Why Write Novels? by Bernard Beckett
My first five novel manuscripts were unpublished. Written over three years, they represented an apprenticeship of sorts, as I ploughed naively through the field of beginners’ errors. Sometime during that process of write, submit, hope, be rejected, repeat, I asked myself, why I am doing this? Initially the motivation had been simple enough. I thought it might be quite fun to write a novel. And then, as I committed to the task, I entertained the usual fantasies of success, acclaim and fortune. Of course, I understood just how fanciful these notions were, and the metranomic regularity of rejection rather reinforced that point. At this moment, when you realise that in all likelihood your stories are not bound for the world stage, the question of why write takes on a slightly different hue. It becomes – even if I believe I will never be published, will I keep writing? In other words, is writing one of those things worth doing for its own sake?
My answer was yes, and I remember explicitly stating this to a friend at the time. Writing, it turned out, was just something I enjoyed doing. I loved the process of creating characters and situation, of playing with sentences, of pushing on through the difficult bits and yahooing through the pages that flowed, the genuine joy of living for a moment in a world of your own creation, the satisfaction of pushing print, and then sitting back and rediscovering your story as the reader. Telling stories even when there’s no one listening.
As a high school drama teacher, this is something I often discuss with students. Very few of those I teach will go on to study full-time as actors, and even fewer of those will join that tiny elite able to make a living from it. Yet, most of the students I teach love acting. They love being on stage, that moment of beautiful tension when the lights go down and the audience turns silent makes for an addictive rush. Yet, all too easily, we buy into a societal structure that tells us unless we are the very best, we have no business to be playing at all. So, while some of my students who get the acting bug will find ways of keeping it as part of their life, through amateur dramatic societies and the like. Mostly they’ll look back on it as something they loved but weren’t really good enough to do. That’s a tremendous shame.
So it is in sport, where the drop off rate out of high school is tragic. It’s not that they don’t still love the activity, it’s just they don’t believe they’re good enough, and that consequently their urge to play is a childish thing to be ignored. In some ways the rise of lifestyle sports like mountain biking, rock climbing or skateboarding can be seen as a healthy response to this teleological tyranny. I love to run, but will never be fast enough to win a race. In fact I don’t even enjoy races much. So I hit the trails for the pure pleasure of it, but still there’s that tendency for people to ask what you’re training for, and to look slightly surprised when the answer is nothing, I’m just having fun.
Initially, writing was the same. It was a hobby, a thing I did in my spare time, a great way to fill in an hour in the sunshine. In lots of ways that was the most enjoyable writing I ever did and, by extension, the most worthwhile. But a strange thing happens when you get published. Some part of your hobby becomes public property. You can’t possibly object; you submitted the manuscript and it’s what you hoped would happen, but it’s worth being aware of the way this intrusion can end up messing with your fun. Fun is clearly not the only valid motivation for the writer. One might seek fame, fortune, critical acclaim, artistic expression, human insight or political change. None of these are unworthy, but they each come with their own costs.
At the point where the value of your hobby is measured in an external currency, you have lost a degree of control. Human psychology being what it is, it’s not something you necessarily have much choice about. The bigger your profile, the more you will be subjected to the responses of others, and it’s almost impossible not to be affected by those responses. You hand over to the reader the right to define you as a writer, and then your writing becomes the business of responding to those definitions, possibly seeking to overthrow them, maybe chasing further endorsement. This isn’t entirely negative, the outside eye brings a perspective you can’t gain yourself, and you can use it to improve your writing. But the danger is the obvious one, at some point you end up taking yourself too seriously.
I write this in part because I recently took a novel I’d been working on for two years, of which I had finished a second draft, and threw it away. It wasn’t a terrible novel, it was publishable, and with a little bit of work and some outside guidance, might have even been quite good. But as soon as I threw it out, I understood why getting rid of it was such a smart move. Somewhere in amongst the writing, I’d lost the joy for it. It wasn’t fun any more. It was a struggle. Specifically, I was struggling to be something I wasn’t, the type of writer that I’d managed to get into my head I was meant to be. As soon as I did it I launched into the project I was meant to be writing. The joy returned, and I realised how long it had been missing. Maybe three books, or five years ago, was the last time writing felt like this: felt like it felt when I was unpublished and perhaps unpublishable, writing for the sheer joy of it. It’s awfully good to be back.
Bernard Beckett’s author website: www.bernardbeckett.org
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