When I was a child, I decided I wanted to be a writer. I don’t remember when or why, exactly, but given that I was a prodigious reader, it is not hard to guess that it was when reading one of my many books. I graduated from kids’ books to adults’ ones early on and the first efforts at writing that I can recall were action-packed detective stories filled with adventure and car-crashes.
Two weeks ago, I was invited to an international school here in Phuket to talk about being a writer. I was reluctant to do it because I have little to say on the matter. In fact, I have never liked talking about writing. As a child, I hid my writing and hid the very fact that I wanted to be a writer. It seemed, somehow, shameful. As a teenager and then as a university student I did the same, telling no one that I secretly wrote novels, short stories, poems, essays, and screenplays.
I agreed to the classroom visit only because my friend convinced me that her students would be really interested, and I knew that my childhood self would also have been delighted to meet with a real live writer. I prepared a few things to say, but from the moment I walked into the room I was bombarded with questions from eager twelve-year-olds. They really were curious, as my friend had said. They wanted to know everything, and for an hour and a half I answered their questions as best I could.
One girl said she was about halfway through writing a book on orcas and another boy had written a novel of some kind. I was impressed, but what interested me most was that they really wanted to know was how a writer could get enough words on paper to make a book publishable. “My book is only 73 pages,” the young novelist told me.
That made me smile and took me quickly back to my own early efforts. I remember trying to write a novel about a secret agent who lived in a refurbished plane in the Scottish highlands. I wrote and wrote and wrote… but when the story was about halfway done, it was only 10 pages long. The same issue plagued every other serious literary venture I embarked upon for most of my youth. It seemed a mystery to me how anyone could pad a story out to fill a 300-page paperback book.
Nowadays I find it harder to cut my writing down… and anyway, I don’t write much fiction. My last book was about Allen Ginsberg’s travels and before that I wrote about William S. Burroughs’ interest in Scientology. I’ve written a few other books, too, but when it comes to making up stories, I just don’t have the same imagination I did when I was young. If I do come up with a story, I can’t picture it in my head like I used to, and so I can’t put it down on paper in a way that a reader would be able to interpret. I wish I hadn’t lost all that, but maybe it will come back one day when I least expect it. For the time being, I’m happy writing literary histories and the occasional guide to English grammar.
One small girl at the front of the classroom, whom I think was younger than the others by at least a year or two, asked me an interesting question. She said, “Do you love what you do?”
From what I said at the beginning of this essay, I suppose it would seem that writing is a lifelong passion of mine. However, it is not a passion, really. It was, once upon a time, something that triggered a certain romantic feeling inside me. It was my calling in life, and maybe it would be my way of leaving my mark upon the world… Through university, I read all the great writers and learned about their often tragic lives, and it seemed that was what I was going to do. After graduation, I set out into the world pretty much in that fashion, determined to succeed as a writer.
In my early twenties, I read voluminously and wrote almost every day. I read everything I could get my hands on and tried writing in every style. My own personal writing style morphed with the influence of the writers whose work gripped me — the sparse Hemingway prose jarring me out of my long Kerouacian sentences before the vitriolic Gonzo diatribes got to me. I wrote novels and articles and did my best to get everything published. I kept nothing to myself.
Years later, when my wife left me very suddenly and my whole life fell apart, I tried to write myself out of the depression that ensued. I wrote day and night, and when I wasn’t writing, I was editing the work of other writers. Over the previous few years, I had gained some success with my first major book and a host of well-received articles and essays, and now I fired off article after article after article. From eight in the morning until five in the afternoon, I sat at a desk and just wrote. The words were not a joyous outpouring nor were they particularly healing. They were just a distraction.
At some point in the middle of this, I began writing crap articles that companies would pay me for. It was easy work but the going rate was abysmal. Fortunately, my cost of living was very low, so I was able to cover all my expenses through my various written works. For the first time in my life, I could call myself a professional writer… and for the first time in my life, I hated writing. I was competing for jobs that meant nothing alongside people who didn’t know where to place a comma, and the job more or less went to whoever would accept the lowest compensation for the most work. My writing skills, honed over two decades of practice, meant nothing because the people employing writers didn’t know what good writing was, nor did the readers or the Google algorithm which we were essentially trying to impress.
Soon after that, I stopped writing.
When that little girl asked me if I love what I do, I had to pause for a moment. I had promised myself before going into the classroom that I would not be negative about writing. I would not stand up in front of this group of eager young faces and say, “Do anything except write! Save yourself and find something that has a future! This world doesn’t respect writers!” It was not the right thing to say, even if it was reasonable advice in this climate.
Nowadays, writers are just not valued by our society unless they are writing shallow, derivative novels or sensationalist, sarcastic tripe that feeds into our outrage culture. There are so many books on sale nowadays that no one will read that novel you wrote unless you somehow get it reviewed in a major publication, and even if you get an article published somewhere, it will be forgotten in forty-eight hours, a victim of our goldfish-like, net-addled memories. Most websites don’t make enough to pay their writers now, and those that do don’t want writing; they want content. Content means a set number of words in an order that will please Google enough to bring visitors who will stay for enough seconds to ensure a higher ranking on the results page, which in turn leads to the clickbait adverts that provide the $2 per 100 words that you got paid to write that piece of shit…
So when she asked me if I love what I do, I said, “Yes… actually, I do.” The words caught me by surprised. I continued: “I don’t like writing for other people, but when I write what I want, whether it’s a page in a journal or for a book I’m working on, I really enjoy it.”
And it’s true. I do. It took me five years to write my last book, and yet I look back fondly upon the days spent in my office, my back aching as I hunched over my books and notes, researching every detail of a dead poet’s life for a book that will never be reviewed in a major publication, and which will earn royalties that, averaged out over five years of work, will never add up to more than a fraction of a percent of minimum wage. Yet I can honestly say that, for whatever perverse reason, I really and truly do get an immense kick out of writing. It is something I am driven to do, despite everything, and I am delighted to know that there are children out there who care enough to pursue it as well.