Got Talent – appear in that annual entertainment charade The Royal Variety Show in front of Her Majesty The Queen and/or some other hapless member of the royal family.

The conceit and the catch in all these programmes is one and the same – that out there in the world (okay, in Britain in our case) there are shoals of potential show-biz ‘greats’ quite capable of match or emulating those we have already, save for the fact – whether caused by circumstance, chance, Fate and/or perhaps just simple lack of opportunity – they hadn’t yet been spotted. Even those, like me, who are tone deaf and could not play an instrument to save their lives, can be attracted by the prospect of watching those who can being snatched from obscurity to ‘make it big’ – or indeed, the alternative, watching those poor deluded talentless drongoes who pitch up to audition and duly embarrass themselves in front of us all.

However, the true reality is that – by and large – we all end up where our individual combination of talents and application deserves.

In musical terms, truly great talent manifests itself early and usually gets spotted and nurtured. I’m thinking of artistes such as Stevie Wonder (or Little Stevie Wonder as he was when he had his first hit aged 12), Amy Winehouse and Adele. You could add a thousand singers or performers of your choice.

In statistical terms, the chance of a similarly-great singer remaining undiscovered into their twenties – let alone thirties or forties – is infinitesimal.

In football, you could cite the likes of Pele, Messi, Ronaldo – or even our home grown David Beckham or Gareth Bale.

snoopyI’m now at last coming to the subject of today’s post – writing.

The process of creative writing is a strange and wonderful thing. Almost always it is a solitary practice. A weird mix of invention, imagination and sheer slog. But in other ways it is no so very different to other pastimes.

Some great writers – presumably, because I don’t know any personally myself – are born that way. If asked to develop one side of an argument on paper (it wouldn’t matter which one) they could probably do it naturally better than you or me. Similarly, if asked to describe a room, or feelings, or report upon a meeting or concert, they could do it better than most.

Then we can add in the ’10,000 hours’ factor. Without doubt, the development of ability in the skill of writing comes from practice and then more practice. Scriptwriting is not called a craft for nothing. The plotting and the structure of a film or play – an aspect as important as the innate quality of the writing – can come from inspiration, but it can also come just as often from applying hard-earned experience and the writer’s knowledge and understanding of the technicalities that go to make things ‘work’.

I don’t know these things for sure because I don’t read that many books from cover to cover, but I suspect that critics (both professional and amateur) would testify that you can be a greater writer but poor at plotting – just as you can come up with great storylines but be plodding creator of writing or dialogue. As someone once wrote somewhere, any young subaltern could have dabbled in schoolboy doggerel – and then ended up in the Western Front trenches – but that doesn’t necessarily of itself qualify him as a WW1 war poet, let alone a great one.

So let’s be honest about these things.

Some writers are born great, or are given a facility with words that perhaps – in another time and place – would have been the equivalent of Lionel Messi’s skill with a pig’s-bladder sphere. They write because it’s a wonderful form of expression and (they cannot help it) they’re good at it.

Just like the embryo Amy Winehouses or Adeles of the music world, almost certainly those writers of greatest quality will get ‘spotted’ by literary agents or publishers and become part of the ‘writing establishment’.

writingMost of the rest of us will be scrabbling around in the dust. Whether this is just because that’s all we’re good for, or because we ‘haven’t been discovered yet’, we may never know.

As Ros Barber points out in her piece, statistically, as a route to security and great wealth/luxury, writing – just like acting – is well down the list of career opportunities whose percentage chances are worth taking.

Being bombarded regularly in the media with the latest doings of J.K. Rowling or E.L. James (Fifty Shades of Grey) within their Sunday Times Rich List entries dangling around their necks … or having opportunities to read about or witness the great Hollywood stars as they sashay down the Awards red carpets … does little to detract from the gruesome fact that (what shall we say?) 98% of writers and actors barely scratch a living at their vocational craft or trade.

Most of us who sit at a computer screen banging away on our keyboards – being ordinary mortals – accepted long ago that wealth and celebrity was beyond our reach at the pastime. We’re just doing it because we have a compulsion to record our thoughts or daily lives.

That’s quite different from being good at it, of course. Not that this stops us putting it out on the internet, along with the other 10 billion sad souls doing likewise. We do it because we can.

About William Byford

A partner in an international firm of loss adjusters, William is a keen blogger and member of the internet community. More Posts