What do you need to be a writer apart from a pencil and a pad of paper? Plenty, but here, in no particular order, are ten likely suggestions:
1. Talent. Tricky one, since I’m none too sure what it is when it comes to writing. The obvious riposte to that is, “Because you haven’t got any, chum.” Maybe, maybe not, but when you think about it, identifying an innate writing talent isn’t all that obvious. A facility for painting or draughtsmanship often declares itself early and unmistakably, with the infant artist dashing off unflattering likenesses of granny and giving the interior decorator what for when the colour scheme doesn’t come up to scratch. There are also numerous instances of natural musicians composing preludes at –possibly on–their mother’s breast or banging out the rudiments of a bagatelle against the rim of their cereal bowl.
But there are so many different skills that feed into writing novels, and so many disparate types of novel requiring different experiences and diverse ways of looking at the world, that the notion of ‘a writing talent’ is a bit tricky to pin down. True, all children tell themselves stories, quite a few have imaginary friends, but they soon get that knocked out of them and, if they don’t, they tend to end up in institutions rather than penning bestsellers.
You do occasionally hear stories of prodigies, like Richard Hughes dictating his first novel to his mum when he was four . . . . Dictating? Oof! The man became a brilliant writer, but imagine what a bundle of laughs it must have been round the Hughes household during his nonage. Then there are novelists like Adam Thorpe and David Mitchell who display such a dazzling range of voices that one has to deduce there’s a fairly compelling talent pushing them along – that or echolalia. What it is though, I wouldn’t know. A certain flair for words perhaps, an ear for language, a passion for narrative, a disposition to remodel the world without resorting to politics and/or delusional behaviour, but whether these things are ‘talents’ seems debatable to me.
Personally, I don’t think I have very much ‘talent’ at all. I wouldn't want to suggest I'm talentless, not quite, despite the occasional review that has implied as much, but anything I’m able to do has come about by working at it. Doubtless you do need some ‘talent’, but I don’t know what it is, and I don’t believe you need very much of it.
2. Imagination is similarly elusive. Superficially a sine qua non of creative writing, you would have thought that being a novelist was a mark of the most highly developed capacity for conjecture and projection possible. Ever read any quantum physics or anything else prefaced with quantum come to that? It’s beyond me, demanding an imaginative faculty that makes cobbling together a few fictional characters look like mere child’s play. Fair enough. I’ve made that point elsewhere: writing is nothing if not child’s play.
3. Empathy. This is indispensable. You’re not going to invent believable and appealing characters if you can’t identify with other people and understand how they are feeling, especially when their feelings run counter to your own. Where do you pick this up, though? Probably through imagination (see above) and living (see below).
4. Work. Another essential one. You’ve got to put the hours in, investing the energy, giving of yourself as best you can, because unless you settle for specialising in haiku (the appeal of which I have never understood), the writer can’t get away with whipping out a gloriously expressive little line in the manner of Picasso or Satie and expect everyone to sit back gasping with wonder. I appreciate that for people stuck in an office crunching numbers or sent down a pit to dig something disagreeable out of the ground, describing lounging about in a room telling yourself stories as ‘work’ may seem a little provocative, but one way or another, a reasonable amount of labour is required.
5. Love of Language. Anyone with a pretension to writing literary fiction (and it is a pretension, no matter how good you get at it) has to take real pleasure in playing with words, piling them up in interesting –though not necessarily flashy– ways, loving the sounds they make, the shapes they form, the way they conjure pictures and sensations.
6. Something similar could be said about a Love of Stories or Having A Good Story To Tell, except there are plenty of fine books on the fiction shelves that tell no story at all, and are instead sustained by mood, language, or the simple privilege of encountering an interesting mind. There is, of course, a balance to be sought here between the medium and the message. You can build a good book out of carefully crafted words alone and you can tell a great story in rubbish prose, but on the whole it’s preferable if you’ve got something of both.
7. Living. This may suggest a statement of the bleeding obvious is looming into view, since a dead writer, like a dead anything else, isn’t going to be doing very much at all other than decomposing, but when I say living is a prerequisite of writing I mean you need to have spent a certain amount of time feeling, suffering, cocking things up, and generally gathering the experience that is going to feed into your writing, hopefully without your noticing it.
Martin Amis has irritated a lot of people in his time, but the man was spot on when he suggested that a writer needs to spend the first twenty odd years of adulthood amassing the raw material that will be mined, shaped, and splashed about all over the place for the rest of a writing life. This is not to say that young writers are necessarily bad writers. Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated was a terrible mess, but it was a marvellously ambitious mess, full of good and frequently hilarious things, while Zadie Smith’s White Teeth was so well put together that it had me weeping with envy. They were both 25 when their respective first novels were published. Even so, if you’ve got a few miles under your belt, it helps.
8. Judgement. This is the hardest one of all, knowing when to stop, when to leave something alone, when to desist from the endlessly delightful business of refining your prose, leaving enough rough edges and empty spaces so that the reader can do the real recreative work, and isn’t confronted with something so polished and adamantine that there’s no way into it.
Oh, and when to cut, too. When I started writing, I had virtually no judgement whatsoever, and I still think I’ve got precious little of the stuff. I can go back to something again and again, tending it with loving care, lavishing all the craft I’ve cultivated on it, working it to within an inch of its life, dead chuffed with myself until one day it suddenly strikes me that this much cherished sentence, paragraph, chapter (book? Oh my God!) is a steaming heap of ordure and it’s got to go.
There’s an old piece of advice about editing suggesting that a writer should go through a manuscript and, everytime you come across a passage of which you’re particularly proud, cut it out. I don’t entirely agree with this, but it does indicate just how important editing is. You’ve got to be ruthless. If you don’t shed loads from your first draft, you’re either a genius or something is going badly wrong.
9. Pig Headedness. Sheer bloody-minded determination, the sort that pushes on a door that ought to be pulled, then keeps pushing and pushing and pushing, insisting the door will open the way you want it to open because you’re too dumb and stubborn to admit the alternative. Getting a book published is not easy and it’s getting harder by the day. If you can’t keep on keeping on through setback after setback and layers of accumulating despair, you’re in trouble.
10. Need. Finally, the one thing that you really can’t do without, the one thing that you can’t fake or learn or conjure from practice, is an overwhelming compulsion simply to do it. The only real need for a writer is need itself. If you don’t need to write like you need to breathe, eat, drink and defecate, chances are it’s not going to go very far. Well, perhaps it’s not a vital need in the manner of alimentary demands. Even with the most elaborate case of logghorrea, stop telling stories and you’re probably not going to die unless you’re Scheherazade. But it ought to feel like that and you should be extremely irascible indeed if, for reasons beyond your control, you are prevented from writing. It’s certainly a need, not a want.
Disclaimer: any lack of the above detected in my own novels is purely coincidental.
Now, time to go and dig up my talent. I’m sure I hid it around here somewhere. Perhaps it’s under that bushel with the lamp?
Causes Charles Davis Supports
Oxfam, Amnesty International, Greenpeace