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Perhaps a case of not what you do, but what you are

My text for today is a piece by David Barnett upon the process of writing (and specifically ‘writing advice’) that appeared recently – see here for the link – upon the website of – THE INDEPENDENT

It’s a worthy read because it has plenty to say, it’s humble and honest and it details many of the myths and frustrations that beset all those who from time to time try to string a few words together for the wide array of different reasons that they do – not least the old cliché ‘because they can’ (or indeed ‘because they think they can’).

We’ve all been there.

I should begin with the usual admissions – I’ve got the T-shirt, I’ve tried to write, I enjoy the act of writing (I do it most days) and yet, conversely, I hold few illusions about my talent for the skill. I even took out a subscription to Writing Magazine in the early 1990s which I have never cancelled but, as a matter of routine whenever it arrives every month, I rarely do more than flick through its contents in five or so minutes and then consign it to the rubbish bin.

The bald and uncomfortable truths of my existence are that I have never read much for personal enjoyment and I have a particular aversion to fiction – well, bar the occasional exception that proves the rule.

I guess this is because I hold a healthy disrespect for my fellow writers (professional or amateur).

Why read something someone else has invented when you could be out there writing something similar yourself? I much prefer histories, biographies and diaries. At least with those you might learn a thing or two about how the world goes around.

Stop me if I’m now writing something that you’ve read before but about twenty years ago there was a collection (anthology) of diaries and letters called something like Each Returning Day – its ‘thing’ was that it, for each day of the year, it had chosen two, three or four extracts from diaries recorded on – or referring to  activities that occurred upon – that date.

Sometimes they’d be decades, or even centuries apart and the topics recorded ranged from war, romance, gossip, political intrigue or some mundane household activity that they chose to record, right through to an individual’s death, a reflection upon life and all those things, small or vitally important, that contrive to form part of it. The variety of the topics and even the variety of things that just happened to have occurred upon any given day in the year, all added to the impact of the contents.

The introduction to said volume analysed the motivations that prompt people to write in the first place.

Mr Barnet’s article covers some of them. To make money. To record their ‘take’ upon – or promote the importance of their own contribution to – historical events. To leave a record of their life hopefully for the amusement or education of their descendants. Or (and the editor of Each Returning Day cited Samuel Pepys as an example of this) simply because they had a compulsion to record what they did. You could tell Pepys was a sufferer of this syndrome because the more he did, the more he had to write it down.

We each have our own motivations. In a nod to Pepys, there’s a bit of a ‘compulsion to record’ in my make-up. But not because one day – as Woodrow Wyatt allegedly pronounced “If you keep a diary, one day it may keep you”.

I don’t put metaphorical pen to paper to make money or as a means (hopefully) to achieving fame and fortune. And I certainly don’t subscribe to the ‘10,000 hours’ rule – i.e. the notion that sheer graft can make you a world class anything.

I strongly suspect that my livelong lack of interest in the simple pleasures (whatever they are) of handling and reading a book has contributed to my lack of appreciation of culture and art generally.

Surely the act of systematically exposing oneself to work of the great writers of both the past and present must enhance your innate ‘feel’ for not just words, phrases and the near-infinite possibilities of language but also the flights of fancy and fantasy that the human imagination can sometimes can conjure out of nowhere?

I wrote and published a book once but never kidded myself it made me a writer. Afterwards, probably because I’d at least got that far, people sometimes used to ask me what I was writing next, presuming that I had embarked upon a new career. That was never the case. My motivations never included the desire to be a writer or indeed the delusion that anyone but a lucky (and possible talented) few could make a living as one.

I’d go so far as to say that I’m not sure I’d want to be a writer even if someone guaranteed me enough future fame and fortune to satisfy any man if only I kept at it.

You might say I’m lucky in that I write only because I have a compulsion to write and enjoy the process.

I don’t get a buzz from the thought that someone else might read what I write and enjoy it. Or even might pay me to do it.

I don’t care about that sort of thing. I know that because – apart from the proof-reading, about which I have an unfortunate fetish because my attention to detail is highly-flawed – I very rarely go back and re-read what I’ve written in the past. My attention is all in the moment and the present.

It’s a bit like that old saying that “Today’s newspapers are tomorrow’s fish & chip wrappings” – only, of course, these days they probably aren’t because our Nanny-state PC-brigade activists would probably have something to say about the health and safety aspects of it!


About J S Bird

A retired academic, Jeremy will contribute article on subjects that attract his interest. More Posts