The pros and cons of being a writer
‘Sometimes I think writing is like living with a terrible boyfriend who drains you financially and tortures you mentally’
Rosemary Jenkinson: Waiting to hear back from an editor can be like waiting on the NHS, the only difference being the pain is spiritual
All of us writers question why we write. Which is fine – we spend so much time examining our characters’ motives, we might as well look at our own. This piece is about the pros and the cons (and that’s not short for prostitutes and con artists, though there are plenty of both in the literary world), so here goes:
You can experience more in life
What people don’t realise is that writing is not about inventing life; it’s about reinventing what you have already lived. You get to explore things under the guise of research and the best bit of being a writer is that it’s a passport to bad behaviour. You’re supposed to shock people, épater les bourgeois, which is great fun. And if you’re a quick writer, you don’t have to labour at the laptop. Look at Jack Kerouac – he spent seven years on the road and three weeks on On the Road.
In spite of the lack of royal grants, it is a terrific feeling to be, as Jack London called it, “a brain merchant”
It’s a perfect fit for your personality
The best writers are monastic hedonists. A lot of writers go into schools and try to promote writing as a potential career choice but, if there is a true writer in that class, she’ll be the one rolling her eyes and thinking if you were great as a writer you wouldn’t be there as a teacher. Writing is the only path there is for non-conformists and, in my case, I’m so non-conforming I nearly didn’t conform to it. I remember the time I was sacked from teaching English in Warsaw. I’d recently written my first article ever for an expat magazine and the school principal said, “We really think you should be a writer.” I knew he was totally right, but did I go home and be a writer? No, I went straight round the corner and joined another school.
It costs you practically nothing (except blood, sweat and tears)
All you need is a cheap computer and off you go. Of course, there are expenses like going to literary events and buying books but, to me, the real danger is feeling you should go on courses. As Edward Albee said, “Creativity is magic. Don’t examine it too closely.” The amount of garbage taught out there is mind-boggling. Those screenwriting classes that claim there are seven basic plots. If you believe that, you’ve lost the plot.
You can write till you’re 90 (if the lack of success doesn’t kill you first!)
If you start writing late, you may think you’ve missed the boat, but you haven’t and, if you get in that boat, rock the boat. Naturally, publishers and theatre companies are looking for the next wunderkind but never mind. You can be a wunderfrau. So they’re looking for the latest enfant terrible – so what? Be a vieux terrible! When I was young, I read Keats’ On Fame which suggests that it’s better not to chase after fame but to “bid adieu, Then, if she likes it, she will follow you.” Stupidly, I believed it but now I know you have to grab fame by the hair and drag her with you.
Waiting to hear back from an editor can be almost as long as waiting on the NHS, the only difference being the pain is spiritual rather than physical. I prefer not to send out stories indiscriminately because the more knockbacks you get, the more they dent your confidence. After all, you have to reject half your own work, so why subject yourself to more rejection?
You have to be your own salesperson
Like most writers, I am awful at selling. I once had a job in San Diego, cold-calling on behalf of a charity for Vietnam vets. I embarrassingly failed to get one donation and didn’t even last the day. Image is everything, so you should probably nick a fortune and purchase your headshots off Annie Leibovitz. As an illustration of how annoyingly important a great image is, look at the recent resurrection of Maeve Brennan, who fits the notion of a writer with her funky specs and cigarette perched in her languid fingers. I notice the photos are all when she’s young – not one of her as the old bag lady she turned into. Nowadays, writers are expected to blitz social media. A few months ago, I finally signed up for Twitter. I teetered on the cusp of sending my first tweet, but resisted and it felt like a revolutionary act.
We’ll call it that even though, for me, it’s rewriter’s block, as I love the writing itself but will start something new, do anything, rather than go back for a rewrite. All writers at some time or other get stuck in that vicious mental circle – if you don’t write, you feel ill; if you feel ill, you can’t write. Sometimes I think writing is like living with a terrible boyfriend who drains you financially and tortures you mentally.
You have to make sacrifices moneywise
Long gone are the days when F Scott Fitzgerald could make four grand on a short story. Of course, he spunked it all on booze and ended his career early so perhaps it’s better not to be similarly rewarded. And Chaucer went one up on Fitzgerald by receiving a royal grant of a gallon of wine every day for the rest of his life – no wonder he never finished The Canterbury Tales! Still, in spite of the lack of royal grants, it is a terrific feeling to be, as Jack London called it, “a brain merchant”. And it beats any job I ever had. Especially the teaching.
Rosemary Jenkinson is artist-in-residence at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast. Her latest play, Lives in Translation, will be produced by Kabosh at the Belfast Festival. A short story appeared in The Glass Shore and an essay will be published later this year in Female Lines by New Island