Lesson one: being a writer is not such a bad life

Terence Blacker
Saturday 22 October 2011 23:20

"SHOW, DON'T tell," creative writing teachers habitually instruct would-be novelists, but recently our more established writers have been showing and telling as hard as they can manage, wailing in heart-breaking fashion about the many and various cruelties of literary life.

The novelist AL Kennedy has revealed details of her writer's block, while the Poet Laureate Andrew Motion has opened his yearly accounts to Mslexia magazine, revealing the problems that even he has in earning a living.

Personally, I'm more concerned about Kennedy. "I am not in good health and don't sleep," she has written. "I have a rather averagely broken heart and no more need for my flat or for its study, because I don't write. I'm a writer who doesn't write and that makes me no one at all."

In this state, she sat on the ledge of her fourth-storey window and prepared to jump. Only the sound of a much-hated folk song saved her. "I can't face jumping while the bloody thing is being sung."

You will have spotted the flaw. How do we know all this? Because Kennedy wrote her way through her block to complete a new book, On Bullfighting, at the end of which she is back in her flat, sad and wordless once more.

As she would be the first to admit, getting stuck is part of the novelist's life. The letters and diaries of the great writers groan with the difficulties of creation. "I want to howl and foam at the mouth," wrote Conrad. "I am dried up," confessed EM Forster, when he finally and definitively "went smash", as he put it. "Not in my emotions but in their expression. I cannot write at all."

But now authors no longer wrestle with their demons in private. Like a drink problem, a criminal record or a marital disaster, going smash has become an interesting and promotable dysfunction. "AL Kennedy has spent much of the year crippled by writer's block," The Observer solemnly reported, as if the difference between a stuck novelist and someone truly, physically crippled were a matter of mere detail.

It's a tough business. After a couple of novels, two short story collections and some non-fiction, Kennedy is short of things to say. So what? The difference between a serious, complex novelist and a hack is precisely that words do not come cheaply. Publishers tend to ignore this fact, pushing novelists to churn out new work every year, but that is clearly not Kennedy's problem. Very much the purist, she apparently refuses to read newspapers, hates TV and believes that most of the popular media is aimed at a "mythical mass of putty-brained money addicts, or sex-and-substance-abusing CJD victims".

Here is where her argument impinges upon Andrew Motion's self-expose. By supplementing his writing income with earnings from teaching, talks and the putty-brained media, the Poet Laureate exemplifies the way all but a handful of professional authors are obliged to earn a living.

These compromises are not necessarily harmful; novels or fiction may even usefully feed off them. Who, for example, would lay money that JD Salinger, unsullied by the outside world for decades, has, behind his locked doors, been producing better work over the last 30 years than the busy part-time journalist John Updike?

Maybe it would in fact be good for her writing if Alison Kennedy were to expose herself now and then to the popular media - perhaps even contribute to it now and then. A regular column in these pages, for example, might ease her block and usefully supplement her income in the Motion-approved manner.

In the meantime, those creative writing teachers discussing the cases of AL Kennedy and Andrew Motion may like to remind their students that, if you can avoid going smash or going broke, being a writer is not such a terrible life.

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