How to get the best out of an editorial service
The Inner Critic's dressing-up box

The second simplicity of a bowl of cherries

One of the classically irritating things non-writers say to us is "I've always wanted to write a novel, I just need the the time to sit down." Once we're out on bail, most writers still burn to explain that just sitting down isn't all it takes to write a novel. It takes hard work, craft, imagination, a lot of thinking, a lot of reading, learning, practising, and more sitting down than most people would believe possible. It's also frequently frustrating: some days/weeks/years the words come about as readily as wisdom teeth pull out, and I'm sure I'm not the only writer who's been known to pummel her forehead when the brain-cogs won't turn properly and shape the sentence or the idea into what I want. And all to make something which may be read with one eye while strap-hanging on the Tube, or get a single, missing-the-point, one-star review on Amazon. Indeed, most of us spend a lot of time, like ballet dancers, practising very difficult things to the point where we make them look easy. Am I alone in disliking books which parade how difficult they were to write? (That's with my reader's head on, of course: my writer's head is most awed by books which pull off things which as a writer I know are very difficult.)

Okay, so writing's not up there with gold-mining in South Africa or looking after dementia sufferers for hard work, but still. Combine the hard work with the fact - also unknown to non-writers, who only see the occasional headline figure - that we are paid so little for what we do that most us need other sources of income, and it's hardly surprising that we all spend a lot of time trying to convince the world that being a writer isn't an easy or soft option. The trouble is, that can lead to a certain macho posturing, either about the craftsmanly agony of writing and re-writing and re-writing, or about staring at the page till your forehead bleeds, or about mining your innermost soul-agonies and exposing them to the world. At the risk of sounding like the Grumpy Old Woman of the writing world, each of these may have a grain of truth in it, but each, when protested about too much, annoys me, in a different way.

On innermost soul-agonies, as some may know, I dislike the non-writer's conviction that the only guarantee of authentic writing is that it's mined from the author's own experience or research. As with cooking, yes, the quality of the ingredients is worth thinking about, but far more interesting, surely, to most of us, is what we make of that raw material. I also know that slush-piles are very full of writing which may be very good therapy, but is certainly very bad reading. On staring at the page till your forehead bleeds, which I think was said by the scriptwriter Gene Fowler, I can only say, have you tried NaNoWriMo? And on craftsmanly agony: well, what did you expect? This is a job, and for most of us metaphorical gold mining still beats the physical kind any day.

And yet I can't be the only writer who knows that, on a good day, writing is easy. Yes. Easy. If I've found the voice and know what needs to happen in this scene, I'm off and away. It's bliss, like flying or galloping (Joyce Grenfell's term for those rare performances which just take off, was 'horses'), it's a walk in the park, it's a bowl of cherries. Probably, as a writer, there has always been one thing which came easily for you: an ear for a good sentence, a mind for a good joke, an instinct for brilliant plotting, or a deft hand with a character.

It's true, too, that if you're anything of a writer you learn and get better so that, like reading and spelling, things which were once hard to do become easier, and eventually you're hardly even aware you're doing them. But this, too, can lead to many experienced writers saying things which frustrate the apprentices: "Just write, it's easy, just get on with it. Cut away everything that isn't a duck." "No it isn't easy!" the aspirers cry. "The words/knife don't do what I want them to! How can I make them? How do I find my voice, tell a story, make it funny, make my duck look like a duck? " And others of us say, "But that makes it sound facile, that makes it sound as if anyone can do it. And they can't: it took me years to learn to make my ducks look like ducks, and beautiful/scary/comical ducks at that. And how do we hold our own in the industry, with the funding bodies, with our peers, if everyone thinks it's easy?"

It seems to me that the heart of this is a muddle of the Protestant work ethic, 21st century-style, a misunderstanding of the nature of craftsmanship, and the ambiguities of the term "hard". "No pain, no gain!", "You just have to want it enough!" are good ways of encouraging people to keep going when the going gets tough. But "hard work" in the sense of keeping going, putting in the hours - which all writers do - is not the same as work being "hard" in the sense of difficult: which writing is at some times, and not at others. Moreover, our sense of whether a piece of art is worthy, and therefore worth making and buying and admiring, is messily bound up with what we judge of its merits as hard work in the Protestant sense (hence some of the ire directed at contemporary art which seems to have been flung together, and even more ire if some of it was done by assistants). Does it "deserve" our gaze: has the artist "earned" our admiration and his fee? And if the Protestant work ethic sounds old-fashioned, you can substitute the relativism of the modern variant which, like any good parent or teacher, very properly values the intentions and effort of the maker and the process, not just (and sometimes instead of) the objective quality of the outcome and the product.

Maybe it comes down, not just to the fact that "easy reading is hard writing", but to the fact that, like all craftspeople, some of what we do came naturally, but we also get better at it. And the better we get, the easier it feels to us as well as looking easier to others. Most of us compensate for that by constantly trying new things which we're not sure we can do: on our way back from the Guildford Book Festival Elizabeth Buchan and I were agreeing that one always begins a new novel not at all sure whether one can pull it off. The process of writing a novel is a hard-work process of working out the problem we've set ourselves... with varying degrees of success. But long-term, surely, what we're trying for is what the musicologist Alfred Einstein called the "second simplicity... a fullness in brevity": the absolute mastery born of such a complete synthesis of the craftsman's tool-kit with the artist's vision that there is no real distinction between art and craft. As Grayson Perry puts it, "I am the tip of the knife." Faced with a masterwork, all the reader/listener/viewer sees is the vision, and even the brushstrokes, the thumb-prints, the crack in the voice or the echoes of other words, are just the traces of genius, or maybe of the genie.

Comments